Domingo, the unstoppable

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Even with dozens of singers onstage, with the Great Wall of China itself represented among the sets at the Metropolitan Opera, Plácido Domingo's entrance immediately makes him seem like the biggest, loudest thing up there.

It helps that he's singing the word "Silence!" at high volume, in a way that's assertive almost to the point of dangerous. He's a proud, ambitious emperor shutting down ceremonial court musicians, because his character is after something bigger: He wants to discover the anthem that will unite this collection of disparate kingdoms into the largest empire the world has seen.


FOR THE RECORD:
Placido Domingo: The article about Placido Domingo that starts on the cover of Arts and Music today is continued on Page F10, not F1 as indicated. —


"The First Emperor," a kind of mythologized Chinese history, with a formidable creative team — music by Tan Dun, libretto by novelist Ha Jin and the composer, and stage direction by filmmaker Zhang Yimou — would seem like a stretch for any Western musician. But Domingo, who made his name with Italian and French roles, has spent his last decade or so singing in Russian and especially German. This Spaniard got his start singing in Hebrew in Tel Aviv; his most famous role may be as an accursed Moor. So why not an ancient Chinese emperor — a role written for him — the autocrat who conquered kingdoms, standardized writing and currency and built the Great Wall?

For the tenor, admired for his warm, dark and burnished tone, it's just another historical role. It takes research, physical stamina and emotional energy to swing from overwhelming to tender to yearning, as he does frequently here. It's also his first world premiere at the Met. But as he says in a break during rehearsal, "The theater is always the theater."

Domingo is more a diplomat than a nation-shaking tyrant. But he's had a year that almost makes world domination seem like the natural next step.

The last 12 months — singing from Tokyo to Madrid, overseeing the ambitious and star-crossed new opera "Grendel" in Los Angeles and New York, opening the new Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa with William Bolcom's "Canciones de Lorca," conducting "Manon" in L.A. and "Boheme" in New York, not to mention leadership of the Los Angeles and Washington National operas and running the Operalia singing competition in Valencia, Spain, which he founded — show his unmatched range.

But Domingo, despite an almost unrivaled longevity, also knows that the end will come someday. Last winter and spring, Domingo became mortal again, canceling performances across Europe and New York.

"Right now for me it's a mystery of how long I'm going to sing," he says, sitting in his office at the Los Angeles Opera a few weeks earlier, picking at a platter of grapes and cheese. "I have about three or four new operas I will still be doing. It's exciting. But I'm 65 now; I'll be very surprised if I will be singing opera when I'm 70. Perhaps I'll do concerts, but I don't think operas."

Domingo has not only sung more roles than any tenor in history, he may command more frequent flier miles than anyone on the planet. Through what seems at times like sheer force of will, he's pushed his career into 40 years of starring roles — more than 120 in all — and 20 years of involvement with the L.A. Opera, which he at least ostensibly runs. In a business full of burnouts, divas and crackups, what's kept him going this long? How does he do so much? And when the end comes, as it must even for him, what will it sound like?

Down to essentialsTHE lack of ornament in Domingo's office has drawn comparison to a hotel room. Today, he's thinking about the beginnings of music, which he finds enigmatic and fascinating. "It tells of the human race, how clever we were. It started just with a sound," he says banging his hand on the table, "knocking a piece of wood. And they could tell that this was higher than that one" — he drums a primitive descending scale — "and they started making percussion sounds.

"Then they hear birds…. How do they start naming the notes, naming the sounds? It's amazing, really amazing. Music is about mathematics, but there are mathematics of the soul too, and they can never be the same. No one will feel a piece the same way."

With someone else, this might come across as naive, but Domingo's musical sense does seem connected to something elemental. And while some of his description gets lost in translation — Domingo sings comfortably in six languages, but Spanish is his native tongue — it's clear that his love of music, in his fifth decade as a headliner, remains idealistic and undimmed.

He still speaks about seeking new roles — driven by "this itch that's in me" — but if he stops singing tomorrow he'll easily be one of the greatest tenors in history.

"I can't think of a single singer with his range, his questing intelligence, his sheer capacity to get out and perform decade after decade, with no clear diminution," says Manuela Hoelterhoff, who directs arts coverage for Bloomberg News.

"He's one of the most complete tenors one could encounter," says James Jolly, editor in chief of Gramophone magazine. "He's a great actor and a very fine musician, which isn't always the case. He's got a tremendous sensitivity to many different styles; he's as happy with Puccini as he is in Wagner, or even a Russian role. He really is the most versatile singer, probably of all time."

Domingo has made several ventures into popular culture — he's made several films, including Franco Zeffirelli's "Otello" and Francesco Rosi's "Carmen," showed up on "The Cosby Show," sung with John Denver and, onstage at an L.A. Opera gala concert, Ricky Martin. But throughout he's maintained his dignity.

"He's constantly analyzing himself," says Rolando Villazón, the young Mexican tenor widely considered Domingo's most important protégé. "He continues to be a student of his own instrument. And he has been smart to go in the direction where his instrument works better."

In person, though, Domingo doesn't come across as analytical. He's down to earth, respectful, comfortable in his own skin. He loves sports, especially Spanish "football." Despite his ease in roles such as "Otello" and "Cyrano de Bergerac," this is not a dark guy: He prefers to keep moving, and is fond of saying, "If I rest, I rust."

An early startDOMINGO was almost literally born into the world of opera: His father, a Catalonian baritone, and his mother, a soprano from Basque country, performed in a company dedicated to zarzuela, a light, operatic style of musical theater. Domingo's mother sang nearly right up until the day she went into labor with him. When he was 8, his parents moved to Mexico City to run a zarzuela company. Before long he was filling in as pianist and conductor and doing whatever odd jobs were needed to keep the company afloat. It gave Domingo a sense of opera as a popular form, Bolcom says. "I realized I could deal with him because he grew up with zarzuela — since he's been a baby it's been in his blood."

He made his stage debut in Mexico in 1959. "Nothing was easy for me when I started," Domingo recalls. After starting as a baritone he moved into tenor range. "But I was not blessed to be an easy tenor. I had to work so hard, going up, little by little, semitone by semitone, fighting and working and trying to get what I needed to be a tenor." This effort developed Domingo's work ethic, and some point to these early experiences as a key to his longevity.

Domingo took his first job at the Israeli National Opera in Tel Aviv, where he sang 280 performances over 2 1/2 years in the early '60s.

When New York City Opera inaugurated its new Lincoln Center home in 1966, he performed the title role in "Don Rodrigo," widely considered his international breakthrough. Julius Rudel, who conducted, recalls the singer entirely embodying Ginastera's monarch. "He was always trying to see other people's points of view, open to suggestions. He was always game."

He made debuts all over the world, earning acclaim for his roles in Italian and French, the most famous of which is probably the title role to Verdi's "Otello." It's a character that has attracted the top tier of singers, most of them decades into distinguish careers. Domingo was 34. "Someone else might have been more cautious and said, 'I'll do it in another 10 years,' " says Villazón.

"This was total theater," says Gramophone's Jolly. "You could absolutely believe the pain and anguish and torment, knotted up with desperate love. It leaves you absolutely shattered."

As the '90s began, Domingo sensed his voice darkening. "I feel my voice," he says, "is going back to its origins."

Down new avenuesAS long ago as the early 1970s, Domingo began to sense that his singing would not last forever, and he began to shift some of his energies to conducting. Watching him conduct, it's clear what an effort, physically and emotionally, he brings to the task. Good or bad, no one could say the man is coasting. The tenor says his goal behind the podium is to "keep everybody happy," while imposing discipline.

But his most substantial investment outside his singing has been in running companies in L.A. and Washington, D.C. It too is a work of discipline and diplomacy and makes Domingo that rare artist with a facility to lead an organization and nurture young talent.

When the board in L.A. asked Domingo to become artistic director in '99, he deliberated as to whether he'd be able to fit it in. He wasn't the only one who was unsure: Some of the board, and then-general manager Peter Hemings, opposed the appointment, thinking he would not be fully committed to the job. "In 2000, I was 59. I said, 'I cannot be singing for much longer,' " Domingo says. " 'But I can do this.' "

"Doing this" meant taking the company in an ambitious and often adventurous direction, aiming to create a company, as Domingo said, that could exist only in Los Angeles, with contemporary work and filmmakers as stage directors. He brought Edgar Baitzel in from Germany to become artistic administrator and recruited the elegant conductor Kent Nagano to become music director. He did things, in other words, that the "new," Peter Gelb-era Met has only begun to do.

Nagano departed for Munich and Montreal this year but is still widely considered to have improved the company's orchestra. The conductor, for his part, will offer only praise of the tenor, calling him "a natural ambassador" and pledging that "there is nobody like Plácido Domingo in the arts today."

"What is most amazing is how the public has been excited, has been ready, for world premieres, new repertoire. It's the fastest-growing company in the United States," Domingo says, referring to the expanding number of performances per year — 75 in the current season — and the budget, which has gone from $28 million in 2000 to $54 million.

Domingo's ambitions — the company once announced, and then scrapped, a George Lucas-designed "Ring" cycle, though a more modest cycle, backed by funds from Eli Broad and others, will begin in 2008 — have not decreased. The singer speaks earnestly about getting the "very important people" in Hollywood to subscribe and become involved.

But some wonder how involved the tenor, who draws a salary of about $600,000 in L.A., really is.

Domingo's globe-trotting, Baitzel says, gives the company a personal quality. "This is what makes Placido's company so unique. It's not official and stiff." Baitzel describes the company he joined in 2000 as run tightly from the top. Not so with the tenor in charge, he says. "If you agree on certain guidelines, he gives you a lot of reach, a lot of flexibility."

But Baitzel remains vague about specific questions, such as how often he speaks to Domingo and what the tenor's week-to-week role is.

Some say Domingo's constant traveling helps the company. "He's all over the place, constantly thrown together with the best of the best," says David Gockley, general manager of the San Francisco Opera. "They all want him to be part of their operations. He can say, 'Well, you know, I will come to you, and you will come to me.' He has great stuff to trade. He's less of an administrator than he is an entrepreneur."

Bloomberg's Hoelterhoff doesn't agree. Both cities, and especially Washington, have transient audiences. In Washington, she says, "he doesn't have a brilliantly gifted conductor like he does in L.A. with James Conlon. When Domingo isn't there, the company might as well not be there. I think these two boards should have rejected the great tenor's need to be worshipped on both sides of the continent and look to their future. Domingo should have focused on one company and really made it spectacular."

Domingo, who keeps homes in New York, Washington, downtown L.A. and Vienna, calls himself comfortable everywhere. "Every place in the world, I am very easy to accommodate. My life is so involved with the work, and the atmosphere of the theater is the same every place. I like to make a family feeling wherever I go. I am not a troublemaker at all," he says with a laugh. "I am a peacemaker." He has three sons, two of whom live in L.A., and his second wife, Marta, is an opera director.

"I simply don't know how he does it," says Jolly. "Anyone who's ever tried to interview or photograph him knows how hair-raising his schedule is. When we put him on the cover of the magazine, I think we had to go to Dublin and had something like 20 minutes."

Does he take on too much? Esa-Pekka Salonen doesn't worry. "I don't think there would be much of an opera company in Los Angeles without him," says the Philharmonic conductor. "He's done a miracle in terms of fundraising and putting this thing on the map."

Still singingTHE Metropolitan Opera's cafeteria is casual and raucous. It's the kind of place where Domingo feels at home, waving to a Chinese harpist here, joking with a busboy in Spanish there. He seems star-struck around Zhang Yimou, the much younger filmmaker behind "Hero" and "Raise the Red Lantern," whom he calls "the big director."

Domingo has been performing here for almost 40 years and has become a kind of grandfather figure. Increasingly, that's his role: seeking out and nurturing talent, bringing along the next generation while he performs himself. "Something very strange has happened," he says. "Because when I accepted the position in Washington, I thought I was done singing. I find myself 10 years later, and I'm still singing."

Domingo says his longevity is a mystery even to him, but one he regards with wary respect. "The voice is so delicate, you know? It's an instrument you live with. It's the most jealous woman, like Tosca multiplied 100 times. If you don't treat her well she won't treat you well."

In some cases, he has protected his voice by not pushing himself unduly. He enjoys wine — with a fondness for Ribera del Duero — and tries to rest and stay away from spicy food during periods when he's singing. He avoids speaking when he doesn't have to. But asked if he has any special vocal regimen, he says, slightly abashed, that he hopes to make this a New Year's resolution.

Domingo's longevity may come, paradoxically, from combining caution with chance-taking. About a decade ago, he launched himself, unexpectedly, from the Latinate world of French and Italian opera into German repertoire. German opera's romanticism is more mystical — philosophical and dark. And the guttural language, though having its own kind of beauty, has little in common with the long, flowing lines of Italian.

This move into German may have fired his imagination, but it also offered a very practical advantage: It suited a voice that had begun to deepen to its roots near the baritone register.

Domingo didn't want to conclude his career without tackling "Tristan and Isolde," an opera some see as both the apogee and the beginning of the end of 19th century opera. But he didn't feel confident performing the four-hour epic.

"I thought I would not have the stamina. I may have been able to do it, but I would have had to sacrifice years of my career. You cannot sing it cold — you have to give it everything, the suffering in this character, the desperation. It goes right to the impossible, to the edge." Says Villazón: "It's a fantastic instrument. But somebody else with the same instrument would have done nothing. It's what he's done with his heart and his brain: They gave the right person a fantastic Stradivarius."

Presence"THE First Emperor," which opens Dec. 21, will become one of the age's most widely seen new operas, and not just because the Chinese media will bring news of it to a huge audience. The Met plans to project this season into movie theaters, and it will also broadcast the opera over the radio, stream it over the Internet and program it on TV. Domingo says it will come to L.A. Opera, though no date has been announced.

And he surely has a few more operas up his sleeve, though he will stop performing them before he stops recording or singing concerts. With operas, he says, "you have to be rehearsing every day, close to nine hours. Physically, it's tiring."

And it's clear watching rehearsal, where he'll stop, apologize and ask to take the scene again so he can get the right "feeling," that Domingo is incapable of coasting. Zhang calls him "such a hard-working person, such a gentleman," who constantly makes small changes that improve the scene.

Opera watchers have begun to speculate how much longer Domingo will sing. Some point to the damage Luciano Pavarotti did to his reputation by not knowing when to quit: The portly Italian led an endless farewell tour like an aging rock band. The heyday of Maria Callas lasted a little more than a decade, and she died a recluse. Domingo feels lucky his voice has held up, though it's harder now to hit some notes.

"For many singers," he says, "the first thing they lose is their power, in the middle range. And without the middle part of the voice you can't do anything. I've had to sacrifice parts of the repertoire, but my voice hasn't lost its presence."

An early intimation of mortality occurred early this year, as he canceled performances of "Parsifal" and "Cyrano," an opera the Met revived especially for him. His three months with tracheitis were his longest time offstage since he was a teenager. For such an indestructible artist, it was a frightening season. "It was pure torture being forced to be silent and not being able to function as I have throughout my career," he says.

As worried as people got, Gramophone's Jolly doesn't think many feared the end. "People just thought, 'It's not going to end like this,' " he says. "He's too sensible. When Domingo decides to call it a day, it'll be on his own terms."


scott.timberg@latimes.com

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