What is left to say about the extraordinary Placido Domingo? There has never been anyone quite like him before- nor are we likely to see the likes of him again. The guy has been onstage singing opera longer than I have been alive. (His opera debut, in a minor role in Rigoletto, occurred in 1959- the year before I was born- and by 1961, he was undertaking his first major role, Alfredo in La Traviata.) He has performed nearly 150 different roles onstage- and more than one hundred complete opera recordings feature the voice of Domingo in one way or another. And on top of that, he has conducted opera in all kinds of places- including the Metropolitan Opera itself- and has also been a successful impressario of several different companies, including Washington Opera and Los Angeles Opera. And on top of all that, he is also a genuine gentleman, achieving his success while earning the affection and respect of nearly everyone who has ever worked with him … with the exception of arch rival Luciano Pavarotti, with whom Domingo had a painfully strained relationship for many years. But eventually the two of them were able to surmount their animosity, largely because of their mutual concern for fellow tenor Jose Carreras after he was stricken with life-threatening leukemia back in the mid 1980s. In the wake of his recovery, the three tenors embarked on one of the most spectacularly successful ventures in the history of classical music- and Pavarotti and Domingo actually managed to become friends. Pavarotti died in 2007 and Carreras has retired except for the occasional recital or concert, but Domingo remains – still singing on the major opera stages of the world, albeit in baritone rather than tenor roles, and still fully capable of generating thrills.
I know that for a fact because earlier this week, best friend Marshall Anderson and I experienced said thrills as we sat in the audience of the Lyric Opera of Chicago for a concert celebrating Domingo’s long, distinguished career. The concert fell on a weekday evening, which made it less than convenient, but I think the prospect of getting to see the legendary Domingo in person one more time – and perhaps one last time – was too much to pass up. So we did it- and because I had to take Carthage Choir rehearsal that afternoon, I ended up cutting it very close- settling into my seat in the opera house maybe two minutes before the lights came down and the performance began! The concert began with a semi-staged performance of Act Two of Verdi’s La Traviata, with Domingo taking the role of Giorgio Germont, who sings one of the most famous and most beautiful of all baritone arias: “Di Provenza il mar.” It may be the baritone role that suits Domingo most ideally because there are almost no places where he has to unleash thunderbolts of sound; the role is meant to be sung lyrically and tenderly, and Domingo does that as well as anyone in the business. The second half of the concert consisted of arias and duets that included duets from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, plus the aria “Nemico della patria” from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier that brought the house down. Some naysayers may grumble that Domingo is hanging on too long and crowding more deserving singers out of the spotlight. All I can say is that when you hear Domingo surge to the climaxes of these arias and duets, it’s hard not to think that he still belongs in the spotlight.
The occasion of this concert got me thinking about my one personal encounter with Mr. Domingo – an encounter that occurred more than thirty years ago, but is still vividly burned into my memory.
Otello: Lyric Opera of Chicago (1985) – This was the season that I was part of the prestigious Lyric Opera Center for American Artists – and my particular apprenticeship included not only singing tiny solo roles in three of the Lyric’s operas that season (Madama Butterfly, La Traviata, and La Rondine) but also singing in the chorus for Die Meistersinger, Samson, and …. most thrillingly …. Verdi’s Otello, which opened the season. The cast was headed by three superstars- Placido Domingo, Margaret Price, and Sherrill Milnes- and for me to be in the company of such artists, singing such a masterpiece, was like a dream come true.
Unfortunately, Domingo’s ridiculously frantic performance schedule prevented him from being on hand for most of the rehearsals. My recollection is that he was present for only one regular rehearsal plus the dress rehearsal. His cover, American tenor William Johns, had been deputizing for Domingo until that point and doing an honorable job- but it was truly thrilling when we finally got to welcome Domingo himself into the proceedings. I remember that he was dressed in white sweats- and while he worked very seriously, he also had a smile on his face for much of the time. What I will never forgot about that rehearsal was a moment during the big chorus/ensemble that ends Act Three, when something went wrong- and the conductor asked for a moment to work through the passage in question. We were actually invited to sit down (if we chose) wherever we happened to be standing- and the next thing you know, Placido Domingo himself is sitting right next to me!!! He said “hi, there” – I said “hello, Mr. Domingo” – and then wham, it was time to sing. I can remember digging deep into my gut and trying to pour out the most gorgeous sound I could possibly produce …. in the irrational hope that Domingo would turn to me when it was over and whisper “My God! I haven’t heard a baritone sound like that since Robert Merrill! You and I must sing together someday! And I will see that happens!” Talk about audacity! But no- as far as I could tell, Mr. Domingo never so much as glanced at me as I was singing – and the moment the conductor gave us the final cutoff, he had sprung to his feet and was gone. It was both a thrilling and humbling moment.
Sometime between that dress rehearsal and the opening night performance, Mexico City was struck by one of the worst earthquakes in its history- and among the many residents of the city who were feared to have been killed were relatives of Mr. Domingo, who was understandably anxious to fly down there and do what he could to help. Somehow, the Lyric persuaded Mr. Domingo to remain in Chicago long enough to sing the opening night performance – which he did, understanding how important the opening night of an opera season is for an opera company. All of us in the company- and probably most of the audience- knew about all this, and it made an already momentous evening even more exciting. But the moment the performance was over, Domingo was hustled out the door, into a cab, out to O’Hare, and put on a private jet that whisked him down to Mexico City. And that is where he remained for the next several months, participating in the rescue operations there. And in appreciation for Mr. Domingo’s great generosity towards the Lyric under such terrible circumstances, the company responded by mounting a fundraising gala concert with all proceeds being donated to Earthquake Relief.
In the 30-some years that Marshall and I have been Lyric Opera season ticket holders, we have been privileged to see Domingo in performances of Samson and Delilah, La Fanciulla del West, Fedora, and Die Walkure – plus a fleeting (and unexpected) appearance on the Ardis Krainik Farewell Gala. But Domingo’s real operatic home is the Metropolitan Opera, where he has created all kinds of magic- much of it captured in broadcasts and telecasts. Among my favorite moments:
1972, Farewell Gala for Sir Rudolf Bing: On a star-studded concert that brought down the curtain on the long and distinguished career of Met general manager Sir Rudolf Bing, one of the most thrilling performances of the night came from Domingo and soprano Montserrat Caballe in the love duet from Manon Lescaut. This was two singers in their youthful prime, more than holding their own in the company of Sutherland, Pavarotti, Nilsson, Price, Rysanek, Corelli and more.
1980, Manon Lescaut telecast: There are a few operatic moments that are all but certain to put a huge lump in my throat, and one of them is the end of act three from this memorable performance of Puccini’s first great opera. The title character has been arrested and convicted on morals charges and sentenced to be sent off to the barren wasteland of North America, where she will be abandoned to a slow death by starvation. Her lover, des Grieux, is part of an unsuccessful attempt to rescue her from prison- and in desperation, he offers to join her on her voyage to certain death, so she does not have to die alone. This classic production, directed by composer Gian Carlo Menotti, wrings every possible bit of emotion out of this scene- and in this particular moment, Domingo and soprano Renata Scotto demonstrated what made them such irreplaceable artists.
1991, Metropolitan Opera 25th Anniversary Gala: To celebrate 25 years in their home at Lincoln Center, the Met presented one of the most exciting gala concerts every conceived. It included the last act of Rigoletto (featuring Luciano Pavarotti as the Duke of Mantua) and the third act of Otello (with Domingo in the title role.) The evening ended with act two of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, with one of opera’s most colorful party scenes – in which the party entertainment included a cavalcade of special guest artists. On this starry occasion, the singers who sang for the Fledermaus party included Mirella Freni, Sherrill Milnes, Frederica von Stade, Kathleen Battle and more- but the most unforgettable moment was when Pavarotti and Domingo stepped into the spotlight together to sing the act four duet from La Boheme. (Domingo took the baritone line as Marcello.) It was beautifully sung- but what made it truly unforgettable was the clear affection between these long-time and sometimes sour rivals – who had found a way to be friends.
2009, the Metropolitan Opera’s 125th Anniversary Gala: This sprawling gala was like none other in the company’s long history. A wide array of the Met’s biggest stars performed in costumes (actually copies of costumes) from some of its most illustrious productions – some dating back to the 1880’s. But the gala was also a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Domingo’s Met debut, and he was featured in excerpts from Parsifal, La Fanciulla del West, Simon Boccanegra, and Otello. He sang beautifully in all four, but it was his performance of “Niun mi tema,” the aria sung by Otello as he kills himself out of remorse for having murdered Desdemona, that was one of the most searingly moving performances I have ever heard. And what made it somehow even more powerful was that afterwards he never came out to acknowledge the audience’s thunderous ovation – as though to do so would somehow diminish the impact of what we had just experienced.
Several years ago, while writing a review of a Domingo disk for the Journal of Singing, I found myself engaging in an interesting mathematical game. It is now 49 years after Domingo’s Met debut- and he is still singing lead roles with the company. What if other illustrious singers in Met history had enjoyed similar longevity? It means that Enrico Caruso, perhaps the greatest tenor in Met history, whose Met debut was in 1903, would have still been singing there in 1952. It means that the legendary Lauritz Melchior, who first bowed at the Met in 1926, would have still been singing there in 1975. It means that his most famous Wagnerian partner, Kirsten Flagstad, whose debut was in 1935, could have sung for the Met’s Centennial Gala in 1983. It means that Leontyne Price and Joan Sutherland, who both debuted in 1961, would still have been singing on the Met stage in 2010. But Domingo has not just lasted a long time- he has done so while maintaining an incredibly high level of consistent excellence. Which is why it is easy to take him for granted. Which is why we probably will not fully grasp the dimensions of his greatness until he has finally left the stage for good.
And when is that likely to be? There is no way to know- but I am guessing that Mr. Domingo will be as wise about that as he has been about every other facet of his career. He has said that he will continue to sing for as long as his singing brings pleasure to others. And at the rate he’s going, he may be singing for a long time to come.
And I, for one, hope so.