When Placido Domingo makes his triumphant entrance in "El Gato Montes" (The Wildcat) at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Saturday, the moment will represent a homecoming for the Spanish tenor both onstage and off.
In the Costa Mesa performance, and in five of six subsequent performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion beginning Wednesday, Domingo is returning to his roots in the Hispanic musical-theater idiom known as zarzuela.
"My mother and my father met singing zarzuelas," he explained during a break in "Gato" rehearsals earlier this week. "My mother used to declare her love to my father every night in the work and, after three months, my father said that he'd heard it so much that he accepted it. So they got married."
At that time, Domingo said, "the world of zarzuela was so important and so big in Spain that when my mother was offered the possibility of becoming an (operatic) soprano--singing Tosca and other dramatic repertory in Barcelona--she couldn't go and do it. My father was also a voice lost to the world of opera. They wanted him to be a Wagnerian tenor, but because of his commitment to this wonderful (zarzuela) music, he was not able."
Domingo, who turns 53 next Friday, said that his mother was singing zarzuelas while pregnant with him, so he heard the music even before his birth. He grew up backstage, helping out by doing everything from setting up the sheet music for the orchestra to singing child roles. He also conducted the backstage chorus and eventually made his debut as a zarzuela baritone (he subsequently made his operatic debut in 1961).
By this time, however, his family was living in Mexico and, in his words, "the golden age for the zarzuela had passed. There were more possibilities for opera in Spain then and I was very much tempted. But at the beginning, it seemed like I would follow the same steps as my parents: singing zarzuelas all my life and probably not becoming as well known."
Domingo has long included zarzuela arias in his concerts and, at the end of 1991, recorded "El Gato Montes" for Deutsche Grammophon. The following year found him singing "Gato" in Seville at Expo, the world's fair, in a staging by Emilio Sagi that was subsequently seen in Madrid, Japan and now reaches Southern California.
Presented in Costa Mesa under the auspices of Opera Pacific, it will be a Los Angeles Music Center Opera production at the Pavilion, and Domingo is proud that it will be the first Spanish-language work in the Music Center Opera's history. Justino Diaz and Veronica Villarroel are featured along with Domingo.
Domingo's enthusiasm for the project can be partly explained in terms of national pride and nostalgia for his youth. "There are very few Spanish operas," he said, "and I would like the public to know them. As much as I can present Spanish music around the world, I will do it." He also mentioned "the great Spanish community around (Southern California)" and the prospect of "bringing a new generation to the opera."
However, in a year when Domingo is singing everything from Offenbach in Vienna to Wagner in Milan, his commitment to "Gato," a comparatively little-known 1916 music-drama by Manuel Penella largely stems from the high quality he finds in the work itself.
"The first act, for me, is perfect," he said. "You can compare it to any first act of any grand opera. It has inspired music, a beautiful atmosphere. It has a comic scene for the priest, then the drama gets deeper and there are beautiful duets for the soprano and the tenor, plus a wonderful scene for the baritone.
"You feel a lot of Puccini in it," he said. "You really have to compare it to the verismo works: It requires that you do a lot of acting. But the music is so beautiful by itself that if you could hear the first act only in a concert version, you would still be thrilled by it."
Anyone familiar with Bizet's "Carmen" would also be intrigued by a number of similarities--the central rivalry, for example, between a bandit and a bullfighter for the love of a Gypsy. There's also a dramatic prophecy of doom, a climactic scene outside a bull ring and constant infusions of local color.
Director Sagi acknowledged that "we are in the same place and with the same background (as "Carmen"). We are neighbors. But the characters are completely different." So is the deployment of vocal resources. In "Carmen," of course, Domingo always sings the obsessed outlaw/lover. But in "Gato," that role goes to the baritone while Domingo gets to play the bullfighter.
Like Domingo, Sagi comes from a zarzuela family: "My grandfather was a very famous singer," he said, "and my uncle has sung with the mother of Placido Domingo." Since 1990, Sagi has been director of Teatro Lirico Nacional La Zarzuela in Madrid, an institution that he believes has been instrumental in upgrading the status of the genre both in Spain and internationally.
Before "Gato," he directed Domingo in Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West" in Madrid, finding the tenor "a big pleasure to work with because he always listens to you, and is very eager to do all the things you want on the stage."
To Sagi, the greatest difficulties in staging "El Gato Montes" involve conveying the atmosphere of Andalusia and also "finding a balance between the real and the non-real," specifically the naturalism of the early scenes versus the stylization demanded later on. "You can't show the public in a naturalistic way all the things that Penella asks you (in the final scenes)," he said. "You must try to catch very strong images to be as powerful as the music."
Spanish-speaking opera enthusiasts will notice that the Andalusian atmosphere is expressed partly through language--the distinctive elisions and shifts in pronunciation of that region--along with what Domingo calls "the turns in the voice that come from the flamenco, and that reveal a Moorish influence." Like Sagi, he is concerned with the difference between the early scenes of the work and the ending. "I would have developed the last act a different way," he said. "I would have made it a little more important, a little longer. But in many zarzuelas, the first act is strong and then perhaps it grows weaker.
"Maybe maestro Penella didn't have enough for the ending and just cut it short. But I think there is enough there for the public to really understand the work and to appreciate the color of Spain and Andalusia in it, and the feeling of the bull ring."
For the final performance, on Jan. 29, Domingo is scheduled to be replaced by zarzuela specialist Antonio Ordonez. Originally, Domingo explained, he was due in Japan for yet another "Three Tenors" concert with Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras at the end of the month. And even after that event was switched to Los Angeles in July, he felt it "a good policy" to engage a major artist as a cover here--and to give that artist a performance.
"It's not like we're doing 'Tosca,' or 'Carmen,' " he said, "where a tenor who knows the part can fly here in three hours to substitute for somebody who is sick. If I catch a cold, there are seven performances and, obviously, nobody knows the part."
The bottom line on Ordonez from Domingo, who serves as ongoing artistic consultant to the L.A. Opera and its occasional conductor as well as periodic star tenor: "He's a wonderful singer so I think the public will be very, very happy."