Intelligence and dramatic conviction reinforced the vocal gifts of Spanish-born lyric-dramatic tenor Placido Domingo (born 1941). In addition to maintaining a large opera repertoire, he later turned to conducting; he was also an accomplished pianist.
Placido Domingo was born in the Barrio de Salamanca section of Madrid on January 21, 1941. His mother's family was Basque, and his father's half Catalan and half Aragonese. His parents, both active in music, were undoubtedly responsible for nurturing Domingo's musical abilities. His father had played the violin in opera and zarzuela orchestras and had sung baritone roles in zarzuelas. (Zarzuela is the Spanish equivalent of the Viennese operetta—a popular theatrical genre that mixes musical numbers with spoken dialogue. Its customary nationalistic plot may be serious or comic and usually involves scenes from everyday life.) What seems to have been a promising career, including a few recordings, was cut short when he damaged his voice by singing with a cold.
Domingo's mother was a professional singer who had made her debut at the Teatro Liceo in Barcelona, Spain's most important opera house. Her interest in zarzuela led to a performance in Federico Morena Torroba's Sor Navarra, where she had met her future husband. In 1946 Moreno Torroba formed a zarzuela company that included Domingo's parents and that eventually travelled to Mexico. Attracted to the country, Domingo's parents stayed and established their own company in Mexico City.
Domingo recalled that he was often pressed into service when the company needed a child. He began studying the piano shortly after the family moved to Mexico City, first privately and later at the National Conservatory. His interest in conducting also stemmed from these early years. At the impulsive age of 16 he met and married a fellow piano student, whom he does not name in his autobiography. A son was born within the year, and shortly thereafter the couple separated.
Domingo's first professional engagement was as accompanist to his mother in a concert at Mérida, Yucatan, in 1957. Immediately following this he joined his parents' zarzuela company, singing baritone roles and working with other singers as accompanist. His early career also included productions of My Fair Lady, in which he sang the role of the drunkard and was assistant conductor and assistant coach. The group gave 185 performances without interruption. Following this he served similarly in a production of Lehar's The Merry Widow as either Camille or Danilo.
Domingo auditioned for the National Opera (Mexico) in 1959 with several baritone arias, but was then asked to sight-read something in the tenor range. On the strength of the latter he received a contract as a tenor comprimario (singer of secondary roles) and as a coach for other singers. His first role was as Borsa in Verdi's Rigoletto. Other musical activities of the period included playing piano for a ballet company—no doubt to supplement his income—and running a program on Mexico's newly founded cultural television. This consisted of excerpts from zarzuelas, operettas, operas, and musical comedies, all to Domingo's piano accompaniment. A little later he played small parts on another program dedicated to the theater. Among the plays performed were those of Garcia Lorca, Pirandello, and Chekhov.
The number of his opera appearances, mostly in Monterrey (Mexico) and Mexico City, increased steadily from 1960 to 1961, and in November 1961 he made his American debut as Arturo in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor with the Dallas Civic Orchestra, Joan Sutherland appearing in the title role. One year later, in Fort Worth, he sang Edgardo in the same opera, with Lily Pons singing the last Lucia of her career. Also in 1962 he married the former Marta Ornelas, whom he had met at the conservatory and who eventually sacrificed a promising career for his. She was voted the best Mexican singer of the year 1962.
Before their marriage they, along with baritone Franco Iglesias, formed a chamber opera company that toured Mexico, performing Wolf-Ferrari's Il segreto di Susanna, Menotti's The Telephone, and various duets and trios, with Domingo accompanying at the piano. At the very end of 1962 the threesome signed a six month contract with the Hebrew National Opera in Tel Aviv, which proved such good experience that they extended their stay to two and one half years. Multi-lingual realizations of operas were common for the international cast gathered there. A performance of La Traviata, for instance, included a baritone singing in Hungarian, a soprano in German, a tenor in Italian, and the chorus in Hebrew. Domingo credits this cosmopolitan group for improving his abilities in several languages.
After leaving Tel Aviv in June 1965, Domingo auditioned successfully for the New York City Opera. His New York debut was scheduled for October 21, 1965, as Don Jose in Bizet's Carmen, but occurred on the 17th when he was asked to fill in for an ailing tenor in Puccini's Madame Butterfly. In February of the following year he sang the title role in the North American premiere of Alberto Ginastera's Don Rodrigo, an event that also marked the opening of the City Opera's new home at Lincoln Center. Don Rodrigo remained the only modernist work in Domingo's repertoire. Although he had sung in open air performances by the Metropolitan Opera of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci in 1966, his official Met debut came on September 25, 1968, when he substituted for an indisposed Franco Corelli in Cilèa's Adrianna Lecouveur a week before his scheduled appearance.
Other important debuts were as follows: January 1965 at the Teatro Liceo, Barcelona, in three short operas by little-known Mexican composers; December 1969 in the title role of Verdi's Ernani; and December 1971 as Cavaradossi in Puccini's Tosca, his most frequently performed role. In 1980 Federico Moreno Torroba completed an opera, El Poeta, for Domingo, who sang the world premiere in June of that year. Both Domingo and the critics agreed that, although the straightforward, tonal score contained many attractive passages, the libretto was too weak to support it.
Although Domingo's repertoire concentrated mainly on the 19th century Italian and French masters, his range was considerably wider. In addition to his zarzuela roots and brief excursion into the modernism of Don Rodrigo, he went back as far as Rameau (Hippolyte) and Mozart (Don Giovanni) and touched on Wagner (Lohengrin, Hans Sachs). He also released two popular albums, one with American popular singer John Denver, "Perhaps Love" and later "My Life for a Song." Domingo appeared in commercial film productions of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, and Verdi's La Traviata (1983), all directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and Bizet's Carmen (1984), directed by Francesco Rosi.
Domingo actively pursued conducting opportunities during much of his career. In 1972 "Domingo Conducts Milnes! Milnes Conducts Domingo!" with the New Philharmonia Orchestra of London was released. Later he conducted a New York City Opera production of La Traviata during the 1973-1974 season and a Covent Garden production of Die Fledermaus at the end of 1983.
Domingo's willingness to explore new musical territories led to Perhaps Love, his album of duets with the late singer John Denver in 1981. Although critics were not especially pleased, the album achieved gold status in record sales. During the nineties, Domingo achieved even greater mainstream commercial success on his Three Tenors collaborations with Jose Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti. The trio first performed together in celebration of the 1990 World Cup Championship in Rome. In 1994 their Dodger Stadium concert in Los Angeles, which was viewed on television by 1.3 billion people and sold more than 10 million CDs and videos, was billed as the most-seen and most-heard serious music event of all time. New York magazine called Domingo a "phenomenon, perhaps the most compulsive overachiever the world of opera has ever known." The singer's immense poularity allowed him to raise millions of dollars through special benefit concerts in order to help the victims of the 1985 Mexican earthquake disaster, in which he personally lost four relatives. At the same time his Three Tenors collaborations introduced millions of new fans to the music of opera. In 1996 Domingo became the artistic director of the Washington Opera while simultaneously launching The Three Tenors World Tour which visited four continents and continued through 1997.
Of the many articles written on Domingo, those in Opera News are perhaps the most consistently revealing. An interview, "What Makes Placido Run?" appeared in the March 27, 1982, issue. Domingo's autobiography, My First Forty Years, was published in 1983. One of the better books of its kind, it is well written and insightful and probably no more self-congratulatory than his accomplishment deserves.