Mr. D.

Mr. D.

I had quite a busy day yesterday, between prospective student auditions at Carthage, two rehearsals at Kenosha’s choral festival, and a Musici Amici rehearsal. . . but I spent every spare moment I could listening to something truly extraordinary on the radio. . .  a Metropolitan Opera live broadcast of Cilea’s Adrianna Lecouvreur with a certain 67 year old tenor named Placido Domingo singing the role of Maurizio.  That, in and of itself, might not seem particularly noteworthy, since Mr. Domingo has been an enormous popular Met artist for a long time now and a frequent presence in the Met’s radio broadcasts.   But what was amazing, staggering, awe-inspiring – pick your adjective – is that Domingo was singing the same opera role he sang when he debuted at the Met 41 years ago.   That’s right- the year was 1968 when Domingo first sang on the stage of the Met – and it was in the very same role he sang yesterday.

First of all,  to still be singing lead roles at all on the stage of the Met after 41 years is quite an amazing feat.   Think of how long ago 1968 was….   LBJ was president,  the Beatles were still together,  Joe Namath was the most famous quarterback in pro football, and the newest thing in home audio – – –   the 8-track tape – – – was about to be unveiled.  We’re talking ancient history here.  In fact,  I was only eight years old when Mr. Domingo made his triumphant debut, which by the way came a few days ahead of schedule when he was asked to step in for star tenor Franco Corelli on short notice when he cancelled due to illness.   41 years later,  Domingo is still singing – and still singing well – and you can search all of Met history and not find another lead singer with this kind of sheer longevity,  except for a couple of singers who by the end of their incredibly long careers were basically make a handful of token appearances.  Domingo remains a central figure in the Met company at an age when a lot of his colleagues wisely limit their singing to the shower and the occasional birthday party.

But it’s not just that Domingo is still singing lead roles after 41 years. . . .   What was so amazing about yesterday is that he was singing the exact same role as he sang for his debut 41 years ago.  That’s what’s REALLY unprecedented.  Most lead singers,  if they can manage to hang on for 41 years, only do so by drastically altering the kind of roles they sing.  And to some extent Domingo has done that by discarding certain roles that by now are way too high for him.  But yesterday Domingo was back in the role of his Met debut, albeit it with a few passages transposed lower.  But still, it was an accomplishment that really has no equal in the history of the Met.   And for most of the afternoon,  Domingo sang with a sound remarkably untouched by time and the rigors of this exciting career which he has had.  I’m not sure anyone has been a busier singer over the past four decades,  with a performance pace that would leave the typical singer with an incinerated throat where his or her voice used to be.   Not Domingo – it is almost as though the busier he has been the better he has become.  And if he never quite managed to achieve the overwhelming superstardom of his rival and friend Luciano Pavarotti, there is little question that Domingo has secured the more lasting place in opera history and the greater esteem among those who really understand this art form.   To the masses,  and especially to those whose only exposure to opera comes whenever an opera singer shows up on The Tonight Show, Pavarotti was the King.   But for the typical Opera Fan,  it is Domingo who holds the more honored place.

And what’s more,  Domingo has achieved all this while remaining a very nice person, which in this day and age certainly counts for something.   You will have to look far and wide to find anyone in the business who speaks ill of Domingo.

My own personal encounter with Placido Domingo came back in 1985 at the Lyric, when I sang in the chorus for three operas, including Verdi’s “Otello,” which opened that season.   I remember that Domingo was only there for one single rehearsal (at least that any of us were aware of) plus the dress rehearsal. . . which was often how it was with him because of the breakneck pace of his career and his propensity for flying all over the world to fulfill his dizzying calendar of commitments.  I remember that for the first rehearsal,  we were all in costume but he was in white sweats . . .   relaxed and joking around yet also working hard to assimilate himself into this production.  And at one point in that rehearsal,  something went wrong with the chorus and orchestra –  it may have been the big ensemble towards the end of act three – and the principal singers paused while the conductor rehearsed the problem spot with the orchestra and chorus.   We were invited to just plop down wherever we were  on the stage while the conductor ran the passage with the orchestra only.  Once that had happened,  the conductor went to the top of the passage and gestured for the chorus to join in on the repeat.  Just as I was about to take my first breath,  I suddenly realized that Placido Domingo himself had just plopped down right next to me (there was an empty place) . . .  and I immediately decided that I needed to pour out the most glorious sound I possibly could, as if I were auditioning for the Met itself.  And as we launched into that big chorus,  I breathed to the bottom of my toes and gave it all I had – being careful not to yell or force the issue,  but otherwise singing as beautifully and richly as I knew how.   My hope was that he when we were done,  he would lean over to me and say “Wow- that’s quite a voice.  I’d better tell

[baritone] Sherrill Milnes to watch out for you”  or words to that effect.   Or if not that,  I was hoping for at least a friendly glance my way and maybe slightly widened eyes,  as if he were impressed with what he was hearing.

But no.   I did not get so much as a glance from Mr. Domingo.   I felt like I was delivering a sound that was a combination the best of of Robert Merrill,  Leonard Warren, and Ezio Pinza rolled into one. . .   but it registered not so much as a tiny blip on his radar screen.   Now as I look back on that moment,  I am not struck by Mr. Domingo’s obliviousness to my talent so much as I am struck by  my own monumental arrogance, dwarfed only by my monumental cluelessness.

By the way,  the other thing that was so notable about that “Otello” production was that the opening night performance came literally hours after a horrible earthquake in Mexico City which caused massive damage and loss of life – and which left some of Domingo’s relatives missing and feared dead.   Domingo was mightily tempted to cancel and fly right to Mexico City but was persuaded to go through with the opening night performance,  especially because it was the gala opening night for the whole season and to lose a star of Domingo’s magnitude from such an occasion would have been a huge disappointment.   But a limousine was waiting to whisk Domingo to the airport as soon as the performance was over and a special corporate jet of some sort was secured to fly the tenor directly to Mexico City to he could join the search for survivors there.    Everyone in the company knew this,  and it’s hard to convey to you just how electric the atmosphere was that night.  We knew we were in the presence of a truly great artist who was performing perhaps his finest role under the most difficult circumstances imaginable.   What a privilege it was to share the stage with him that night,  even as a humble chorister.

Anyway,  Mr.  Domingo is still here. . .  as amazing as ever. . . perhaps the single most astonishing miracle that the opera world has ever known.   And how lucky are we to be able to see and hear some of this miracle for ourselves?!?

pictured above:  at the most recent Met movie theater simulcast they honored Domingo with a montage of clips from some of his many Met telecasts.  This is a brief moment from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, where he is joined by Renata Scotto.

Thinking of that simulcast of “Lucia di Lammermoor” reminds me of something ironic.  The tenor for that simulcast was supposed to be Rollando Villazon, who in recent years was probably the hottest name among all tenors.  But then he ran into some serious vocal trouble and had to recuse himself from the stage for many months.  His comeback has yielded checkered results,  and he ended up having to cancel most of his “Lucia” performances at the Met, including the simulcast.   What is sad is that Villazon is only 37 years old.   So Placido Domingo has been singing leading roles at the Met longer than Villazon has been alive- and people are now wondering if the younger tenor’s career is over.  It helps us appreciate Domingo’s longevity and consistency all the more.