Arts: Pop goes the tenor (again)

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The Independent Culture
Placido Domingo has recorded an album of romantic boleros whose popularity

in Hispanic culture could take him to the top of the charts.

A THURSDAY lunchtime in the Eden Roc Hotel, Miami Beach. It's a turquoise and white 1950s medium-rise redolent of the old pre-vice days of South Beach - Sinatra, the Rat Pack et al. Placido Domingo is in a rococo conference room, wearing a white jacket and open-neck shirt. He has been flown in for the day from his holiday home in Acapulco to launch to the international press his new "pop" album, a collection of the romantic songs of the great Mexican songwriter, Agustin Lara.

The assembled media consists in equal parts of middle-aged men in suits and glamorous young women. It's probably advantageous to be one of the latter in terms of access to the few individual interview slots available: I just lost my 10 minutes to a lovely young thing from Santo Domingo, who swept in claiming friendship with Placido.

The question and answer session is respectful and unprobing, a mixture of HELLO-level curiosity and patriotic attention-seeking. Questions open with requests for greetings to all his fans in Venezuela, or Bolivia or wherever. A statuesque young Chilean lady asks: "Mr Domingo, firstly, what part of your personality is expressed most in the new record; secondly, is "Mujer" (Woman) your favourite track; and thirdly, what do you think of the Chilean sopranos Veronica Villaroel and Cristina Gallardo?" (Answer: "Mujer" is one of his favourites, the Chileans are very promising, and pass on the personality trait.)

In spite of the generally anodyne tone, various serious points emerge. Domingo feels Latin culture is excessively lightweight - an incessant mixture of soaps, comedies, interviews and dance music: one of his greatest wishes would be to re-introduce the zarzuela, the Spanish light opera genre of which his parents were exponents. He sees his Three Tenors work as an "important cultural and social action" in the sense that it pulls in punters who would not go to the opera: "They go to one of our concerts and hear a bit of romance in three minutes and think `Wow!'" And he's not countenancing any snobbish criticism about crossover work with Pavarotti and the Spice Girls... to cover himself, it seems, for the future: "I don't want to throw the stone to anybody because maybe one day I get all of that back...."

In truth, Domingo has been down the pop road already; the new record is relatively heavyweight, compared with some of his past efforts. Delving into his back catalogue you find, dating from the late 70s, a collection of ballads entitled Be My Love, an album of tangos, two volumes called From My Latin Soul and duets with Julio Iglesias and John Denver (do you see what he means about greenhouse dwellers and stones?).

With the Lara material, Domingo is mining a shrewd seam. For one thing, the singer/songwriter/celebrity in question - a sort of Mexican Noel Coward, but macho and bohemian - possesses both vast residual fame throughout the Hispanic world and excellent prospects for a cult revival 30 years after his death. Similarly, the bolero, the Latin romantic song genre Lara specialised in, retains the status of trans-generational standard but has also latterly undergone a great sales resurgence with young pop singers such as Luis Miguel.

On the evening of the launch we repair to the chic China Grill restaurant for a cocktail reception, for which the girls swap glamorous outfits for drop-dead glamorous outfits. The tall Chilean turns out to be not nearly so deferential as she'd seemed. "The arrangements are so slushy," she says. "What I really wanted to ask him was how would he feel if Julio Iglesias did an album of Verdi arias?"

Up on the roped-off VIP area, a short, jovial Argentinian named Bebu Silvetti is the man to tax with the slush issue. He is the producer of the album.

"Yeah! Absolutely!" nods Silvetti enthusiastically. "That's my feeling - easy, easy ... Placido really likes this!"

Wouldn't starker, moodier arrangements, like Lara's own habitual piano and bass, have been more appropriate?

"No! Impossible! Placido has a big voice, you know - it needs a big orchestra - I use 47 strings. And everybody loves it - people always saying to me, `Oh My God! I love big orchestras! I love big singers!'"

Perhaps not everybody. But in spite of objections that Domingo's operatic style is inappropriate for such intimate material, and that Silvetti's orchestration is like a gigantic marshmallow, the groundswell of Miami opinion seems to be behind Domingo. After all, the bolero repertoire was itself part-modelled by Italian bel canto in the 19th century. If Placido can win over the new, young bolero market in addition to the older female listeners, the target of his record company, then he's got a chance of a big hit.

As for Don Placido, he's ruling out nothing for the future, as he told a flaxen-haired animatrice from what sounded like Weminie TV of Miami. He already has underway a collection of rancheros (Mexican country songs) and he's talking to Gloria Estefan. Let's just pray that he's lost the John Denver songbook.

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