The first time Placido Domingo stood on the stage of Baltimore's Lyric Opera House, he sang. When he returns on Tuesday, after 43 years, he won't open his mouth.
Instead, the eminent Spanish-born singer, who has performed at all of the world's leading opera houses and who, with Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras, rocked the global market in 1990 as part of the storied Three Tenors phenomenon, will be on the podium. He will conduct Puccini's Turandot with soloists, orchestra and chorus of Washington National Opera.
Domingo, who makes most workaholics look like shirkers, is general director of that company, as well as the Los Angeles Opera.
The Baltimore appearance is something of a bittersweet occasion.
When the Baltimore Opera Company went out of business earlier this season, the Lyric lost a longtime, valued tenant. The theater's management began to look around for other attractions to book in the theater, and that search led south to Washington.
"I am very pleased that we are going to Baltimore," Domingo says. "But I feel terribly sorry about what happened to our neighbor company. These are difficult times. In Washington, we have problems, too, of course."
This is the last week of Washington National Opera's Turandot at the Kennedy Center. Domingo, who branched into conducting in the 1970s, was already scheduled to lead the closing night in Washington on Thursday, taking over from Keri-Lynn Wilson.
This performance will put the sound of lyrical opera back into the Lyric in a big way, but not the sights. The distinctive sets and costumes being seen in D.C. to conjure up the ancient Chinese setting of Turandot's plot won't be brought to Charm City.
"Actually, I prefer stage versions. That is so much more of what opera is about," Domingo admits from Paris, where he has been performing the title role in Franco Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac. "But it is much better to have a concert version of an opera than not an opera at all."
The expense of trucking the whole Washington production to Baltimore would have been formidable, and rather pointless - the Lyric's stage area is too small to handle this particular Turandot, the orchestra pit too small to handle all the musicians the company uses to deliver the aural goods of Puccini's extravagant score.
"Opera in concert doesn't work in all cases, but the music of Turandot itself is exciting enough by itself," says Christina Scheppelmann, director of artistic operations for the Washington company. "Even without the sets, it will be tight to fit the chorus and orchestra onstage. And with everybody on that stage it's going to be a strong-sounding performance."
When it comes to sounding strong, Domingo is something of a marvel all by himself. At the age of 68, the tenor can still produce a golden, theater-filling tone. Few singers of either sex or of any voice type ever manage to sing so well for so long. His musicality remains as potent as ever, too.
Domingo's gifts were already generating a buzz in 1966, when he made his Baltimore Opera debut.
"I was very happy to sing during my early years [Offenbach's] The Tales of Hoffmann with the company," he says. "That was when Rosa Ponselle was still alive, and when Jim Morris was making his debut."
(Ponselle, the company's guiding light, was one of the 20th century's greatest sopranos; James Morris, the extraordinary Baltimore-born bass-baritone, enjoys a major international career.)
For audiences who attended that Hoffmann production at the Lyric, hearing Domingo's voice was a novel experience. For audiences on Tuesday at the Lyric, there will be a novel element as well.
"This will be my first performance conducting Turandot," Domingo says. "Of course, it is an opera that has lived deeply in me all my life."
Turandot, most famous for the tenor aria Nessun dorma, is a fable of passion, fear and loyalty set in ancient China.
"Placido knows the piece inside and out, having sung it so many times," Scheppelmann says. "And he is such a brilliant musician. He knows what he's getting into."
Still, there's a bit of risk, given that Domingo's only rehearsal will be on the same day as the single performance.
"We will have to get used to the hall quickly," he says. "The challenge for a conductor is that the orchestration of Puccini is so rich. You have to be careful to control levels of dynamics in the orchestra, to determine how much [sound] we should give and how much is too soft."
Domingo, like other seasoned opera performers, is used to the pressures of pulling things together on a tight schedule, facing many an unknown factor in the process.
"Of course, the ideal situation is to rehearse for a considerable time," he says. "But it is often exactly like this, doing things quickly. I have been in so many situations - in Hamburg, Vienna, Munich, for example - where you don't get any orchestral rehearsal, and you have to go onstage to perform an opera even without really knowing the theater."