Thursday, January 20, 2011

Plácido Domingo: ad multos annos

I suspect that Plácido Domingo himself is one of very few people in the world who can keep track of his prodigious and prodigiously varied achievements. As the opera world dons party hats, figuratively speaking, for his seventieth birthday on Friday (I rather hope that literal party hats might be involved somewhere; there was at least a surprise party) I thought this would provide a good excuse for the post I've long felt I've owed him, anyway.  Plácido Domingo was one of the first figures in the world of opera I came to know: he's been Virgil to my Dante for much of the core operatic repertoire, and is primus inter pares among my Honorary Operatic Uncles. So, I'm putting on my own figurative party hat.

How did I get to know Plácido Domingo? There's a shadowy childhood memory of being sat in front of the television for part of a Three Tenors concert--"These men are great singers; listen"--and he is the conductor on the Te Kanawa/Prey Fledermaus which my family still owns on two VHS tapes.  He also sings part of "Celeste Aida" from the pit, which I thought was beautiful.  ("Why is that funny, Daddy?"  "He's very famous."  "Oh.")  So recognizing his name was the main reason for my selection of the 1972 Tosca from my college library.

To say that I fell in love with his voice would be misleading.  I was intrigued, fascinated, obsessed.  The depth and complexity of the emotional expression he gave to the role soon had me hunched over the libretto--I needed to know what that man was saying--with that night's schoolwork abandoned.  In subsequent weeks, I played the recording over and over again.  I memorized the words to "Recondita armonia."  The torture scene was so agonizing that I kept rechecking the sums of the track lengths--about twelve minutes, if I remember correctly.  As I got more of the libretto quasi-memorized, I would listen while staring at the portrait on the album cover, wondering at how it was possible for this amiable-looking fellow to be Mario Cavaradossi, how it was possible for music, recorded in a studio, and funneled through tiny headphones on a laptop, to be such a record of human passion, suffering, courage.

I was hooked.  I checked recordings out of the library with indiscriminate zeal.  I sometimes lost my way in scores and libretti, overwhelmed, but I became acquainted with Manon Lescaut, Aida, Carmen, and more (including Man of La Mancha.  Go figure.)  I found YouTube.  Shortly after moving into my first NYC apartment, I discovered that my library had opera films.  I checked out Zeffirelli's Traviata, Ponnelle's Butterfly, Otello.  In '09, I heard Domingo sing live for the first time, in Adriana Lecouvreur.  Transpositions and all, it made me cry.  Alongside this aural odyssey, I was learning about the trajectory of Domingo's career: the successes, the awards (the most recent one from his native Spain,) the milestones.  Then, too, there is his humanitarian work, and his passionate furtherance of young singers.  To say that I have never looked at a role or public gesture askance would be far from true.  But even at times when I question something, and even when I've decided something doesn't work, there's always one part of my brain that's saying: "But... he's Plácido Domingo!"  It would take a lot more than a few--or even many--cheesy songs in front of microphones to erode the enormous respect I have for the man.

As I continue to explore Domingo's vast recorded legacy, I am repeatedly, continuously astonished by just how good he is.  In a sense, I keep having that Tosca-epiphany over and over again.  Domingo is still at the top of my (short) list of singers whose artistry is so complete that every note and gesture seems to come from under the skin, from the heart, from the soul of the character.  Of course, there is that voice; but the intimacy and immediacy--the truth, I suppose--with which Domingo communicates through the voice, impress me even more.  His legacy would be a great one if he never sang another note.  But I'm glad he will.


  1. Such a sweet homage!

  2. Aw, thanks. A little gushy, perhaps, but it seemed like an occasion for excusable gushing.

  3. Yeah, that about sums it up. My way in was through his recording of Otello, with Scotto and Milnes. Then Don Carlo, then Forza, then that same recording of Tosca. Halcyon days when my mom was teaching all this stuff, and used to send me to the record store with a shopping list and a blank check. [sigh]

  4. great singer :-) btw. i was very touched by his Simone Boccanegra.
    in the Czech Republic we didn´t forget his birthday as well, on the public (state) radio there were two concerts on friday, and tonight there will be a documentary on the public (state) tv. ("Plácido Domingo - My greatest roles" is probable the right english title?)

  5. @S. Otello first?? That must have been something; I had to work up to that. That Don Carlo is another fantastic one! Forza was one of the ones where I got lost, but I've come to love that, too. Your halcyon days sound idyllic indeed - lovely.

    @asperias Good to know there's plenty of celebration! That is indeed the English title of a 2009 documentary according to the IMDB.

  6. it is a great honour for an opera singer :-( on czech public tv, to have a document about himself/herself at 8 pm on tv :-)
    Our public tv doesnt care much about opera, which really annoys me a lot. It is their legal duty to transmit minority musical genres, but they are more like a commercial tv. it is a shame.


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