The high priest of tenors

February 4 1985

The high priest of tenors

February 4 1985

The high priest of tenors


Plácido Domingo, one of the great operatic tenors of the present day, first sang in his parents’ travelling zarzuela (Spanish operetta company) in Mexico, where he and his family lived after leaving Spain. Since his debut in a leading role—as Alfredo in La Traviata—in 1961, he has appeared in performances from Milan ’s La Scala to the Paris Opéra to New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, where the celebrated performer and sometime conductor recently undertook the challenging title role in Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin and conducted Puccini’s La Bohème. At 1+3, with matinee-idol good looks and a slightly stocky six-foot, two-inch frame, Placido Domingo has a huge repertoire—8k roles, compared to the legendary Caruso's 50—and he gives about 80 performances worldwide each season for fees that sometimes reach $20,000. Maclean’s correspondent Charles Greenfield interviewed Domingo at the New York Met.

Maclean’s: How do you keep a performance fresh night after night?

Domingo: I must feel that each performance, night after night, is new. The public comes with certain hopes, expectations and desires, and my singing must make them feel this freshness. Sometimes there are magical moments when you can forget about the rigorous technical requirements that go through your mind and the spontaneity comes out in full strength. When you are able to merge into your character and forget the vocal problems, it is like a flow of energy. I cannot say this happens all the time, but when it does it is simply fabulous.

Maclean’s: What do you do when there’s a memory loss or incorrect blocking on stage during a performance?

Domingo: Errors always happen. The important thing is not the mistake but how to get out of it. In my very first performance of La Traviata years ago I was supposed to receive news from Violetta from a messenger in the garden. So I said in Italian, ‘Someone is in the garden.’ But no one was there. So I improvised and said, ‘There is no one.’ Then I had to pretend that I had a message. So I looked at some papers on a desk and chose one and said, ‘Oh, it is from Violetta.’ The whole thing was one big improvisation.

Maclean’s: And memory loss?

Domingo: Of course, you can forget the text. If you know the language well enough, you just make up another text that fits well and means the same. I am

good at that—in Italian and French, that is. In German it is another matter. What comes through to the trained ear may very well sound like garble.

Maclean’s: Some critics chide you for a recent foray into pop music. How do you respond to the implicit argument of high versus low culture?

Domingo: That is simply a false problem. Both can be mixed. Absolutely. As long as I am at my best for the public in Otello or in Lohengrin I have no regrets singing Argentine tangos or duets with John Denver. But there is no doubt that I have a strategy doing pop: to pull a vast new audience into the world of opera. That is where my heart really lies.

Maclean’s: In North America opera is often perceived as synonymous with snobbism and social climbing. How true is that?

Domingo: I don’t think social climbing

in the opera exists anymore. If people want to do that they can go and chatter at cocktail parties at the Museum of Modern Art or the vernissage [art exhibition opening] of some painter. I really don’t think people come to opera to be seen when they know they have to spend four hours sitting down.

Maclean’s: What are the pressures of superstardom? How does one cope? Domingo: The only thing I can say is that I try to lead my life in a natural way. I remember less busy times, believe me. I heard a phrase the other day, ‘It is so lonely at the top.’ I would rather say instead, ‘It is very crowded down there.’ That sticks in my mind more than that loneliness business.

Maclean’s: Do you approve of artists or performers making political statements?

Domingo: The day I will be a politician will be the day I am just that. Never mix the two.

Maclean’s: What are the dangers of turning live stage performances of La Traviata or Carmen into films? Isn't there necessarily a loss?

Domingo: The danger with films is that they can cut your wings as an interpreter. I am very happy about Bizet’s Carmen, for example, but I have an entirely different interpretation of the Don José character. The director, Rosi, loves the spectacle of bullfighting and the life of the gypsies. He has transformed Don José into a minor character in relation to the toreador, Escamillo. I told him that I felt the bullfighter had the minor part and he replied, ‘Tant pis.' So it goes. Rosi made me work very hard on my part without, however, supporting me wholeheartedly in the crucial prelude or other key sections. To me, Carmen is the story of Don José, a simple man, who falls in love with the gypsy girl, half woman, half witch. Don José would love to have a family with six or eight kids and live out a comfortable bourgeois life. Instead, the film piles up the scenes of spectacle and to an extent diminishes the tragedy between Carmen and Don José. In opera Bizet would triumph with his music and the drama of the protagonists.

Maclean’s: Will you retire from singing one day?

Domingo: The day I know there is nothing more, there is the day I stop—that is it. I have ambitions to be a conductor, maybe the director of a large theatre, and perhaps becoming the minister of culture for my country, Spain. I will sing as long as I sing well. The day I stop I will say: ‘Goodbye. And no regrets!’ Maclean’s: How do you want to be remembered?

Domingo: As a man who tried to bring harmony, beauty and romanticism to a kind of life that most of the time is the opposite.^