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Viva Domingo!
Comments () | Published March 1, 2009

Anyone who has never heard Domingo sing can click on his Web site and be bowled over by his recording of “Granada” or one of the other Latin songs that pour forth. Or plan May 1 to catch a WNO-sponsored pops concert in Constitution Hall that is being billed as Domingo singing “from my Latin soul.”

Or sample the hundreds of recordings that feature Domingo. There are also dozens of DVDs of live performances as well as of the famous opera movies directed by Franco Zeffirelli—Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci (1982), La Traviata (1983), and Otello (1986).

Wikipedia lists 130 separate roles that Domingo has sung—likely the high-water mark for a tenor. All told, he says, he has about 150 musical roles in his repertoire. That number includes different roles in the same operas as his career has progressed, such as his three in Puccini’s Turandot—Altoum, Pang, and the tenor lead, Calaf, with the blockbuster aria “Nessun dorma.” It also includes Spanish-language operetta recordings and additional zarzuela roles he has sung on stage.

Some of Domingo’s work has been heard only in recordings, including his 2004 Tristan in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde—“a kind of apotheosis of his recording career,” Gramophone said. Domingo told the British magazine he worried that if he added the taxing role to his stage repertoire, “I would shorten my career.”

Domingo added his latest role last spring, first in Madrid and then in Washington, singing Bajazet in Handel’s Tamerlano, which premiered in 1724; it was one of Domingo’s rare dips into the florid Baroque world. Skipping about through the four or so centuries of opera leaves Domingo undaunted. In 2006, his interpretation of the title role was a highlight in the world premiere of Tan Dun’s quirky The First Emperor at the Met.

Later this year Domingo is scheduled to take on another new characterization, the baritone title role in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at the Staatsoper in Berlin. Repeats of the strenuous part are planned for La Scala and the Met, he says. Domingo began vocal training years ago in Mexico City as a baritone, but he was quickly redirected to the tenor repertoire.

When Domingo first talked in 2005 of portraying Boccanegra, he told the Observer in Britain that after that portrayal, “I will probably say, ‘Amen’ ”—but he now has singing commitments into at least 2011.

Domingo has set off little wildfires for more than a decade by seeming to announce that the end of his singing career was nigh. Now he says he does not know when he will sign off: “Every day when I wake up, I say, ‘Well, can I still sing this week? Can I still sing today?’ ”

Whatever the circumstances of his departure from the stage, Domingo says he will not give up music totally: “When God says . . . enough of singing,” two jobs will continue—conducting and developing young artists. Interlocking two fingers of each hand, Domingo says: “It’s so important for me to follow the chain of generations.”

Domingo’s concern about how long his performance voice will last played a role in his taking on the administrative positions in Washington and Los Angeles. He has said it was a natural turn for the son of performers who managed a zarzuela company in Mexico City, where the family moved in the 1940s from his native Madrid.

“I thought it was always in me,” Domingo says of running a company of musical performers. It means fewer opera appearances, “but that’s what I choose.”

WNO secretary Selwa Roosevelt, a go-between in the early talks with Domingo, recalls, “I became aware that at some point in his life he wanted to run a company.” She first met Domingo at a Washington dinner in 1986 when she was chief of protocol in the Reagan administration. She and the Domingos became friends.

Diplomacy certainly played a role in the negotiations. Roosevelt remembers telling Domingo of the Washington company’s interest: “They want to approach you but not if you’re going to say no.” Roosevelt says she then asked, “Can they approach you? And he said, ‘Yes.’ ”

Talks went back and forth. “He’s a very proud man and wants to do everything well,” says Roosevelt, whose Colonnade apartment has several shelves filled with scrapbooks of the Domingo years. Finally, at a dinner in New York after a Domingo performance at the Met, he whispered to Roosevelt: “I’ve decided to say yes.”

Roosevelt recalls the reaction in Washington: “A lot of people couldn’t believe it.” But given Domingo’s family background, it made sense. And from his earliest training, Domingo displayed a broad musical gift. Throughout his career, an intellectual approach to his art has put him in good stead among nonvocalist classical musicians, for whom the term “opera singer” is not always a compliment.

“He is not just a singer,” says Christina Scheppelmann, WNO’s director of artistic operations. “That distinguishes him from others.”

The quality of WNO performances has increased, if not always evenly, during Domingo’s tenure. So has the company’s dedication to mounting 20th- and 21st-century operas, especially by American composers. Contemporary operas are rarely as popular with operagoers as an Aida, La Bohème, or Carmen. But new works are important in reviving a largely 19th-century art form that attracts an aging demographic. It’s an effort, WNO said in an IRS filing, “to maintain opera as a living art form.”

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 03/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles