Placido Domingo Opens Up About His Career Path, the Current State of Opera, and More
"Changing the Game" is a Q&A segment on the career journey of an influential Latino(a) from across industries.
Placido Domingo is the definition of a living legend.
The iconic tenor (now baritone) has sung and recorded over 140 roles around the world. He has run two opera companies, created an opera competition, developed as a conductor, and has also been involved with a diverse array of humanitarian projects.
And despite all of this, at the age of 74, the superstar remains engaged with the world of opera on a number of fronts. He recently sung his 146th role when he debuted as Don Carlo in Verdi's "Ernani" at the Metropolitan Opera on March 20. That debut came one month and 13 days after he made his debut in the title role of Verdi's "Macbeth" in Berlin. He is also still fully involved in the Operalia Competition, which he founded in 1993, to promote young singers.
Domingo recently spoke with Latin Post about the balancing his numerous career paths, his legacy as well as his point of view on singing Verdi's baritone roles.
David Salazar: Few others can claim the level of responsibility you have taken on as an advocate of opera. You are a singer, a conductor, you run two opera companies, you have written books, you created an opera competition, and have been involved in numerous humanitarian projects. What motivates you to be involved in so many areas of the art form and how do you balance all of these responsibilities?
Placido Domingo: First, a small correction: I used to be General Director of both Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera; now it is only Los Angeles Opera. But yes, I am a singer and conductor, and I do run an opera company, and I am involved in the various other activities that you mention. I do all of these things because I have been blessed with a gift and with a lot of energy, and so I feel not only obliged but also very, very happy to be able to give back as much as I can to music and to human beings. I have received much love and I try to give back much love through my work. As far as balancing the responsibilities is concerned, I take each day as it comes, and although I do the singing and conducting myself, I have family, friends and wonderful colleagues I can depend on to assist in the other activities.
DS: What are were the greatest challenges you have faced throughout your career to get to where you are? How have they changed over the course of your career?
PD: Really, the challenge is always the same: I try to do my best. In this profession as in others, you learn very early that perfection is impossible, but the important thing is never to stop working towards a goal.
DS: What was the most difficult decision you have had to make professionally?
PD: I hate having to cancel a performance. I have been very lucky to have had good health most of my life, but every time I have had to cancel a performance it is a terribly difficult decision.
DS: Do you think that growing up in Mexico from the age of 8-21 helped your career development in a way that growing up in the U.S. during that same period would have? How so?
PD: That is an impossible question. I grew up first in Spain and then in Mexico, in Spanish-speaking cultures and with parents whose lives were dedicated to the zarzuela, which of course is a specifically Spanish art-form. They could not have done what they did in the United States, certainly not in those days, so I would have had to "choose different parents" to grow up in the USA!
DS: There are a lot of major Latin American singers in the world of opera today. Do you think that you helped open those doors and how? What other factors do you think have allowed for such diversity in the art form today?
PD: I know that my Operalia competition has helped to launch the careers of some Latin American singers as well as singers from other parts of the world. But don't forget that the Spanish-speaking world has always produced major opera singers. I am glad to have helped, but I also think that major talents are often so strong that they emerge somehow, even against great odds. Music is international, so opera can draw on talent from all over the world, which is why we have Russians who sing Italian opera, Italians who sing Russian opera, Americans singing in Czech, Mexicans singing in French, and so on. It's a wonderful mixture! We are from many different countries, but we only shoot at each other on stage, using fake weapons.
DS: You are adding two new Verdi baritone roles (Don Carlo in "Ernani" at the Met and the eponymous role in "Macbeth" in Berlin). What are the unique challenges of singing these two roles and how do they compare with other Verdi baritone roles you have sung before like Simon Boccanegra, Il Conte di Luna or Rigoletto?
PD: The baritone is often the "bad guy" in opera, but I have chosen to interpret baritone characters who are not all bad. Even Macbeth, who becomes a truly evil murderer, begins as a brave and loyal subject of his king but is transformed by terrible ambition and by his belief in the prophecies of the witches. Don Carlo in Ernani, on the contrary, begins as a rather nasty guy but becomes more magnanimous as the opera proceeds -- the real bad guy here is Silva, the basso. The Conte di Luna is pretty awful, I admit, but all his life he has been looking for his lost brother. What would have happened if he had realized immediately that Manrico was really his brother? Well, of course, we would not have had this great opera, "Il Trovatore!" Rigoletto's negative qualities are offset by his love for his daughter, and Boccanegra is not a bad person at all -- he, too, is a loving father as well as an intelligent ruler. So I try to portray characters who are not all bad, who have different facets to their personalities.
DS: You sang the entire Verdi canon as a tenor and are now taking on all the major baritone roles by the great Italian composer. Obviously the baritone roles and tenor roles are very different psychologically. Is there a different challenge or mindset you have to get into when taking on Verdi's baritone roles?
PD: I think that I have already answered most of that. Every Verdi character is psychologically different from every other Verdi character, no matter what the voice register. This is why his music provides us with such endless possibilities as interpreters. Don't forget that not all of Verdi's leading tenors are heroes: think of the Duca di Mantova, who is a terrible man, or Don Carlo (in the opera of that name), who is weak, indecisive, incapable of thinking beyond his own disappointment in love.
DS: You have sung mainly Verdi's baritone roles with a few exceptions (Athanael). What are other Verdi baritone roles that you plan to sing in the future? Are there any other composers whose baritone repertoire you would want to experiment with?
PD: For now, I don't want to say. But if there will be others, you will hear about them!
DS: You are opera's great ambassador on a number of fronts. What other future projects can we expect from you in the future that are not necessarily related to adding repertoire? What would you like to accomplish that you have not yet accomplished in your career?
PD: Well you know, I am now 74, and I have been living in the world of opera since I was 18. I am incredibly lucky to still be able to sing, and I hope that even when I have to stop singing I will be able to continue my other activities -- conducting, leading opera companies, fostering young talents through my Operalia competition and Young Artist programs, and so on.
DS: How do you feel that the opera world is different from when you started your career? Where do you see it going?
PD: When I began, audiences seemed much less willing to listen to new works than they are now. We have so many composers writing operas now and actually having their works performed. There are so many more regional companies, especially in the United States, than there were fifty years ago. On the other hand, in Europe the financial crises have made many governments less generous towards the arts than they used to be: subsidies are shrinking, and not all of the European countries have the mechanisms for private donations that exist in America. Keeping the arts alive and healthy is always a struggle, but we must continue that struggle, always!
DS: Opera has been in a steady decline* with the numbers hovering at around 2 million (down from close to 4 million in 2000) of the population attending operas each year. The demographics also show an audience that is primarily 80% Caucasian. With the Latino population exploding and their buying power already at $1.5 trillion, what you think needs to happen within Opera to see more diverse participation and an increase in the national fanbase?
PD: I am surprised by that statistic, and I wonder what it includes. There have been up and down fluctuations, and there always will be, but I haven't observed anything so dramatic. There is no question in my mind that more has to be done to bring the Latino population to the opera, and we are certainly working very hard in that direction in Los Angeles. We have to begin in the schools, exposing children and young adults to this amazingly rich musical heritage, so that it can enrich their lives. And this is true not only for Latino communities but for all communities, whatever their race, beliefs, or background cultures.
DS: With the Latino population exploding, what you think needs to happen within Opera to see more diverse participation and an increase in the national fanbase?
PD: There is no question in my mind that more has to be done to bring the Latino population to the opera, and we are certainly working very hard in that direction in Los Angeles. We have to begin in the schools, exposing children and young adults to this amazingly rich musical heritage, so that it can enrich their lives. And this is true not only for Latino communities but for all communities, whatever their race, beliefs, or background cultures.
DS: When you do retire from the stage, how do you think you will continue to be involved with the world of opera? What will you miss the most? What do you think your legacy to the opera world is?
PD: Most of this question I have already answered. As far as my legacy is concerned, that is for others to say, but of course I hope that people will remember me as a singing actor who always tried to give the maximum of himself and who tried to communicate the greatness and the importance of opera to people all over the world.
* Opera America, the national service organization for the opera field, conducts an annual Professional Opera Survey. This indicator measures total attendance at main stage season performances by reporting opera companies. From 2000 through 2010, this number dropped to 2.3 million from 3.9 million. This refers only to main stage performances, so it certainly understates the total audience. These figures do not include the very popular simulcasts of Metropolitan Opera performances, which have welcomed millions of more viewers to the opera experience. http://www.americansforthearts.org/sites/default/files/pdf/information_services/art_index/2014-NAI-Full-Report.pdf
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