Plácido Domingo has been dubbed a ‘supertenor’, yet his true dream is about to be realised – and it’s a baritone part. In a rare interview, he takes Harvey Sachs inside his preparation for Simon Boccanegra.
Fifty years ago this September, Plácido Domingo made his opera debut in the minor role of Borsa in Rigoletto at Mexico’s National Opera. He was 18 years old, and no one could have foreseen that the young tenor was embarking upon one of the most astonishing careers in the history of the art form. As this article is being written, the figures are (deep breath): 130 roles; more than 3400 performances on every continent and in virtually every country that possesses a suitable venue (and in several that don’t); over 100 recordings of complete operas, compilations of arias and duets and crossover discs; more than 50 music videos; three feature films of operas and a live worldwide television broadcast of Tosca from the actual Roman locations where the opera takes place; conductor of more than 450 performances with such ensembles as the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Vienna State Opera, Chicago Symphony, National Symphony, London Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic and Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal; general director of Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera; founder of the Operalia international singing competition (past winners who are heard today on opera stages around the world include Nina Stemme, José Cura, Rolando Villazón, Simon Alberghini, Elizabeth Futral, Erwin Schrott, Joyce DiDonato, Giuseppe Filianotti, Joseph Calleja, Isabel Bayrakdarian and Joseph Kaiser); founder of young artists programmes in both Washington and Los Angeles; recipient of honours and awards too numerous to list; benefactor to the victims of Mexico’s devastating 1985 earthquake and of the floods caused by Hurricane Paulina in Mexico and El Salvador and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans – and much more besides.
Now, at the age of 68, his energy and curiosity apparently undiminished, Domingo is taking on a new challenge: a baritone role – and what a baritone role! Nothing less than the title-part in Verdi’s dark and profoundly moving tale of political intrigue and paternal love, Simon Boccanegra. Like Rigoletto, Il trovatore, La traviata and Un ballo in maschera, Boccanegra dates from the composer’s incredible 1850s – from 1857, to be precise, although it was thoroughly overhauled in 1881. Generally speaking, it is a great favourite among musicians and Verdi connoisseurs, but it is not as overwhelmingly popular as most of the other operas just named because it does not contain one show-stopping aria or ensemble piece after another. No flashy, easy applause-winner for Domingo’s baritone adventure. This is a subtly woven drama of nearly Shakespearean complexity, and it requires great conviction on the part of its interpreters and serious concentration on the part of listeners.
As one might surmise from the above short list of accomplishments, Domingo is a hard man to catch up with; some say that the only person in the world of classical music who has a busier schedule is Valery Gergiev. During one six-day period this past summer, for instance, Domingo was seen in China, Italy, Kazakhstan and Germany – in that order. But I managed to spend an hour with him over a late lunch in Verona, where he was conducting a production of Carmen to mark the 40th anniversary of his Italian singing debut at the town’s famous Arena. The main subject of our conversation was Boccanegra, and I wanted to know how he had decided to take on this new challenge.
Domingo chuckled. ‘My dream was to do Boccanegra at the tail end of my career, when I was nearly ready to stop singing and would no longer be able to do tenor repertoire. I don’t pretend to be a baritone, but I thought I would finish with this role – I love it, and I will do it. But what happened is that I accepted to do a bunch of Boccanegras during the 2009‑10 season – in Berlin and at La Scala, at the Met, in Madrid and at Covent Garden – 27 performances in all. Now I wish that I had scheduled them two or three years later, because the fact is that I’m still singing tenor roles between and after the Boccanegras, in Handel’s Tamerlano, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride and in Il Postino – the opera we have commissioned from Daniel Cattan for Los Angeles next year – and I hope that singing a baritone part so many times won’t get in the way of my singing as a tenor. But I accepted, the opera houses made the commitment and that’s that. Of course I’m very enthusiastic about doing Simon.’
Domingo did sing baritone roles in Mexico when he was in his teens, before he became a tenor. And much later, when he was about 40, he was asked by Herbert von Karajan to sing another great baritone role: Don Giovanni. At the time, he said that although he had the range to cover the role, notes that sound high and brilliant for a baritone don’t sound high and brilliant when they are sung by a tenor. Domingo hastens to clear these matters up.
‘I never sang baritone parts in operas – only in zarzuelas [Spanish operettas], and the baritone tessitura in zarzuelas is higher than in operas. It is more or less in the Heldentenor range. And I was so, so very sorry about that Don Giovanni incident with Karajan. Here is what happened: I was interviewed during an intermission in the Met’s first live broadcast to Europe – a performance of Manon Lescaut. During the interview I said that I would like to sing the role of Don Giovanni someday. Little did I know that 24 hours later Karajan would ask me to sing it with him at Salzburg. I turned him down. I said that it was something that I was thinking about doing 25 years later, but not then. He was quite upset. So my comment in that interview didn’t help very much – it spoiled a bit my relationship with Karajan for a few years.’
Naturally, one can’t help wondering whether Domingo is interested in singing the great Mozart role now. It is hard to imagine anyone who could communicate it more convincingly.
‘To tell you the truth, although Don Giovanni is one of the greatest operas ever written, I’m not very keen on singing that part. I find the character of Don Giovanni very antipatico – not because he has all those women but because he is so cruel. He treats Leporello so badly, he laughs without pity at Donna Elvira. And there is so little charm. Don Giovanni should be the man every woman hates but secretly would like to be in bed with. I don’t say that I’ll never do it – maybe someday in concert form, in a very interesting way – but it is not a dream of mine, as doing Simon [Boccanegra] was always a dream. The character develops and changes so much in the course of the opera.’
This psychological complexity, which would frighten many singers, is precisely what most attracts the man whom many observers think of as the greatest Otello, Don Carlo, Parsifal, Siegmund, Hoffmann, Don José, Hermann (the list goes on and on) of our day. He shared some of his thoughts about this new role:
‘I always considered that in the Prologue Simon is a sort of “tenor” – a lighter “voice” – a young man who is manipulated by others for political reasons, who wants only to be with his beloved Maria but then discovers that she is dead. It’s a breaking-point for him, a crazy thing – he cannot even react when everyone rushes in to proclaim him Doge of Genoa. He is like a marionette. The drama of the situation is fantastic.’
This writer recalls the nightmarish effect that Giorgio Strehler created at that point in his Boccanegra production at La Scala in the 1970s. Strehler understood that the Prologue unfolds at an almost conversational pace until the shocking moment at which Simon finds the dead body of his beloved, and from there until the end of the scene – when the joyous crowds shout ‘Viva Simon’ while Simon wishes only to die – everything happens in sped-up time. It is one of Verdi’s most brilliant strokes. Strehler had the exultant mob lift the distraught Simon and parade him about, but Simon looked like the Christ figure in a painting of the Deposition from the Cross.
‘And then,’ Domingo continues, ‘the rest of the opera takes place 25 years later! Now Simon is the mature man, the “baritone”, who has been in power and has known the exasperation of power, but who has always been looking for his daughter. Then finally the daughter is so close, but he has a rival in a young man – the daughter is in love with Gabriele Adorno, and Simon has been the cause of his father’s death. It is a tremendous problem, and it becomes even bigger because of the involvement of Fiesco, who is the girl’s grandfather and who is also seeking vengeance against Simon. Fiesco thinks that the girl is dead until almost the last moment in this tremendous drama, when he has to tell Simon that he has been poisoned. Then there is the father-daughter relationship – it’s a little like King Lear, and in fact we can almost think of it as the Lear opera that Verdi wanted to write but never wrote.’
The transition from Simon the young adventurer of the Prologue to Simon the mature man of power has to take place within an almost impossibly brief time-span, and changing from a dark wig to a grey one is wholly insufficient to convey the internal character change. Great flexibility of vocal colour is required.
‘That is the most important thing!’ Domingo concurs. ‘Through my whole career, whether I am singing a very lyrical or a very dramatic role, or a role like Otello, which combines lyrical and dramatic qualities, the most important thing, vocally, is the colouring. I always say that a singer is like a painter: you have the palette and you can make all kinds of colour combinations. Sometimes, even when I was very young, I was colouring my voice according to which instrument was accompanying me, if the instrument was there for a reason – to express pain or joy or mockery or extreme happiness. After support and projection, which of course an opera singer has to have, colour is the third essential part. You must never be monochromatic as an interpreter – it leads to monotony. The voice has to have the flexibility to reflect all the dramatic situations.’
Domingo has been profoundly familiar with this opera for many years, and indeed he has sung its main tenor role, Gabriele Adorno, not only in the revised 1881 version of the opera, which is the one most often heard, but also in the original 1857 version, which he performed at Covent Garden.
‘The only thing I really miss from the earlier version is the Fiesco-Gabriele duet in the first act,’ he says. ‘In the later version, it becomes a kind of religious piece, but in the earlier version there was a vendetta duet against Simon: Fiesco wants revenge for his daughter and Gabriele for his father. It is very powerful and effective, and it happens at the perfect place, just before the scene where Simon and Amelia realise that they are father and daughter. So I have a little dream to use the original duet in one of the productions of the later version that I’m doing; with a bit of modulating in the previous recitative it could work, and it would make the plot to get rid of Simon clearer. I also think that Amelia’s original aria at the beginning of Act 1 is a lot more interesting than the later one, but it is even more difficult than the one in the later version – which is difficult enough!’
I can’t refrain from asking Domingo the inevitable question: do you intend to do other baritone roles after Boccanegra? ‘I have no intention of making a new career as a baritone,’ he replies. ‘I won’t say that I haven’t been asked to do a couple of roles, and I am especially considering Athanaël in Thaïs, because the 100th anniversary of Massenet’s death is coming up in 2012, and since he is a composer I have been quite involved with, I might do it. One or two other projects have also been mentioned, but I’m not looking to enlarge my career by doing 10 or 20 baritone roles.’
Many British opera lovers and Domingo fans were disappointed that the Madrid-born tenor did not appear at Covent Garden last season, but this season he is returning not only with Boccanegra but also with Handel’s Tamerlano, which he sang a couple of years ago in Madrid and Washington to great acclaim.
‘Because of scheduling problems, I couldn’t sing at Covent Garden last year, which is why I’m doing two operas there this season,’ he says. ‘Tamerlano was a very happy discovery for me. I have always loved the Baroque repertoire – I even sang Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie early in my career – and the dramatic quality of the role of Bajazet in Tamerlano is unbelievable. At my age, I have to be selective in my roles: I can be a pope or a cardinal, the aging Pablo Neruda in Il Postino, or the protagonist in Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, or maybe an ageless, mystical character like Athanaël, who is a kind of a Samson. But one of the things that most fascinates me at this stage in my career and in my life is the father figure in opera. Boccanegra is a suffering father searching for his daughter; Bajazet is a suffering father who is trying to defend his daughter. I sang the world premiere of Tan Dun’s opera The First Emperor at the Met in 2006‑07, and that protagonist also has a difficult relationship with a difficult daughter. These roles make me reflect on my life as a father, even though I have three sons and no daughters, so it’s something new for me! In any case, Tamerlano is extremely interesting, and of course vocally, with six or seven arias and big, big recitatives and such a dramatic ending, it is an enormous challenge. The Covent Garden production is the same one that I did in Madrid, and I will also be singing the role in Los Angeles this season, in the production that we did in Washington.’
Thirty-five years ago, when Domingo first decided to take on the role of Otello, various singing experts – real and self-proclaimed – predicted that it would destroy his voice. But the fact is that he has always been the best judge of his capacities and has never taken undue risks. In the early 1980s, when I was working with him on his memoir, My First Forty Years, he said: ‘I certainly do not want to be one of those singers of whom people say, ‘My God, he’s still singing! Has he no self-respect?’ I can imagine myself 15 years from now doing musical comedy – Professor Higgins in a Spanish version of My Fair Lady, which I love, or other roles in other classics of the genre.’ But more than a quarter of a century later he is still going from strength to strength in opera. His repertoire has changed over the years as his voice has darkened, but the beauty, power, purity of intonation and clarity of enunciation are all remarkably intact, as are his persuasive acting abilities and extraordinary overall communicative capacity.
Plácido Domingo may have thought that his career as a tenor would be over by now but there are hundreds of thousands of opera lovers in the world who would be happy to see it go on forever. I ask him how long he plans to continue, and his answer demonstrates both his artistic seriousness and his desire to give everything he has in himself to give:
‘I have been saying to myself for some time, “Not a day more than I should, but not a day less than I can.”’