Placido Domingo: Record breaker

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The Independent Online

Critics were ecstatic: "Domingo's voice is almost as burnished, thrilling and secure as it was 20 years ago", said The Times and Edward Seckerson in The Independent observed that "when he is on stage everybody raises their game. This performance ignited long before Wotan's magic fire descended. Wagner thrives on performers who really fill their roles. Domingo's star-status and physical presence certainly contribute to his charisma on stage".

Not everyone can afford Covent Garden prices, but we'll all have a chance to hear this extraordinary performance next Monday evening when the BBC Proms is giving a concert performance of Die Walküre at the Royal Albert Hall.

What is also extraordinary is that Domingo is now 64. At an age at which most of his contemporaries have retired from the stage, or turn up for just a few carefully scheduled galas, he is working as hard as he did 30 years ago. Each year, he sings 70 to 80 performances, a large number for any opera singer at any age, and he has made well over 3,000 appearances during his lifetime.

He also has a separate career as a conductor, and is general director of the Washington National Opera and the Los Angeles Opera companies. Earlier this year, he said he thought he still had another five years as a singer, and given his good health and exceptional stamina there is little reason to doubt his prediction.

His repertoire includes an amazing 121 roles, a figure which has earnt him a place in The Guinness Book of Records, and they cover a particularly wide range from Rameau in the early 18th century to new works by contemporary composers like Ginastera and Gian Carlo Menotti. His voice is characterised by an unusual flexibility. Over the years, it has darkened and deepened, allowing him to move into more heavyweight parts, such as Verdi's Otello, one of the summits of any tenor's aspirations and one of the most arduous.

His debut in the opera in 1975 was instantly acclaimed: Opera magazine wrote: "He sang the role so magnificently that every opera house will now want to stage the work for him. If he so wished, he would never have to sing any other role". (Laurence Olivier saw his performance and remarked that Domingo acted the role as well as he had done himself - "and the bloody fellow can sing as well!").

In the late 1980s, he began to perform Wagner, which requires a more powerful tenor voice, specifically a heldentenor, than Italian operas do. In 1992, he performed at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, where he sang the title role in Wagner's Parsifal. Later this year, his recording of Tristan and Isolde will add the 122nd role to his repertoire.

Domingo was born in Madrid in 1941. Both his parents were singers, stars of the zarzuela, the Spanish form of operetta. In 1949, when he was eight, they created a zarzuela company of their own in Mexico, and he and his younger sister joined them there. For the next 13 years, Mexico City was his home. He went to school there and, like most other Spanish and Latin American boys, he developed a passion for football and the corrida. (Soccer is still one of his great loves, mainly as a spectator, but occasionally as a participant in benefit games.)

In addition, he took piano lessons from the age of eight and spent much time with his parents' theatre company, taking occasional roles, and absorbed a great deal about musical theatre.

At 14, he entered Mexico's National Conservatory of Music to study piano and conducting, but he faced severe difficulties when he married at 16 and became a father at 17. He and his wife separated a year after the birth of their son Jose and divorced a year after that. To support his family, he was obliged to leave the conservatory to find work.

In his autobiography, he suggests this was a blessing in disguise: "Had I remained in the conservatory, I might have become what we call a 'conservatory rat' - someone who learns to do everything proficiently but never develops into a real performer. Leaving it opened the way to new experiences and made me independent."

He now took on all the musical and theatrical work he could find and it gave him a great deal of practical experience with different musical styles and different types of voices. He began by accompanying his mother's recitals and singing minor roles in his parents' company. He had already had some vocal instruction from his parents and at the conservatory (where he had first managed to reach a high B-flat, though he still performed as a baritone).

The next few years were hectic: he had a small part in the first Mexican production of My Fair Lady, which ran for 185 performances; he accompanied other singers at bars, both elegant and rowdy; he sang 170 performances of The Merry Widow; he performed in a musical called The Redhead; he played piano for a touring ballet company; he had his own music programme on a new cultural television station in Mexico City; he acted in television productions of dramas by Pirandello, Lorca, and Chekhov; he trained choruses for zarzuelas and musicals; and he did arrangements and adaptations of American pop songs for Mexican recording artists.

In 1959, Domingo auditioned for the Mexican National Opera with two baritone arias. The auditioning committee liked his voice, but suggested he was a tenor. He didn't have a tenor aria prepared, but he sightread "Amor ti vieta" from Giordano's Fedora. Though he cracked on the A-natural, they didn't mind and gave him a contract. His career as a operatic tenor had begun.

His first major role was Alfredo in La Traviata, which he performed in Monterrey in 1961. The same year, he made his debut in the United States as Arturo in Lucia di Lammermoor with Joan Sutherland. The review in Opera magazine naturally was enthralled by La Stupenda, "she proved again beyond all doubt that she is the technical phenomenon of the day", but also observed that Domingo's performance "marked him for an important place in the international firmament".

The following year was an important one for two reasons. He married the soprano Marta Ornelas, whom he had met during his conservatory days, and the two of them moved to Tel Aviv to become members of the Israeli National Opera. They worked hard for low wages but learned a great deal during their three Israeli seasons. He sang nearly 300 performances in 12 different operas, most of them in Hebrew. All opera companies are international affairs, but this was exceptionally so, and the monoglot Domingo expanded his knowledge of languages.

After they left Israel, Marta gave up her singing career to raise their children (Placido Jr. was born in 1965, Alvaro in 1968) and to manage his career. In 1991, she made her directing debut and now regularly stages operas. They are still married, though rumours of other attachments have occasionally surfaced in the gossip-addicted world of opera.

In 1966, he returned to Mexico and scored major successes as Hoffmann in The Tales of Hoffmann and Cavaradossi in Tosca. Within six months of leaving Tel Aviv, he was singing with the New York City Opera, and he was chosen for the title role in the world premiere of Alberto Ginastera's Don Rodrigo, with which the City Opera inaugurated its residency in New York's Lincoln Centre in 1966.

From then on, engagements were abundant, the reviews ecstatic and over the next five years he made his debut at the Big Four of the world's opera houses: the Vienna State Opera in Don Carlo in 1967; New York's Metropolitan Opera in Adriana Lecouvreur in 1968; Milan's La Scala in Ernani in 1969; and finally at Covent Garden in Tosca in 1971. Now he has sung, and still sings, in every major house on the planet.

Since then his life has been the endless round of airports, hotels, rehearsal rooms and stages which is the professional treadmill of the opera star - apart from 1986. On 21 September 1985, he opened the Chicago Lyric Opera's season in Otello. He gave a splendid performance, but immediately after the curtain calls he left to fly to Mexico City which had been devastated by an earthquake two days before.

Domingo had learned that his aunt, uncle and two cousins were still missing after the collapse of their apartment block. He helped the rescue workers with pick-axe and spade on the site of the collapsed building, but his relatives had been killed.

Devastated by this loss, and the death of nearly 7,000 people in the city of his childhood, Domingo cancelled his engagements for a year and began a series of worldwide charity concerts which raised millions of dollars for the victims. He has since continued his charity work, regularly giving benefit concerts for such causes as Aids and natural disasters.

Domingo is one of the most prolific opera recording stars, and his CDs inevitably appear on the bestseller charts. At one time, seven of his CDs appeared simultaneously on Billboard's chart and eight of his records have sold over one million copies. In the 1980s, he was one of the earliest opera stars to record cross-over albums: he made records with John Denver, Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick and a number of recordings of popular Spanish songs.

In 1990, Domingo was of course already famous, but then came the extraordinary success of the first Three Tenors concert. Held in Rome on the eve of the World Cup Final in Italy, this event (and the best-selling CDs and videos) transported the three of them into the superstardom, the wealth and the sort of adulation more often accorded film and pop stars.

The following year, the grey-haired 55-year-old was voted one of the Ten Sexiest Men on the Planet by the readers of the US magazine Star. Since then, there have been dozens of Three Tenors concerts worldwide which have brought Domingo and opera to previously indifferent millions.

As Domingo has observed: "Opera and football cross all boundaries because they speak the same language: the language of emotion, which communicates to people everywhere." Today, Domingo is opera's greatest communicator and greatest star - and likely to remain so for many years.

A Life in Brief

BORN 21 January, 1941 in Madrid.

FAMILY Married Marta Ornelas in 1961, two sons, Placido and Alvaro (and one son, Jose, by a brief first marriage at 16).

EDUCATION Studied at the National Conservatory in Mexico City.

CAREER First major role: 1961, Alfredo in La Traviata, Monterrey; 1967, debut at Vienna State Opera (Don Carlos); 1968, debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York (Adrian Lecouvreur); 1969, debut at La Scala, Milan (Ernani); 1971, debut at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Tosca); 1990, first Three Tenors concert; 2005, Proms debut (Siegmund).

HE SAYS "I must pass on my enthusiasm to the others who are younger and show how live theatre is supposed to be."

THEY SAY "For me, Placido Domingo represents the ideal." - Jose Carreras, tenor.