At the age of 17, he entered the Brussels Royal Conservatory and studied with Frederic Anspach. A year later, he graduated with diplomas and first prizes in voice and opera performance. He made his opera début as the music teacher Don Basilio in Gioacchino Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Paris Opera in 1961, and remained in the company until 1965, when he sang his first major role, Escamillo from Bizet's Carmen. He then sang for two seasons at Geneva, La Scala, Covent Garden, and in Paris. At Geneva, Van Dam sang in the première of Milhaud's La mère coupable in 1966. Lorin Maazel heard van Dam and invited him to record Ravel’s L’heure espagnole with him for Deutsche Grammophon. In 1967, Maazel asked him to join the Deutsche Oper in Berlin.
Van Dam has performed at L’Opéra de Paris, Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera, Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Vienna State Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, the Salzburg Festival, and festivals in Aix-en-Provence and Orange, France.
Van Dam is also a concert, oratorio, and Lieder singer and has won international awards for his performances on stage and in recordings. Berlin conferred on him the title of Kammersänger in 1974, and the same year he received the German Music Critics’ Prize. Other awards include the Gold Medal of the Belgian Press (1976), Grand Prix de l’Académie française du Disque (1979), Orphée d’Or de l’Académie Lyrique Française (1980), the European Critics’ Prize, (1985), Diapason d’Or and Prix de la Nouvelle Académie du Disque (1993), and the Orphée d’Or de l’Académie du Disque Lyrique (1994).
In August 1998, His Majesty King Albert II of Belgium made van Dam a baron, recognizing him as one of the finest classical singers. On 4 December 1999 van Dam was one of the performers at the marriage of Belgium's Crown Prince Philippe and Mathilde d'Udekem d'Acoz.
Van Dam appears in the films The Music Teacher (1988) as Joachim Dallayrac, and in Don Giovanni (1979) as Leporello, directed by Joseph Losey, and conducted by Maazel. Also featured in that film are Ruggero Raimondi, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Teresa Berganza, Edda Moser, Malcolm King, Kenneth Riegel and John Macurdy. Van Dam also appears as Hans Sachs in the DVD of the 2003 Zürich Opera production of Die Meistersinger conducted by Franz Welser-Möst.
Among van Dam's extensive discography are complete recordings of Carmen (thrice, in 1974, 1975 and 1982), Louise (with Beverly Sills, 1977), Die Zauberflöte (as the Speaker, opposite Zdzisława Donat's Queen of Night, 1980), Faust (conducted by Michel Plasson, 1991), Les contes d'Hoffmann (with Roberto Alagna, 1994–1996), Don Carlos (1996), and Die Meistersinger (conducted by Sir Georg Solti, 1997). In 2010, the Metropolitan released his 1980 Wozzeck (with Anja Silja and Richard Cassilly, conducted by James Levine) on Compact Discs.
With Herbert von Karajan, he also recorded Fidelio (opposite Jon Vickers, 1970), Le nozze di Figaro (1978), Salome (1978), Pelléas et Mélisande (1978), Parsifal (with Peter Hofmann, 1979–1980), Die Zauberflöte (as Sarastro, with Edith Mathis, Karin Ott, and Janet Perry, 1980), and Der fliegende Holländer (to Dunja Vejzovic's Senta, 1981–1983), Ein Deutsches Requiem with Barbara Hendricks (1985), as well as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (with Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Agnes Baltsa, Peter Schreier in 1977; Perry, Baltsa, and Vinson Cole in 1983).
One of the bass-baritone's greatest successes was as the title role in Olivier Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise. The world-premiere was recorded under Seiji Ozawa (1983), as was the Salzburg production, under Kent Nagano (1998).
- Berlioz: La damnation de Faust (Georg Solti recording)
- Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande (Herbert von Karajan recording)
- Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro (Herbert von Karajan recording)
- Rameau: Dardanus (Raymond Leppard recording)
- José van Dam, baritone - Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel's Official Website
- Milhau, Sylvie. Doucement les Basses ossia Diner avec Gabriel Bacquier, José van Dam et Claudio Desderi. Canaïma, Orléans, 2010. OCLC Number: 706993497 (In French).
MALISCH, KURT. (2001) 2016. “Dam, José van.” In: MGG Online, edited by Laurenz Lütteken. Bärenreiter, Metzler, RILM, 2016–. Accessed August 27, 2022. https://www.mgg-online.com/mgg/stable/12468