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Entertainment & Arts

Plácido Domingo leads an uptempo life

Miked, coiffed and dusted with TV makeup, the world’s busiest opera tenor was ready for his close-up.

“Welcome, Katherine Jenkins, back to the ballroom,” barked the “Dancing With the Stars” announcer, “along with the amazing Plácido Domingo, who’s just as gorgeous!”

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It was a balmy October evening at CBS Television City studios on Beverly Boulevard last week, and a surreal mash-up of the famous (Kirstie Alley, Emmitt Smith) and would-be famous were squaring off in an “all-star” edition of ABC’s hit dance-contest whack-a-thon.

With split-second prime-time precision, three chandeliers descended from the studio’s rafters and a string quartet magically materialized on stage.

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Then Jenkins, the voluptuous 32-year-old Welsh mezzo-soprano, and Domingo — the Madrid-born citizen of the world, L.A. Opera general director and member of the most famous brand name in the history of classical music, the Three Tenors — launched into “Come What May,” a creamy love ballad from “Songs,” Domingo’s new Sony Classical collection of pop solos and duets with the likes of Josh Groban, Megan Hilty and Susan Boyle.

As the tune climaxed, two lithe young dancers glided onto the floor, and the well-prepped studio audience clapped and shrieked its approval. Standing in front of a floor-to-ceiling video screen, Domingo drank in the spectacle with an avuncular smile that gave no hint of his breakneck timetable.

“I think that I have been all my life overextended,” he said a few minutes later. “I have been busy all of my life. It’s kind of my spirit.”

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To put it mildly. A lifelong showman who disdains rigid distinctions between “high art” and popular culture, Domingo is near the peak of his artistry and his global popularity, and at 71 he shows no signs of slowing down.

In fact, he may be speeding up. Later that evening he was heading to Dodger Stadium to meet the baseball team’s new owners and help sing “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch of a late-season showdown with the Giants, with the Dodgers’ playoff hopes on the line.

The night before, at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Orange County, he’d nailed the lead baritone part in a concert version of Verdi’s “The Two Foscari,” which he and L.A. Opera have been performing fully staged to start their season at the Music Center. It was the 140th operatic role that Domingo has essayed in a career that has yielded more than 100 recordings and made him a year-round fixture at the world’s leading opera houses.

The next morning he was booked at an L.A. recording studio. The day after that he would be conducting a rehearsal of L.A. Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” which he’ll perform at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Sunday night before flying to Spain. There, he’ll preside over the inaugural Plácido Domingo Festival in the Andalusian cities of Seville and Malaga this fall.

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It was, in short, a typical 24-hour cycle in the life of a consummate crossover artist who’s as comfortable crooning swoon-fest standards like “Bésame Mucho” and “The Girl From Ipanema” (both on his new record) as he is belting out Wagner arias.

“You know, my parents, they were performers and they had their own company, and they had to battle a lot,” Domingo said while cruising toward Dodger Stadium, tucked in the back seat of an oversize van.

He’d just bolted from the “Dancing With the Stars” set into a parking-lot trailer, where he doffed his tailored suit and threw on a Dodgers jersey with his name emblazoned on the back — a gift from the team. En route to the ballpark with him were Marta Domingo, his Mexico-born wife of a half-century (and an opera director herself); his grandson Dominic Domingo, 24; and his indispensable factotum, Nicholas Marko.

“They had two zarzuelas daily,” Domingo continued, referring to the traditional Spanish lyric-dramatic genre that was his parents’ specialty, “and then when they finish those two they rehearse the two for the day after. And on Sunday, three. When they tell me, ‘Plácido, you work a lot,’ I don’t know if I work a lot. I know the way my parents used to work.”

Hard to say no

The maestro’s marathon session had begun the previous night in Costa Mesa, headlining “Foscari,” a little-known early gem in the Verdi canon. Stripped of props and sets, the concert version put the focus on Verdi’s rapturous music, the stops-out playing of conductor James Conlon’s orchestra, and the voices of Domingo, soprano Marina Poplavskaya and tenor Francesco Meli.

The couture-clad Orange County audience, which has been without a major professional opera company since Opera Pacific folded four years ago, rewarded the performers with a massive ovation. When the cast took their bows, Domingo, whose old-school courtesy would flatter a Renaissance courtier, handed his bouquet of roses to a surprised (and pleased) female violinist.

Afterward, in the backstage dressing-room halls, L.A. Opera’s administrative team buzzed about the evening, as the musicians hoisted their instruments and headed toward the waiting buses.

“I’d love to be able to get here a couple times a year,” Christopher Koelsch, L.A. Opera’s chief operating officer, told a visitor. “There’s clearly an audience for it down here.”

Domingo, who’s always looking for ways to spread culture to the underserved masses, seconded the idea of L.A. Opera making regular forays to the wilds of Costa Mesa. “I think the public, it is hungry for opera,” he said. “Opera fans in Orange County, they come to the Music Center, but not as many. People think twice before thinking, ‘I have to be stuck in the traffic.’”

The “Foscari” production lent further proof of Domingo’s progress in mastering baritone roles, which he has taken up in recent years as his still-robust voice deepens with age. Like Lear or Prospero, the Venetian doge he plays in “Foscari” — a powerful man confronting his own mortality, torn between duty and family — is tailor-made for lions in winter.

“I suppose that I should be very satisfied with the career that I have made,” Domingo said when asked about the challenge of taking on new roles. “But I realize that if the voice is there I should still sing. I mean, the passion is there intact, like ever.”

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Three years ago, a spate of newspaper stories raised questions about whether Domingo was spreading himself too thin. He has since given up one of his long-standing commitments by letting his contract as general director of Washington National Opera expire in June 2011.

Still, he constantly pushes himself. Domingo acknowledges “it kills me” that his schedule can be so wildly unpredictable and demanding and that he spends so many hours on planes crisscrossing time zones. “I think I should do more exercise,” he said. “But I think I eat well. I rest when I have to rest.”

His grandson, an aspiring singer himself, offered another perspective. “He’ll tell you, the most stressful part of his days are meetings,” Dominic said. “The singing and doing the music, he loves all that. And being Plácido comes with so much ‘Could you please come here?’ ‘Could you please come see this?’

“There are many times where someone will ask him something and we’re all like, ‘Don’t say yes!’ And he’s just so giving, it’s hard for him to say no.”

The night after the “Foscari” concert and a post-show dinner at South Coast Plaza, Domingo slept in late and puttered around at his downtown L.A. hotel. (Before turning in, he’d followed his habit of studying a few pages of an opera score, in this case Massenet’s “Thaïs,” which he first performed last spring and will reprise in Seville.)

Early that afternoon, he arrived at CBS Television City for a five-hour regimen of sound checks, rehearsals and clothes fittings, leading up to his brief “Dancing With the Stars” segment.

Like a handful of other crossover stars — Renée Fleming and Yo-Yo Ma come to mind — Domingo devotes himself mainly to classical music but can shift into other genres without breaking a sweat. And why not, he suggests? Isn’t that what previous generations of opera singers always did?

"[Enrico] Caruso used to sing a lot of popular songs,” Domingo said, speaking of the great Italian tenor. And if there’d been television in the days of Caruso and Beniamino Gigli, Domingo added in his slightly idiosyncratic English, “for sure they would go to television.”

“Maybe there are two or three [singers] that they would be very purist and say, ‘No, I don’t want to do it.’ Fine. I respect it. But since I was lucky enough to be part of something that made a great revolution in the music, which was the Three Tenors, what else can I say, you know?”

He just keeps playing

The trip from CBS to Chavez Ravine sped by in a blur of conversation. As the van pulled up at Dodger Stadium, an L.A. Opera publicist came running to meet the maestro’s entourage. Soon the group was being bustled along a maze of tight stairways and tunnels toward the owners’ box.

Domingo is an avid sports fan who in his youth played baseball (third base) and soccer (goalkeeper). Practically every step through Dodger Stadium evoked a memory: watching Kirk Gibson’s game-winning homer in the opener of the 1988 World Series; performing there with the Three Tenors in 1994. He counts Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver and basketball’s Pau Gasol, a fellow Spaniard, among his close friends.

“I’m so glad he stays in Los Angeles,” he said of the Lakers’ star forward, who has become an opera fan since meeting Domingo. “What a gentleman, and what a player. I think there’s a goodness in him that you can almost see it.”

Suddenly, rounding another staircase, the maestro and his wife stepped out into the searing infield lights just to the left of home plate, where Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Mark Walter, Todd Boehly and inevitably Tommy Lasorda were watching the Dodgers fall behind the Giants in the top of the fifth inning. In a flash, introductions were made, hands were clasped and the Domingos took their VIP seats alongside the Dodgers’ leadership team.

But not for long; like a relief pitcher, Domingo was just getting warmed up.

First he escorted Marta, who’d tired of climbing stairs, to a more comfortable spot in the stadium’s plush sports-bar lounge. Then he raced toward the dugout behind first base, where three female singers, all members of L.A. Opera’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program, a paid residency for aspiring music professionals, were preparing to belt out “God Bless America.”

“Still two more acts!” Domingo yelled, waving to fans who cheered as he swept past.

“It’s amazing, his stamina and energy,” said Marko, hard on Domingo’s heels and cradling the autographed baseball that Lasorda had given the maestro. “I’m much younger than him, and it’s hard to keep up with the man.”

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After the seventh-inning stretch, Domingo was off again, this time to the right field deck seats to spend a few at-bats with 40 members of L.A. Opera who were attending the game. When a Dodger was thrown out trying to take third base, the stadium groaned.

“What a mistake!” the maestro cried, deciding it was time to rejoin his wife in the lounge. On his way, he was stopped every 10 yards or so by a cellphone-wielding fan.

“That’s an icon right there,” said one, José Ramírez, after snapping a picture of himself with Domingo. “I saw him perform with Three Tenors. Loved it. I’m not going to say I’m a huge opera fan. I like all music. I especially like him.”

Back in the lounge, Marta Domingo was lamenting the errant baserunner in two languages. “No tenía tiempo! — He didn’t have enough time!”

Never mind. Within minutes her husband was engulfed by Dodgers concession workers, most of them Mexican and Central Americans finishing their shifts, politely requesting a photo with “Señor Plácido.”

Domingo posed for every one. Between handfuls of peanuts, he wolfed a Dodger dog, washed it down with a plastic cup of Sauvignon Blanc, and polished off the repast with soft-serve ice cream — all while discussing his plans to make L.A. Opera tickets more affordable.

A couple of more outs and it was all over for the 2012 Dodgers.

“What an exciting day!” Dominic said to his grandfather. It would’ve been even more exciting, Domingo replied, a bit sadly, if the Dodgers had won.

But in baseball, unlike opera, there’s no crying. Tomorrow would bring another act, a new performance. As Domingo took his wife’s arm and headed toward the exit, past a stadium clock closing in on midnight, he seemed in no hurry for his long day’s journey to end.

“I don’t know how long I’m going to sing,” he had said earlier. “I just keep making plans, and we will see.”

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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