The Tenor's Three

Placido Domingo: singer, conductor, artistic director

Placido In His Prime

The opera star's vibrant and versatile tenor voice seems unaffected by the passage of time.

Cover Story

February 02, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

He makes other workaholics look like slackers.

He makes other sexagenarian singers sound like nonagenarians.

He's Placido Domingo -- tenor, conductor, bicoastal opera administrator, record-breaker.

No known tenor has ever sung as many operatic roles -- 119, with the 120th slated next season. You can find another tenor or two who has managed an opera company, but not one who did so while still actively singing. Or one who served as artistic director of two opera companies simul-taneously, as Domingo does now in Washington and Los Angeles.

Domingo has even bested legendary tenor Enrico Caruso's old record of starring on season-opening nights at the Met (17 for Caruso, 20 and still counting for Domingo).

While other notable opera stars find themselves the butt of a vintage put-down -- "Is he still singing? If you let him" -- Domingo remains confidently in the spotlight. The artistically suspect megabusiness known as the Three Tenors may still get the occasional gig, but there's no denying that it's really down to the One Tenor now. Luciano Pavarotti and, especially, Jose Carreras, started losing vocal ground a while ago.

Perhaps, somewhere in a darkened attic, there's an X-ray of Domingo's voice that gets older and murkier, while he keeps on sounding almost downright youthful and defying the odds onstage.

Sure, he has off nights. Sure, he transposes some music down to make it easier on the vocal cords. And when he cancels the occasional performance, as he did for a series of opera scenes in concert form last month at the Los Angeles Opera due to illness, you'll hear a flurry of talk about how he surely will retire soon.

But on he goes.

A couple of weeks ago, on his 62nd birthday, Domingo was in fine fettle -- wearing his administrative hat to announce Washington Opera's 2003 / 2004 season; leading the assembled press on a tour of the refurbished Constitu-tion Hall (the company's home for a year, starting this month with Aida, while the Kennedy Center Opera House is being renovated); zipping off to the White House for a birthday luncheon with the first lady as host. All in a day's work for a superstar.

Throughout January, Domingo managed to divide his time and attention effectively between two coasts. Just because he couldn't sing in those L.A. concerts didn't mean he wasn't involved; he conducted part of each performance. In between those engagements, he jetted to D.C. to check on progress at Constitution Hall and tend to other Washington Opera business. He also found time to be interviewed.

Sitting in a reception room backstage at the hall where Marian Anderson was once barred from singing (and where Margaret Truman perhaps should have been), the stocky, Madrid-born Domingo was already beginning to look at home.

"This move is very challenging -- and very interesting," he said. "It's almost like building a new theater; we are making so many changes. Even if it is only a temporary situation, you have to give the public the best that you can. It is a big responsibility."

If anyone knows how to fulfill that responsibility, it's Domingo.

A musical family

Raised in Mexico City, where his parents were noted singers of zarzuela (a popular Spanish style of operetta), he began appearing with them in their company's productions as a child. He went on to study voice, piano and conducting; at 18, he made his operatic debut in a supporting role with the National Opera in Mexico City. By 20, he made his U.S. debut singing Edgardo in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor in Dallas.

After a few years at the Israel National Opera, Domingo gave his first appearances with the New York City Opera in 1965. His flair for the Italian and French repertoire quickly won attention and admiration; so did his remarkable facility for learning new roles (he created the title role in Ginastera's challenging Don Rodrigo in 1966). It didn't take long for the Met to notice him; Domingo took his first bow there in 1968 and has been on the company roster every season since.

His distinctively warm voice, with its dark baritonal coloring at the bottom and vibrant ping at the top, proved a boon at a time when the last generation of stellar tenors -- the likes of Franco Corelli and Mario del Monaco -- was fading from earshot. Along with an equally exciting young tenor named Pavarotti, who was making his name around the same time, Domingo signaled that all was far from lost in tenordom.

Throughout the 1970s and '80s, he solidified his reputation for beautifully detailed singing and persuasive acting. He put a memorable stamp on one Verdi role after another, soon becoming the definitive interpreter of Otello in our time. His Puccini performances proved likewise compelling. The '90s saw continued stretching of horizons -- in French, beyond Bizet to Saint-Saens, Berlioz and rare Massenet (Le Cid); in Russian, to Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame; in German, to Wagner.

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