It’s a Westwood movie house and the trailer for Franco Zeffirelli’s “Otello,” which has its Los Angeles premiere Sept. 26, flashes on the screen. Placido Domingo, looming larger than life as Verdi’s tragic Moor, explodes in a fusion of torment and menace.
It’s late-night TV with Johnny Carson and the same celebrated tenor sits at the piano accompanying himself in an ardently sung Mexican ballad, a foretaste of his Universal Amphitheatre concert (Aug. 12) benefiting Mexico’s earthquake victims.
It’s a downtown record store and plastered on a wall is a poster of his more-than-a-million-sold pop album with John Denver, “Perhaps Love.” A nearby bin holds his other crossover recordings, one of them showing a tuxedoed Domingo with sophisticated ladies draped around him--while the opera department smartly touts the dashing tenor’s voluminous entries (he reportedly sings more than 80 roles).
It’s a press conference for the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, with TV crews and their bright lights beamed on the superstar’s smiling face as he quips metaphorically--"I hope our new baby will be a healthy one"--about the upcoming inaugural season, tagged at $5 million, of this big-time project he champions.
It’s a rehearsal break for the company’s premiere production, “Otello,” which opens Oct. 7, and the man of the moment makes his way from stage to pit where he consults animatedly with conductor Lawrence Foster on phrasing details.
One could say that Domingo covers a few bases. Or that he is all things to many people from continent to continent.
Over the past two weeks, for one mind-boggling example, he traveled the following route: Mexico City, Berlin, Salzburg, Vienna, Berlin, Madrid, Paris, New York, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Denver, London, Madrid, Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, Los Angeles. It has been said that Domingo is his own time zone.
Careful juggling of options has become a way of life for the Spanish singer whose name means “Peaceful Sunday.”
“The only solution for handling all these commitments,” he says with a mix of good humor and concerned acknowledgement, “is to apply logic. If something comes along and it doesn’t fit the itinerary, then I might have to refuse.”
But being both an outgoing personality and a compulsive achiever, Domingo is not inclined to refuse. He has been known to squeeze a quickie trip from London to Puerto Rico for a recording in the middle of weeklong “Hoffmanns” at Covent Garden.
When San Francisco suddenly found itself without an opening night Otello three years ago, the rescuing hero wriggled out of rehearsals at the Met, boarded a S.F. Opera patron’s private jet in New York, applied makeup in his police-escorted taxi to the opera house and raised the curtain at 10:30 p.m.
The Music Center Opera has cargoed him in and out of LAX for several high-level meetings this year. He continues to lend himself eagerly to all kinds of causes, but particularly to that of Mexican earthquake relief and to this new company, saying he’s “happy to be used for worthy efforts.”
Add to that his enormous popularity with audiences, concert managers and opera company administrators, all of which landed him a Newsweek cover story in 1982, and you have some idea of a human perpetuum mobile --or how many unpeaceful Sundays that can mean.
A trail of people turns into an entourage. Domingo, a charmer even at the testiest moments, makes fans out of business associates and record producers. He is beloved by conductors who find in him the consummate musician and by stage/film directors who can tap a rare vulnerability, a sensitive spirit.
When he first sang Otello 12 years ago, skeptics were betting against his vocal success with the heroic role. They speculated that he might cause his rich, dark tenor irreparable wear and tear, foreshortening chances to keep up the lyric wing of his repertory. But now, after appearing in what he claims are “all the major productions” of Verdi’s penultimate opera, he has proven himself to be the soundest judge.
“I know how to protect and program for my voice,” he says, relaxing pool-side at his rented Bel-Air manse. “By alternating this heavy role with light ones I enhance my capabilities in both departments.”
Indeed, Otello is the Domingo signature these days. And the tenor says he’s happy to be celebrating the opera’s 100th anniversary in Los Angeles with a double exposure on stage and screen.
“Luckily, we had already pre-recorded by the time filming began (for the Zeffirelli picture),” he explains, in his lilting Spanish accent. “When I arrived on location (Crete), three weeks after the earthquake, my voice was a wreck from all the dust I breathed in Mexico City.”
Having lost an aunt, uncle and two cousins in the catastrophe, he complains of being “emotionally drained” while making the film. As if that were not enough, Domingo next required a hernia operation, which took months of recovery before he was well enough for the strenuous act of singing.
Other obligations went by the boards, but the six-foot-two tenor, who began as a baritone and grew up singing zarzuelas onstage in Mexico with his parents, says he would not jeopardize the shooting schedule. “A film has first priority,” he declares with pragmatic authority. “Because it stays forever.”
Bearing that in mind, Domingo has laid out a full movie schedule, promising to make one picture per year: next season, “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” with Jonathan Miller directing, followed by “The Merry Widow” and “Aida,” both with Zeffirelli, and one on the life of Puccini.
Only half-joking, he talks about Woody Allen directing him in a screen version of “La Boheme” and “also doing media for my campaign as mayor of Madrid.”
He quickly waxes serious to explain that the mayoral office is something he will definitely accept when the career tapers off “because I want to do this for my city and my country.” But the clock has ticked more slowly than he predicted, so he has adjusted his timetable.
Originally, Domingo projected that he would sing the full-fledged Heldentenor role of Tristan at 45, his current age. With the voice still at its peak, however, and not as dark and heavy as necessary, he has put off that option. As a consequence, he is no longer penciled in for Wagner’s great stage work, which the Music Center Opera will present next season.
Meanwhile, Domingo enjoys a unique status among singers. When not performing onstage, he commands the podium in the pit. He is an honest-to-goodness, if not resoundingly acclaimed, conductor--one whom opera companies gladly invite, knowing that such a move strengthens their bonds with this precious vocal commodity.
Right now, the tenor/maestro/pop singer/humanitarian can name his terms and map out his turf. There’s hardly a musical whim that he could not turn to reality.
“But always I want to bring the maximum benefit,” he says. “Whether it’s helping the impoverished Third World countries or the homeless in Mexico or bringing opera to a city where none existed before. These are the things I dedicate myself to.”
As a direct result of Domingo’s association with Music Center Opera, a major league enterprise is under way. Star-struck Los Angeles can look forward to productions studded with the same glittery international names as those of established companies throughout the world. He wields that kind of clout.
Nevertheless, his official company title, artistic consultant, belies the more important job function as he describes it.
“Things really got moving,” recalls Domingo, “when I talked to the board and we named Peter (Hemmings) as (Music Center Opera) executive director. But it started little by little, first with the Royal Opera visit in 1984), then the Berlin in 1985 (both engagements featuring the all-important tenor).
“For the past year Peter and I have been meeting all over the world and talking constantly by phone. We put our plans together and then submit them to the board for approval. In the meantime I guess you could call me something like musical adviser. But ultimately I want to be the music director, modeled after Jimmy Levine (at the Metropolitan Opera).”
Since the Mexican earthquake, which occurred last September, Domingo says he has become savvy to the benefits of cutting back his stage commitments worldwide and thus sees a way to step up his efforts in Los Angeles. By singing “only seven performances at the Met, instead of 20,” he says he cuts down “waste.
“Opera is just not an economic solution to anything,” Domingo says, comparing its time expenditure and revenue to concerts--which bring a higher relative profit without weeks of rehearsal.
“I think of opera as a sickness. One must love it pathologically or one wouldn’t make the sacrifice. When it’s good, nothing is better. When it’s bad, nothing is worse.”
Regarding the rivalry between Domingo and Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti (six years Domingo’s senior), the Spanish tenor has not escaped the sting of No. 2-ism.
He says he’s “spent a lot of time analyzing the situation” and lays cause and effect to ads that proclaim Pavarotti “the world’s greatest tenor.”
“The whole thing is nothing more than a cheap publicity stunt,” Domingo explains.
But, astutely appraising the opera fan mentality, the Spanish contender laughs, saying he does not believe the unsolicited cries of loyalty that come to him. “The public cheers us both. Whoever is singing is the beloved one. When he’s in town, it’s Pavarotti. When I’m here, it’s me.”
Domingo holds sway in the opera-film world, though. And while he puts himself wholly in the hands of directors like Francesco Rosi (“Carmen”) and Zeffirelli, he often feels that his best acting ends on the cutting room floor. A lesson learned well, however, from a life in opera is that no one can really control artistic destiny.
“We could put together a dream cast,” he says. “But then two singers get sick and what’s left?” Asked about his attitude towards the Music Center Opera’s controversial “Salome,” opening Oct. 9, Domingo answers:
“I’m crossing my fingers. When this kind of thing happens,” he says, referring to the same Peter Hall/Maria Ewing team whose “Carmen” was generally considered a critical disaster at the Met, “you sit there shaking. But it could go all right. I’ll accept it entirely as my responsibility, whatever.”
Meanwhile, the Domingo career rolls ahead as a musical conglomerate. Since it no longer depends exclusively on the state of his larynx, he can afford to be philosophical.
“If it ended tomorrow,” allows the maxi-achiever, “if I woke up without a voice, I’d know that no one was cheated. Least of all me. I’d know that I have sung more than everybody else.”