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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 14, No. 1 September 2008

Placido Domingo: The Artist-Musician

by Wah Keung Chan / September 2, 2008

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There are not many superlatives left to describe the world’s greatest living tenor. At 67, Placido Domingo is still spinning out his recognizable bronze tone the world over. A million viewers of last season’s Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcast saw him conduct a touching performance of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet. In addition, the Spanish singer heads two of North America’s leading opera houses in Los Angeles and Washington, known for their frequent innovative programming.

In fact, Domingo commissioned David Cronenberg’s operatic adaptation of his film The Fly for LA Opera which he will conduct this fall. The adaptation premiered at the Paris Opera to extreme divergent reviews and LA Opera’s performance is this summer’s biggest operatic buzz. In September, Domingo brings his Operalia voice competition to Quebec City, where he will also conduct.


This hectic musical life comes naturally to Domingo. “I owe my love of music to my parents, who were wonderful singers who ran a zarzuela company in Mexico," he said. "I practically grew up backstage, and always loved the zarzuelas I so often heard during my childhood. My sister and I were often pressed into service onstage when children were needed, and my parents gave me my first informal singing instruction. I also studied piano, which came to me easily. At 14, my parents enrolled me in the National Conservatory in Mexico City, where I studied both musical and academic subjects. Every week, a good friend of mine would host informal musical evenings, and I would often play the piano for the singers and musicians who would gather together to perform. I learned so much during those evenings, and experienced an impressively wide range of musical repertoires. I also learned a great deal about how to lead, and how to follow.”

Baritone to Tenor

Famed as one the Three Tenors, alongside José Carreras and the departed Luciano Pavarotti, it may surprise some that Domingo was not a natural tenor, which you can sometimes hear in his high notes. "I was very comfortable performing zarzuela baritone roles, which tend to be for high baritones," he said. "I also sang in the chorus, played the piano in the orchestra, helped performers with their lines and whatever other duties were needed. Although I never had a singing teacher, I had learned a great deal from observing the classes of the Chilean baritone Carlo Morelli at the Conservatory, and it was in his class that I first sang a high B-flat. Once, when I was touring with my father, the tenor fell ill, and I was asked to replace him for a performance in Luisa Fernanda. I will never forget it. Although I continued to sing as a baritone after that, when I auditioned for the Mexican National Opera at the age of 18, the committee told me that I was really a tenor. I began with smaller roles, then bigger supporting roles, and had my first opportunities to work with such world-class singers as the great Giuseppe di Stefano. I learned so much from being able to observe these performers at close range. I sang my first leading tenor role, Alfredo in La Traviata, for a single performance with a very small opera company in Monterrey, where I had previously performed several secondary tenor parts."

Few singers successfully make the transition from baritone to tenor, but Domingo along with Lauritz Melchior, James King and Carlo Bergonzi have succeeded. "You have to know your own instrument inside and out. I was very careful about the roles I sang, and it was beneficial for me to start my career with those secondary roles, where there is less exposure and pressure. The highest notes were never easy for me, and I envied other tenors who naturally had those notes. But as time passed, I became more and more confident about the high notes, which were built up bit by bit, a step at a time. It was a slow, difficult process. I used to force a lot. I was not at all secure. But I worked, and little by little I began to dominate the sound instead of vice versa."

Caruso comparison

Domingo has often cited Enrico Caruso as one of his inspirations. “Listening to recordings of the great tenors of the past is a great inspiration to me," said Domingo. "I particularly admire Caruso's sheer commitment in his interpretation of everything he sang. I learned a great deal from the older generation of conductors who had worked with colleagues of Caruso and would discuss how he performed particular phrases. It was a marvelous connection to someone who had died long before I was born, and never could have heard in "live" performance.”

There is an interesting parallel between the two. While both tenors became larger than life, both owe their singing technique to their soprano wives. Caruso was a little tenorino without high notes before he took up with soprano Ada Giachetti, the mother of his oldest children. In Enrico Caruso, My Father and my Family, Caruso’s oldest son credits Giachetti for working with the tenor to secure his high notes. Similarly, Domingo credits his wife Marta for improving his technique and being his toughest critic. One night when the couple was singing Gounod’s Faust at Tel Aviv Opera, Domingo cracked constantly on the B natural of the phrase “Je t’aime, je t’aime.” Afterward she and baritone Iglesies lovingly broke the truth to Domingo that something was wrong. They began working on proper breath support and gradually he improved. The Domingo chapter in Jerome Hines’s insightful book Great Singers on Great Singing describes how he uses a “tight elastic belt” and pushed away a piano with his diaphragm to develop this support. Caruso is also known for using this technique.

The Domingo work ethic in those first years has paid off handsomely. After a long and illustrious career, he has amassed over 3000 performances in over 126 roles. His 21 opening nights at the Metropolitan Opera surpasses Caruso’s 17. “I love taking on new challenges, and I am fortunate that as my voice has developed through the years, I was able to take on larger, more dramatic roles. There are so many different aspects to opera. In the very recent past, I have created roles in addition to performing the Baroque repertoire. We already have plenty of traditional works to please the public, so I love coming across these lesser known operas. For example, Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac was practically forgotten since its premiere, but I have been able to perform the title role several times recently. These new experiences are endlessly fascinating to me, and I hope to continue expanding my repertoire through the very end of my singing days, whenever that will be.”

When asked for his favourite role, Domingo is initially coy, “My favourite is always the role that I am currently working on. Certainly Otello has played an enormous role in my career, and Cavaradossi [from Tosca] has always been something of a lucky work for me.” In 1968, early in his career, a premature foray in Hamburg of Lohengrin led to three months of vocal trouble, leaving Domingo wary of singing Wagner for 20 years. “I will also say that recording the role of Tristan was the fulfillment of a longtime goal for me, as I think that Tristan und Isolde is possibly the greatest of all operas.” With over 100 recordings to his name found in all the major labels, Domingo is perhaps the most prolific recording artist alive, quite a feat considering that throughout his career, he has avoided exclusivity.

Most singers are happy with a 25 or 30-year career, but after over 47 years, Domingo is still going strong, though his voice has naturally gotten heavier and less flexible at the top, leading to speculation that he might take on some baritone roles. “I had always dreamed of singing Simon Boccanegra before I retired,” he admits. Those performances are scheduled for 2009-10 at La Scala, Berlin, Madrid and London. “I am well aware that my singing days are drawing to an end, but I am not quite ready to give up the stage yet, as long as my voice holds up. I certainly never expected to still be singing at my age, but I still have performances scheduled well into the future. Of course, when I do eventually stop singing, I will be able to spend even more time as a conductor and administrator.”

Domingo first conducted professionally in 1973 La Traviata at New York City Opera. “I have always been fascinated with every aspect of opera production. This dates back to my days with my parents' company, where I occasionally conducted performances of zarzuela. As my singing career developed, my busy schedule never allowed time for it. My debut as an opera conductor was a great milestone. Administrators realized that it wasn't just a stunt for me, and that I was as serious about my conducting as I was about my singing. From that point on, I was able to incorporate conducting into my schedule, and that has given me a great deal of satisfaction.” Presently, Domingo splits his performances between the two.

When asked which conductors he most admired, Domingo responded diplomatically, “I have had the good fortune to work with so many great conductors over several decades in my career. I don't think that it would offend any of those artists if I said that my long collaboration with James Levine has been a particularly rewarding artistic partnership.”

When Los Angeles Opera formed in 1984, Domingo took on the role of artistic advisor, a position he also accepted in the early 90s at Washington National Opera. In 1996, Domingo was promoted to Artistic Director in Washington with Marta, who since 1991 has been developing an active career as a stage director, acting as his associate. The duo has since taken over as General Directors of both companies, creating quite the buzz by inviting film directors to work on staging. LA Opera has the reputation for more innovative programming, and this fall sees The Fly (composed by Howard Shore) and Woody Allen making his operatic debut directing Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.

Domingo has also turned his attention towards the next generation of singers. In 1993, he founded his singing competition, Operalia, which discovered tenors José Cura and Rolando Villazon, and includes Canadian winners Isabel Bayrakdarian and Joseph Kaiser. With prizes totaling $200K, it claims to be the biggest. The Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program of the Washington National Opera and the Domingo-Thornton Young Artists Program of the Los Angeles Opera also give young gifted singers the training to develop as international artists.

Domingo has been quoted that he would not sing beyond his 70th birthday. January 21, 2011 will be a sad day for voice fans, but “the maestro” as he is called at LA Opera, is set to make music and art for years to come. n


> Operalia 2008 runs from September 19 to 24 in Quebec City.

operadequebec.qc.ca. Domingo conducts the September 24 Finals, which will be broadcast live on Espace musique and available on radio-canada.ca.

> Domingo will also conduct The Fly at LA Opera on September 7, 10, 16, 27. losangelesopera.com

> In a twist of fate, Domingo was originally scheduled to conduct Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur at the Met next February, but will instead sing the opera's lead Maurizio, the role in which he made his Met debut 40 years ago opposite Renata Tebaldi by replacing an ailing Franco Corelli at the last minute. Domingo will sing 6 performances opposite Maria Guleghina in the title role.


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