2. L.A.’s Super Tenor More Super
By Laurence Vittes
Southern California SENIOR LIFE (2002)
When the first Three Tenors concert swept its participants to fame, glory and unimagined riches
during the World Cup soccer matches in Rome in 1990, the three tenors themselves were like
the three bears in the fairy tale.
The little tenor was Jose Carreras whose recovery after being diagnosed with acute leukemia in 1987 had provided the concert’s initial impetus as a way to raise money for the research foundation he had set up.
The medium-sized tenor was Plácido Domingo whose musical intelligence, commanding stage presence and richly polished vocal tones had made him a superstar wherever opera was performed and loved. The big tenor, and Domingo’s main rival, was Luciano Pavarotti whose outsized musical and physical presence made women lust, grown men cry, and children laugh. Each by himself was a distinctive and potent musical force; together, they formed a theatrical phenomenon with trappings of celebrity and earning power that had more in common with Las Vegas shows than with conventional classical musical performances. They sang before huge audiences in unconventional venues ranging from the Eiffel Tower to Dodger Stadium.
Critics attacked the glitz and the hype, gnashed their teeth at the huge sums that were being generated (within a year, Pavarotti’s income had shot up to an estimated $15 million a year, Domingo’s to $10 million), and muttered about the
sacrilege being done to the operatic art. Apologists insisted that the success of The Three Tenors increased interest in "real" opera. Copycat acts that attempted to cash in on the trio concept included The Three Sopranos and The Three Countertenors. The three tenors, however, both as The Three Tenors and individually, just kept raking it in.
Twelve years later, Carreras, now 55, has moved quietly and gracefully into the limelight, performing a modest number of recitals and concert appearances. He is not scheduled to perform in any operas this year. Pavarotti, 66, has turned into a caricature of himself, focusing on big-fee concerts (including one this October in Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas) with occasional opera appearances (but seemingly canceling more often than he actually appears). In dramatic contrast, Domingo, 61, has eclipsed his one-time rival Pavarotti while moving ever upward in the musical pantheon. He has the performance schedule of a confirmed workaholic, and continues to grow artistically and to enlarge his musical horizons. In the process, he has become a oneman musical industry who has appeared in an unprecedented 119 different roles (Pavarotti has appeared in fewer than thirty), and in the spring, for Los Angeles Opera of which he is Artistic Director, he will appear in his 120th role, Nero in Claudio Monteverdi’s 17th-century opera about Roman decadence, The Coronation of Poppea. Domingo has sung in every major opera house in the world and has made more than 100 recordings which have earned him eleven Grammy Awards. He has made more than 50 videos and three theatrically-released films.
And reportedly, more than one billion people in 117 different countries recently saw his live telecast of Puccini’s Tosca from authentic locations in Rome.
Locally, Domingo will open the Los Angeles Opera season on September 4 in the role of Dick Johnson, the bad guy gone good, in Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West. In the middle of the run, he will take two days off and fly to Washington, D.C. to participate, along with Aretha Franklin, Renée Fleming, Alan Jackson, Enrique Iglesias, Al Green, Gloria Estefan and Josh Groban, in the taping of Concert for America, a Kennedy Center musical tribute to the 9/11 victims and heroes hosted by Tom Brokaw (to be broadcast the evening of September 11 on NBC). This represents a continuing commitment on Domingo’s part: Last year, less than two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, he sang "Ave Maria" at a prayer service at Yankee Stadium.
In November, with barely a breath in between, Domingo will star in the demanding title role of Mozart’s Idomeneo at the Washington Opera, of which he is Artistic Director; during that run, he will again take time out, this time to conduct the National Symphony and an all-star cast headlined by Vanessa Williams in a concert staging by Debbie Allen of Hammerstein’s 1943 musical, based on Bizet’s famous opera, Carmen Jones.
It is a blistering pace that speaks to Domingo’s need for work, movement — and market share. Critics, on the whole, embrace Domingo just as enthusiastically as his fans. Reflecting the majority, John Steane writes, "Domingo’s story has been one of steady growth, successful adaptation of gifts neither squandered nor withheld. Few if any of the century’s leading tenors have passed the age of 50 with a voice so well preserved after unsparing use in such a wide and demanding repertoire."
And while it is true that some critics and aficionados complain that Domingo performs too much Golden West that is performances too often seem stale, his voice tired, and that he is not a true tenor but rather a stretch baritone, even his severest critics admire his amazing range and versatility, and the contributions he has made to furthering the cause of opera on a global basis. Besides, when all the critical analysis is over and done with, the key to Domingo’s vast popularity and generally overwhelming critical acclaim transcends analysis, residing instead in the powerful charisma that results from his deep musical knowledge and integrity, and the generosity with which he shares with his audiences the splendors of his voice. Adding super-sized audio and video sales to his non-stop concert and opera appearances, not to mention his work as an administrator and consultant there is no denying that he has become a musical-industrial colossus built almost entirely on a foundation consisting of the continuing appeal — and marketability - of classical music.
Domingo came by his work habits, and his musical talents, naturally. He was born in Madrid in 1941, his parents sang in a troupe which performed the Spanish operettas called zarzuelas, and his father played the violin in the orchestra of the Liceu in Barcelona. Plácido started studying the piano, then conducting.
But, at 17, he said, "I found myself a husband and a father. I had to make a living very quickly, and it was easier to find a job as a singer or a pianist than as a conductor. "I worked hard from the beginning. We gave two zarzuela performances a day, and even three on Sundays. In the evenings, after the show, we rehearsed the performance of the following day. Even now, I train my voice every day, studying new parts. I would never have believed I could sing this way for more than forty years. I can only get down on my knees and thank God."
A major part of Domingo’s performing persona is still relatively off the radar screen to many L.A. opera buffs: his huge popularity in Latin America. His Quiéreme mucho CD, for example, released on EMI earlier this year, includes songs by Dominican Republic composers Manuel Troncoso, Juan Luis Guerra, Armando Cabrera and Mario de Jesús. "From Mexico to Tierra del Fuego," Domingo said in an interview earlier this year on the occasion of his first appearance in the Dominican Republic, "we have extraordinary composers with great poetic and melodic inspiration. When I grew up in Mexico, at first I thought that all songs were Mexican; then I realized that there were a great variety of songs, immortal songs, from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Colombia — in fact, from all Latin American countries. Despite the fact that there's a young generation with more boisterous musical tastes, romantic music such as the bolero will live forever and will keep on being loved, gene ation after generation."
Asked if he had considered touring with a concert based on these songs alone, Domingo replied, "I would love to do something that recalls the beauty of our music, of so many beautiful melodies from Latin America. It could be a wonderful night, magical, divine. I hope to do it sometime."
In a Washington Post interview earlier this year, Domingo answered the question with which he is increasingly faced. "I think I'll know when it is time to go," he said. "Sometimes even now, if I sing three or four days in a row, my voice feels a little worn out. Still, at the age of 61, I think I've learned how to pace myself, and I'm sure that I have a few years left. It will be very difficult to retire — I mean, the logistics of the retirement process will be difficult. There are many questions. Do you sing a farewell performance in every theater?Or just spend your last season in one house? I do not know." Asked by a reporter which three operatic characters he would take to a desert island, Domingo answered with a comic’s standard line, "To do what? Play poker?
"But seriously," he said, revealing the dramatic and perhaps emotional concerns that lies at his own personal core, "I would take three characters who first suffer and then succumb to an unrelenting fate." His choices: the Incan prince Don Alvaro from Verdi’s La forza del destino, the long-haired Biblical hero Samson from Saint Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, and the tragically wronged Russian count Loris Ipanov from Giordano's Fedora.
As these are the kinds of roles, and stories, that have made and kept opera a compelling theatrical entertainment ever since its creation in 1598, it’s no surprise that most opera lovers, asked the same desert-island question about tenors, would unhesitatingly include the one-time medium-sized bear, Placido Domingo.
4. Take Me Out to the Opera: In Chicago, a Fan Is a Fan
By BRUCE WEBER
Published: April 16, 2005
New York Times
CHICAGO, April 13 - On Tuesday night, between Acts I and II of "Die Walküre" at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Plácido Domingo was backstage talking about the Chicago Cubs.
"I wish they could have more satisfaction," he said.
The great tenor was speaking from the vortex of a rare cultural confluence. Over the last week, the Cubs opened their home season at Wrigley Field, and the city's Lyric Opera was presenting Richard Wagner's four-opera "Ring des Nibelungen," which meant that two of the world's most fervid fan bases were simultaneously encamped on opposite sides of the Chicago River. (The Cubs left town on Tuesday; the "Ring" concludes on Saturday night.)
As Siegmund, Mr. Domingo was fresh from a standing ovation from the Ringheads, as the most obsessive Wagnerites somewhat sheepishly call themselves.
But as he was preparing to die heroically in the second act, what came to his mind was the night two Octobers ago when an oblivious fan at Wrigley Field interfered with a foul fly ball and cost the Cubs a shot at the World Series, the umpteenth disappointment for a franchise that has not won a championship since 1908. Not even Wagner, Mr. Domingo acknowledged, breaks your heart like the Cubs. "It makes me so sad," said Mr. Domingo, who is actually a Yankee rooter. "It's a much longer journey for them."
Perhaps it's a stretch to insist that a passion for baseball and a passion for opera are related, though the link is documented. For years, after all, Robert Merrill sang the national anthem at Yankee Stadium. But as Mr. Domingo intimated, the link seems most intense in Chicago, where the ache for a baseball victory is palpable (the White Sox are virtually as hapless as the Cubs), where theater, the symphony and the opera are virulent inspirers of local pride, and where a recent newspaper poll asking whether sports or the arts were more thrilling ended in a dead heat…