Placido Domingo: Loud and proud

As one of the Three Tenors, Placido Domingo has become an opera record-breaker and a very, very rich man. So why, at the age of 62, is he still performing? And why, after 41 years of marriage, are questions about women off limits? Julia Stuart meets him
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The Independent Online

It is one of the hottest days of the year, and what air there is inside Bath's Georgian Assembly Rooms, all stonking great chandeliers and lichen-coloured walls, isn't budging. The three male singers rehearsing here today regularly help themselves to bottles of water on a low table. Their collective age is well over 180. The one at the far end, supported by a metal stool, which, given his size, would need to be considerably sturdy, looks as though he has donned a fake beard and matching eyebrows, such is the intensity of their colour - shoe-polish black - against his tired skin. The pale one in the middle, with thinning hair and a slight frame, looks a tad peaky. If you prodded the third above his waistband, the tip of your finger would momentarily disappear. He has the best hair of the three, thick grey waves lapping around his head. There are the remains of a good-looking man about him. When the other two sing, he prods and caresses the air. When it's his turn, he jams his hands into his pockets, lowers his chin into his jowls and, frowning, pushes out the sound.

It is this, the third one - widely agreed to be the best of the Three Tenors - to whom I have come to talk. Judging by the way Placido Domingo has reacted to female interviewers in the past, I am expecting to pass a happy afternoon as the object of unremitting flirtation. Perhaps, even, my arm will be stroked. But today, Domingo, now 62 (some cynics claim more), only has eyes for Marta, his wife of 41 years. While Luciano Pavarotti and José Carreras are singing, he spots her across the vast hall, immediately stands up and escorts her to a seat, all hand gestures and 19th- century chivalry.

Marta watches proceedings intently, sometimes picking at a cuticle with her thumb nail, sometimes mouthing the words. When she is almost decapitated as a double-bass cover crashes over behind her, Domingo rushes over and, once he is reassured that she is still intact, he brushes a finger tenderly across her forehead.

It is now 13 years since the Three Tenors first sang together in front of 6,000 fans on the eve of the World Cup in Italy. The album of the concert sold 10 million copies around the world, becoming the best-selling classical album of all time. Their second concert, on the eve of the 1994 World Cup, was broadcast in 107 countries. And, while their voices may not be what they used to be, the trio's pulling-power has not dwindled. Around 15,000 people applied for the 7,000 pairs of free tickets for their concert in Bath (their 25th together), for which they are today rehearsing with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

During a break, Domingo insists that the three have genuine affection for one another. "It has been always really unbelievable because from the very beginning we really loved each other, just to work together. We admire very much the singing of each other, so, from the very first day, when we had this possibility it was brilliant," he says. His pale blue shirt is open at the neck, revealing sprigs of grey chest hair. "When we are rehearsing we are laughing, we have a lot of fun together. It's kind of competitive but at the same moment just togetherness. You think: 'He did that phrase, a-ha. That was beautiful so I try to do it now better, maybe.' It's only friendly competition. When you are doing a concert together, there are moments when somebody shines more, the other one shines later. We have organised the songs this way."

What do they do together during their free time on the road? Raid each other's minibars? Play strip poker on one of their beds until all hours? Meet in the Jacuzzi wearing the hotel's free shower-caps for a laugh? "There's not much time to hang out for a long time. We get time together, but not the whole time because the worst thing for singing is to talk," says Domingo.

He was born in Madrid, the son of zarzuela singers. His name means Peaceful Sunday, ironic considering his reputation as a driven overachiever. Twice last month at Covent Garden, he sang in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci in the afternoon and then conducted it in the evening - something that has never been done before. (In all, he sang five performances and conducted three.) He is artistic director of both the Washington Opera and the Los Angeles Music Centre Opera, and regularly conducts at both.

Ask for statistics and he'll rattle them off instantly - (an unparalleled) 119 roles and nearly 3,200 performances as a singer, and about 400 as a conductor. "That's a good amount, yes?" he says with a grin of satisfaction. He is also the man behind Operalia, the international opera- singing competition. And then there is his Spanish/Mexican restaurant, called Domingo, in New York.

He blames his workload on recent bad press that claimed that he refused to accept an opera award apparently because Pavarotti and Carreras had received theirs first. He was awarded a medal from the London-based Amici di Verdi, for special services to the composer, in 2000, yet has still failed to collect it. The secretary of the society wrote to members that he had removed the singer's name from the list of recipients. The chairman of the Amici and opera critic Charles Osborne was quoted as saying: "He's just been at Covent Garden for 10 days. He's just bloody rude." Domingo, who lives in New York, is at pains to point out that it was a "misunderstanding", that he has smoothed the ruffled feathers, and he will collect it as soon as he can.

His colossal workload will only diminish when the voice eventually goes. The greatest surprise of his career, apart from his success (all the more remarkable as he is "not a born tenor" and has to reach for the notes every day) has been how long it has lasted. He says that he will know the precise moment when it is time to retire. "You have the feeling, you have the responsibility, you know yourself your throat, so if there is a certain moment when you will say I don't think I should, it is my obligation for respect of my own career and respect to the public. I am planning to continue as long as my voice and I are healthy and the public wants me."

When the singing eventually stops, he will simply continue with his other pursuits, presumably with increased vigour. His drive, he insists, is fuelled simply by pleasure. "I think if you love with a passion what you are doing, you want to be busy, you want to do the things that you like." When he does take time off, he spends it on holiday. "All the family will get together, either we play paddle tennis, which I play with my children and my grandchildren, and I swim a lot. We see films and we sit around the table and play table games, and all the things that a family do together. And maybe, because I don't get the chance to do it the whole year, it's very intensified. When we have vacations, I'm close to everybody, that's very important for me."

Is he any good at paddle tennis, I enquire, struggling to conjure up an image of the maestro nipping and whacking his way around the court. His mouth raises in the middle and sags at both ends. "I'm fair, I cannot say that I'm very good, but I kind of enjoy it very much."

There is one grandchild, however, who doesn't participate in these holidays en famille. At the age of 16, Domingo secretly married his teenage girlfriend, who, in 1958, gave birth to his first son, José. Two years later, the marriage ended in divorce. At 16, José also married and fathered a child, Ivonne. He had little to do with his wife and child, and the wife remarried, telling her daughter of her real parentage at the age of 15. Ivonne then contacted her famous grandfather, whom she felt, after the first few meetings, had no time for her. He did, however, pay her rent to help her achieve her dream of becoming an actress. Then, in 2000, much to the family's horror, she appeared naked in Playboy. "God gave Placido a voice, he gave me big breasts. If they can help me, great," she said.

"I'm not in contact with her," admits Domingo, fiddling incessantly with his reading-glasses. "We welcomed her to the family and then she kind of left. The doors are always open, you know. I think that the relationship has to be more with the father, my son, not with me. I'm very happy when we are more and more at the table.

"I'm sorry for her that it's that way. I understand if she wants to be an actress, but I think probably somebody advised her badly to go too far on this publicity thing. I don't know exactly now what she is doing... I offered the love to everybody in my family. It's painful that she didn't want to be a part like everybody is. I hope that she will come back to us."

In 1962, Domingo married Marta, a soprano whose career was more advanced than his. For three years they performed together in the Hebrew National Opera, after which she gave up singing to devote herself to her husband and children. She often travels with Domingo, advising him on technique and presentation, and is an opera director in her own right. "She has been unbelievable," he says. "She has always, always been there. And she knows so much. We have two kinds of lives, the life together, and the life of the theatre together also. She has really taught me so much over the years, which I'm very thankful for.

"I'm proud that I have a wonderful family, with a wife and children and grandchildren, and really I'm proud of them because first of all they have helped me. They haven't been selfish. If anything, maybe I have been selfish because my career takes so much."

If Marta has had to put up with a selfish husband, she has also had to endure unsavoury gossip. There was talk of her husband and a 21-year-old Romanian music student, then a crush on a well-known soprano - and his name appeared in the kiss-and-tell memoirs of Monica Lewinsky's mother. The subject produces a controlled hissy-fit, with intense fiddling of the glasses when he's not throwing his hands into the air. "Private life is private life. I don't have anything to hide... Do I scandalise? I don't. If I do something wrong, why anybody should have any right to ask? I think probably, I don't know what you are going to do, but probably you should eliminate this question. Because what is the interest in it? It will be better, but of course I don't have any way to convince you."

Domingo clearly enjoys the adulation of his fans. Earlier in the day, a crowd of middle-aged women in sensible floral skirts waved manically to him from behind crush barriers as he and his co-tenors made an appearance at the city's new spa. "They were wonderful, sweet and very enthusiastic, so that's good," he says, smiling. When I say that they were chanting his name, the shaggy eyebrows raise and the smile gets even wider. What does such adulation feel like? "It's wonderful. You do this because of communication, because of love, and you want to be loved for what you do."

The tenor, who next month sings Rasputin in the world premiere of Deborah Drattell's Nicholas and Alexandra at Los Angeles Opera, says that the interview has been "beautiful". But, he has one thing to add: "If you can do something about not putting that question in, it would be better..." He did, however, get off lightly. I could have brought up the Top 20 US hit in which he duetted with John Denver.