NEW YORK—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.
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 essentials
THE 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.