Plácido DomingoThe constant reinvention
As the 20th century drew to a close, arts journalists not only in Spain but the world over acquired the absurd habit of asking Plácido Domingo when he was planning to retire. The singer was approaching 60 and the question became commonplace.
Domingo would smile and, as if skirting an awkward issue, reply that he would carry on singing for as long as he did not look ridiculous – adding all the while that he would be the first to notice, and that maybe in five or six years’ time...
But, 15 years later, Plácido is still going strong, defying common sense and his biological age, and confounding the predictions made then. Even if he had already made opera history all those years ago, he was about to embark on a glittering new phase of his highly successful stage career.
That is how it has always been. Everyone has tried to analyse Domingo, assessing him against “normality”, when in fact he is so different from ordinary mortals. Ever since his career began, he has inspired awe and admiration. The depth he brought to his role in La Forza del Destino at the age of 30, or to a role like Otello (which he would go on to perform nearly 250 times) at only 35 seemed scarcely believable.
Such precocious talent was phenomenal. As his career developed, people found it hard to accept that Domingo could do so much: that he dared turn his hand – and without burning his fingers – to works from Verdi, Puccini and the whole verismo repertoire, as well as Wagner, reaping success after success with over 3,500 performances; that, while singing, he was also conducting orchestras; that, in parallel, he was artistic director for the operas of Washington and Los Angeles – one city a centre of global political power, the other the capital for the performing arts; that he could demonstrate such great solidarity after the earthquake in Mexico, an event that deeply affected him as he tirelessly sought to rescue survivors trapped in the rubble, some of whom were close relatives; that he founded a competition like Operalia – with the support of Rolex – for young talent; that he was part of the greatest-ever recording milestone in opera, the Three Tenors concert, with Carreras and Pavarotti, which sold 10 million albums. Finally, that he should break another record along the way by notching up almost 145 different roles.
In February 2015, he took up a fresh challenge: Verdi’s Macbeth with Daniel Barenboim at the Staatsoper in Berlin.
This extraordinary biography and career would not be complete without the other episodes. In his sixties, Plácido took another gamble, venturing into a Russian repertoire – and the Russian language itself – to sing Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, thereby distancing himself from Wagner. He made an incursion into Gluck. He also tried out the Baroque in operas like Handel’s Tamerlano; and he switched from tenor to baritone, his natural voice, for the pleasure of interpreting Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. Now he is singing the sombre Macbeth, and challenging himself in new tailor-made roles such as Tan Dun’s The First Emperor and as the poet Pablo Neruda in Daniel Catán’s Il Postino. In short, Plácido is continuing to accumulate milestones, and, furthermore, a BBC survey voted him the best tenor in history. With hindsight, who would ever have dared ask those stupid questions about his retirement?
These days no one would dream of alluding, directly or indirectly, to any farewells. Born in Madrid in 1941, Plácido Domingo emigrated to Mexico with his parents when he was eight, and made his debut at the age of 18 in a theatre in Mexico City. He was destined to make history. His vocation was to bring life to one of the older, traditional arts in contemporary society and make it accessible to a wider, general audience; and to become a driving force, injecting new vigour into opera through his dedication and boundless passion. “I still cry a lot on stage”, he confessed a few years ago, when we spoke in Valencia during a break in rehearsal for Cyrano de Bergerac.
He had a career of almost 40 years behind him at the time, having moved on from his early days in light music and rock and roll, notably with a group called Los Black Jeans, for whom he sang backing vocals and wrote arrangements. He made his debut – first as a baritone in Marina and, a few months later, as a tenor in La Traviata – at Teatro Degollado in Guadalajara, Mexico, and Monterrey’s Teatro Maria Teresa Montoya, respectively. In doing so, he was following in the steps of his parents, Plácido Domingo senior and Pepita Embil, who had emigrated to Mexico with their zarzuela troupe. Plácido grew up with the highs and lows of the performing arts.
After his marriage to Mexican soprano Marta Ornelas, the young couple decided to move to Israel and it was in the Tel Aviv Opera that Plácido enjoyed his first success. He took part in 280 performances over two and a half years, in different roles and with unorthodox staging of canonical operas, sometimes sung in three languages. Here he discovered that purism could be challenged both out of necessity and on grounds of taste.
With this experience under his belt, he began to explore more challenging terrain. Plácido realized that without taking risks he could never triumph in temples of the lyric arts such as La Scala, Covent Garden, Salzburg, and Madrid’s Teatro Real, the Vienna State Opera, where he received the longest-ever ovation for his Verdi’s Otello, or the Metropolitan Opera, where he holds the record for opening nights as a tenor. Audacity is his trademark – it has been with him through- out his life. Where most people would reply to an unexpected proposal or question with a “why?”, Plácido simply turns this into “why not?”
Curiosity, self-respect, the constitution of a Titan and an awe-inspiring capacity for work have brought this man – who is also passionate about sport and a dedicated cinephile – to the pinnacle of his profession and have made him into a legend in his own lifetime.
Renowned also for his diplomacy, Domingo was, nevertheless, sorely tested when he stood up to the leaders of the opera world. He is one of the few people who have dared to say “no” to Herbert von Karajan. On the philosophical question of bringing opera to the masses – controversial in the eyes of the elite – he staunchly defends the notion of lyric art being able to fill football stadiums and dazzle audiences of millions in the same way as football’s World Cup.
No other singer or administrator has achieved what he has done for audiences all over the planet, while remaining respected by the operatic world. Of them all, who can boast of having appeared in the The Simpsons? Only one – Plácido Domingo.