On stage, one day he is a hero, the next a villain. Today tragic, tomorrow romantic. In real life, Plácido Domingo is in Los Angeles one day, Beijing the next. Today Portugal, tomorrow Tel Aviv. Discover more about the career, travels and other passions of one of the greatest tenors of all time.
Born in Madrid but growing up in Mexico, he started by playing the piano and only discovered that he was cut out for singing when, one day, he sang a zarzuela that made his mother cry. He made his stage début alongside his parents – both zarzuela singers – in the 1950s. In 1961, he sang opera for the first time: La Traviatta by Verdi.
Plácido Domingo began by singing baritone roles. Time and training broadened his vocal range – he was already something of a tenor– and that is how he has become famous: as one of the most important tenors in musical history. After 55 brilliant years, Plácido has not slowed down; on the contrary. As well as being a singer, he is a conductor, opera director in Los Angeles and Washington and president of the Europa Nostra foundation (see box). Quite an achievement! Plácido agrees: “Yes, very much so, in fact! But, you know, I subscribe to the words of Confucius: ‘Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life’”.
“If I rest, I rust”
In 2010, Plácido Domingo told The Independent: “I don’t believe I’ll still be singing on 21st January 2011 when I’m 70”. Here we are in September 2012 and the tenor is not only adding his 140th opera to his repertoire, but has returned to singing baritone roles – like Simone Boccanegra, Rigoletto or Thais – some of the most demanding there are. “Yes, I do remember saying that. But here I am at 71 still singing all over the world. The moment I feel that I’m not at my best, I’ll have a rethink.”
This enthusiasm is not new; he has always been like that. Although he has travelled widely from an early age, Plácido Domingo confesses he is still amazed at everything he sees. “I am extremely fortunate to have been able to see so much of the world. I am not a restless person, but I always like to see beyond the next horizon. I love visiting and experiencing our heritage in all its expressions: outstanding historic buildings and sites in cities or in the countryside, mysterious religious sites – grand or small – enriching museums with their art collections, enchanting historic parks and gardens and breathtaking landscapes. I believe that all those tangible forms of our cultural and natural heritage form an important source of inspiration for artistic or any other creation.” Even so, doesn’t he have any favourite? “How could I? The world is full of splendid things. How can you compare the magic of a Mayan temple with the emotion of fado, or the quiet of an ancestral forest with the beating heart of immortal Paris?”
“It is always a pleasure to come back to Portugal and my last journey through your country was even more special for me. I didn’t come as a musician; it was as president of Europa Nostra for the Annual Congress which we organize jointly with the Centro Nacional de Cultura, our representative in Portugal. Together with the EU Commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou, I had the privilege of awarding the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra to 28 projects of excellence which promote the preservation of cultural heritage”. One of the prizes was for the renovation of six organs in the Basilica at Mafra. And he heard them: “in that amazing Baroque basilica it was an intensely emotional experience, an extraordinary moment that I shall remember for a long, long time”, says the tenor. “By coincidence”, he said in an interview with Portuguese newspaper Público, “almost two years ago, they offered me [the chance to do] a concert with them; and, in fact, I got really excited”. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen on the latest trip here: Plácido had to sing in Verona the following night, and his vocal cords, “the most delicate instrument there is”, needed a rest.
On the subject of singing and Portugal, we must mention 2007, when Plácido Domingo sang “Foi Deus”, one of the most famous fados by Amália Rodrigues. Modestly, he says he wouldn’t dream of comparing his performance to any of Amália’s and adds that he has so much respect for fado that he has never dared to record one. To round off the subject he states: “I’m overjoyed to see fado included on the list of UNESCO World Intangible Heritage. I know that the Portuguese have worked hard for this and it is well deserved. Both tangible and intangible heritage bring communities together; Europe and the World need this very much, especially at this present time”.
But there are more favourites from this corner of the Iberian Peninsula. Plácido appreciates the Portuguese love of music, history and culture. He likes wandering the cobbled streets of old, elegant Lisbon. Sampling the delicious traditional food in simple small restaurants and hearing heartfelt songs emanating from upstairs windows makes him feel he has entered a different world. He ends: “Allow me a romantic remark: time seems to move slower here. You walk at a different pace. You can take a step back and celebrate life.”
by Maria Ana Ventura