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MUSIC : Clearing the Air : Though he loathes rumors of a rivalry with Pavarotti, Domingo is happy with his career and is already expanding it beyond singing

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Ever since Placido Domingo sang with Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras last year at an outdoor arena in Rome, they unwittingly launched a popular new sport known as tenor baiting.

It involves, for example, Germaine Greer filling three pages of the London Evening Standard with the intriguing thesis that there are “at least half a dozen” finer tenors around than Domingo.

A thicker-skinned artist might laugh this off as silly-season fodder, but Domingo said he has been hurt this past year, badly hurt. He perceives personal motives behind his denigration and contemplates retaliation. He threw out his last interviewer after 10 minutes, claiming that he was trying to stir things between him and the Italian. He brandished a sheaf of articles, waving the papers with a fury bred of incomprehension. Why should anyone attack him in order to glorify Pavarotti, or vice versa?

“We both do very important careers,” he said heatedly just before a memorial tribute to Herbert von Karajan last month at the Salzburg Festival. “In the eyes of the public we are serious, dedicated performers and we touch many, many people. It is disgraceful that somebody would try to use that to try to make us enemies--which we are certainly not.”

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He has previously refrained from discussing the other tenor, clamming up when pressed by a trusted biographer, trying to give the impression that the world stage was big enough for both of them. Domingo, after all, is about to open the new season at each of the four pillars of the opera firmament--Vienna, Covent Garden, the Met, La Scala. He is automatic first choice in any of the great dramatic roles and has lately added Parsifal to an unprecedented portfolio. He is the cornerstone of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera and performed at the recent opening of its sixth season with soprano Maria Ewing in “Madama Butterfly.”

The two supertenors appear on the same bill again Monday night in New York at the Metropolitan Opera’s gala 25th anniversary. They will share the stage--the first time in an American opera house--although in excerpts from separate Verdi operas. The event, which will also be broadcast to a nationwide pay-per-view audience, will feature Pavarotti in Act III of “Rigoletto” and Domingo in Act III of “Otello.”

In the eyes of the mass public, Domingo is forever cast as Avis to the other man’s Hertz. He is seen singing for the British royal family at Windsor, while Pavarotti turns it on in Hyde Park. Domingo is irked. He wants to put the record straight. “I trust Luciano,” he said two or three times, as if trying to convince himself.

They made their debuts at the Met within weeks of one another in the autumn of 1968. Pavarotti had come up through the Italian provinces to crest at Covent Garden as bel canto partner to Joan Sutherland. Domingo had come from nowhere at a precocious age. He was born in Madrid 50 years ago, a date contested by some musical lexicographers but confirmed by a plaque on his birthplace. The confusion, he said, arose from his early start. The son of traveling singers in a zarazuela troupe, he joined the national opera in Mexico City at 18 and three years later was lead tenor in Tel Aviv, singing three times a week.

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By 1967, when he encountered Pavarotti at a canteen table in the Vienna State Opera, his voice and personality were fully formed. There was no cause yet for contention between them. The portly Pavarotti was typecast in mid-19th-Century Italian roles, Domingo was branching into heroic French and German parts. One was admired for his magnificent sonority, drawn seemingly from the very depths of his being, the other for his versatility and lively intelligence.

It was Pavarotti, though, who made the smarter career moves. From the outset, he recorded exclusively for Decca and was managed with brutal efficiency by a street-wise New Yorker, Herbert Breslin. Domingo sang for all the major labels and signed with a multiplicity of agents and PR representatives--including Breslin, whom he dropped as publicist when Breslin became Pavarotti’s agent.

Before long, Pavarotti’s press campaigns were directed insidiously but unmistakably against Domingo. Magazine features on the “King of the High Cs” would appear mysteriously wherever Domingo was undertaking a major role. When a record advertisement hailing Pavarotti as “the world’s greatest tenor” was placed in one of Domingo’s opera programs, the Spanish tenor threatened to walk out unless the page was removed.

“I don’t care what they do, as long as it’s fair,” he sighed helplessly. “They are trying to sell a product, and it would be stupid on their part to describe it as second-best. . . . Whatever they say about him, that’s fine. But don’t touch me.”

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A congenial, affectionate man among friends, passionate about soccer and alert to world news, he turns surly at the sight of a camera or tape recorder. His wife, Marta, is fiercely protective and he is permanently attended by a retinue of relatives and hangers-on who plume themselves with his patronage and enfold him behind barbed wire. Domingo has made himself inaccessible and can blame himself for some of the media bile. Pavarotti, on the other hand, is all beams and benevolence to the press, handling each question with the patience and platitudes of a kindergarten teacher.

“It gets to the point, where you don’t know whether some words have been said by him, or by me, or by newspaper people,” reflected Domingo sadly. “I trust Luciano. I cannot say I trust everything that is behind him, but I trust him.”

Twenty years of intermittent suspicion melted in July, 1990, in the sweaty Baths of Caracalla, when three tenors had the time of their lives. “We were really one, we worked for each other, were breathing with each other,” marveled Domingo. Since then, mutual relations have been steadily improving. Carreras is seeking to re-enact the triple concert and Domingo is working on Pavarotti to rejoin an “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” that they were due to record together for Deutsche Grammophon. It was to be their first joint opera, a symbol of eternal conciliation, until Pavarotti pulled out in a casting dispute.

Last winter in New York, Pavarotti approached Domingo to ask if he could watch him rehearse Verdi’s “Otello,” a mighty role the Spaniard has made his own and which the “world’s greatest tenor” was nervously attempting for the first time. Afterward, Pavarotti confessed that he was taking Domingo’s “Otello” tape with him on holiday. “I found that very nice,” giggled his colleague.

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Such incidents confound the myth of fearsome rivalry. Their relations veer from affection to irritation but are indissoluble to the end. Each knows he can never be rid of the other and Domingo, when he can forget the slurs, is prepared to admit that their concurrent existence may have helped both artists. “In any activity it is good to have competition,” he reflected. “It’s important that Jose is there also. I wish there were many more tenors. I like to work under pressure. Even so, I am pretty much convinced that the general public, generally speaking, like us both.”

Not that they are really comparable at all. Pavarotti, at 55, seems to be conserving his vocal resources mainly for concerts and recordings. When he finally got around to “Otello” this year, in concert performances, no one was fooled by the impersonation and Pavarotti himself admitted failure.

Domingo, by contrast, has always looked the part. His filmed operas needed no lighting tricks or stuntmen. He might be faulted for faking a high note and he campaigns to lower the orchestral pitch, which conductors and players keep pushing upwards.

“Placido,” said Carreras recently, “is unbelievable. He has such a flexible voice that really stretches from Mozart to Wagner. I believe it is once-in-a-century occurrence.” Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, asked to name an opera singer who equaled the titans of her day, said automatically: “Domingo.”

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In concert, the Spanish tenor is frankly less exciting, though he resents imputations that Pavarotti has somehow become the people’s champion while Domingo sings for the toffs. Hyde Park, Domingo maintains, was his idea in the first place. He proposed it to the IMG sports agency but could not pack it into his crowded schedule and relinquished the venue. Pavarotti’s concert was almost rained out, but still drew 100,000 spectators or so. “Certainly, when I do it, we will have publicity to have enough public there,” Domingo asserted.

He drew 850,000 New Yorkers into Central Park for the Statue of Liberty’s centennial concert, 500,000 into Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park for a sentimental return and 350,000 to the Madrid University campus. He will open and close next year’s Barcelona Olympic Games in a concert with Carreras--"only Spanish singers,” he said pointedly.

Domingo makes no hypocritical pretense that these concerts are aimed at elevating public taste. He does not expect his Central Park crowds to come charging into the Met, nor Olympic viewers to switch overnight to Wagner. These are pop gigs in all but name, sung for the thrill of mass hysteria and staged strictly for profit. “There is a public demand to hear us,” he said. “They like the voices. How many Covent Garden performances do I have to give to reach such a crowd? We do the most important art, which is opera. Do they want us to be completely unknown, hardly making a living? In some of these performances we can make real money, because in opera we don’t.”

A night at the opera can earn him about $17,000. Out in the park, the sky’s the limit, with corporate sponsorship and audio and video rights to be sold in 100 different territories and a dozen forms of software. “I do all my repertoire without sacrificing anything,” he insists. “I don’t take anything out of my opera performances. So why should I be criticized?”

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Domingo’s glittering and tightly packed working life had been running for a quarter of a century like a Swiss railway when, four years ago, it fell apart. In a succession of disasters, his father fell ill and died, Mexico City was devastated by an earthquake and longstanding partnerships were sacrificed on the altar of his grief. Watching him that winter filming “Otello” in an Italian castle for Franco Zeffirelli, he seemed distraught and distracted, huddled into the misery of the jealous Moor, and barely civil off the set. He wanted to take a year off to raise money for the Mexican homeless, but opera companies threatened to sue for breach of contract. His voice lacked the familiar sheen.

Most of his troubles converged on London. He kept Covent Garden on tenterhooks for an “Otello” on which the entire season hinged, then announced that he was calling off a Wembley concert, prompting one of the organizers to proclaim: “I want the head of Placido Domingo"--a headline that still haunts him. Litigation ensued. Soon after, he forced the cancellation of “Lohengrin” because he could not agree on a rehearsal schedule. The leading music journal led its editorial with the statement: “Placido Domingo’s credit in this country has finally run out.”

“I had a sour time adjusting myself to singing in England,” he acknowledged. “I was shocked, electrified, by some of the reactions at that time. We are not machines, and we have an instrument that is very much affected by the emotions. If you are not completely happy, you cannot sing. You need your happiness to sing.”

He feels much happier now, secure in the sensation that he is singing as well as ever and that plans are in process for his post-singing future. Most singers dread the last farewell--some make it last for years--but Domingo claims he will positively welcome the day when the voice gives way. He is a capable and regular conductor (he has conducted opera at the Music Center and is scheduled to conduct the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in Pasadena in February, 1992). As adviser to Los Angeles Music Center Opera, he has helped put a new company on the world map in less than a decade. In Spain he runs musical affairs at Seville.

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“I am happy that I have arrived at 50 still singing,” he said. “I have almost 1,300 performances, which is a long, long career, believe me. I think that anything now is a bonus. I will be very happy to sing another five years, but I like to prepare myself one day to become an important director of an important theater. I don’t say which.”

Few will be startled by his newly revealed ambition. Domingo was always more than just a great tenor, the fleeting thrill of a mighty voice. He is a thinking musician who watches everyone around him, absorbing techniques and tips from singers, conductors and directors alike. “I have been able to sing with all the great singers of three generations,” he recalls, reeling off a catalogue of weighty names. “It’s very refreshing to change partners all the time, varying your interpretation according to theirs.”

For the moment, however, and perhaps forever in his heart of hearts, what counts most is the sound he makes. “The public has everything--records, television, great productions--so when they come to the opera they expect the best. We have the hardest time ever today, with the highest (concert pitch) and the heaviest schedules in history. We are living in a fantastic era. One day perhaps, it will be more recognized.’


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