Placido Domingo discusses his career as a tenor singer
BROADCAST: Dec. 14, 1979 | DURATION: 00:30:31
Placido Domingo discusses his career as a tenor singer and conductor, including his role in the film "Otello" directed by Franco Zeffirelli and based on the opera by Giuseppe Verdi.
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Studs Terkel A good number of knowledgeable critics say Placido Domingo may be the finest tenor, the most powerful since Caruso. That's saying quite a bit, but it may be so indeed. You know he performed recently in Chicago as Andrea Chenier, and was magnificent. He probably has sung more opera roles, and does, than perhaps any other of his colleagues today on the stage. So, we're honored of course and delighted to have him as our guest. And so we'll hear his voice, his singing, and his reflections, in a moment. [pause in recording] In hearing, "O Paradiso" it is you, Placido Domingo, singing one of Caruso's favorites. And you did it in Italian.
Placido Domingo Yes.
Studs Terkel And what is this -- in hearing -- in you sing in "Paradiso" and "L'Africaine" and people say to you, "Caruso." What's your reaction? Does he play a role, you're hearing him on records as a kid?
Placido Domingo Well, it has, it has been a determinant inspiration for me always, his kind of singing. His unbeatable, you know, quality of voice, the power of his voice, the body tonal quality which some of his enemies try to criticize him, especially Lauri-Volpi about saying, well, he was just a short tenor, he was, you know--
Studs Terkel Yeah, short. You know, [laughter] he wasn't a tenor, you know, he he was a baritone, you know. So that might be the only the only point of comparison that I can have today because today I -- also some of the tenors and -- they used to sing operas in the original key. They they always say then they never transpose which -- they are transposing now anyway. They say, you know, well, Placido, I mean he stop. He has to transpose. Yes, I I confess it. I I have always sing, for instance, "Che Gelida Manina" with a b-natural not with a high-c. And but I am in good company because also Caruso did it. And some of my colleagues do it today also, after they pray so much about not transposing. But the never mind the fact of singing "O Paradiso" like, as you said in Italian as he sing it is -- now I have changed my change my mind, but by the time -- at the time I did that particular record I I was very much -- it was the anniversary of his of his, you know--
Placido Domingo And he used to sing "O Paradiso" in Italian. That's the reason I sing it in Italian, even though after when I have done the opera I've always done it in French and now I enjoyed more singing it in French. But I thought out of that record I will--
Placido Domingo Yes.
Placido Domingo Yes.
Placido Domingo Well, I was very much involved in in piano. I study for a complete musical career, you know, piano. I was harmony and composition, and I was even attempting to conducting, which I has developed now and I want to do it after I stop singing. And but of course the influence of my parents, you know, the -- seeing them on the stage, I I got tempted to to go to the stage since I was very small and--
Placido Domingo Absolutely.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel You know, I'm thinking of the change. We just heard you, the hero Vasco di Gama, "O Paradiso" discovering, and now you're the peasant. Not too bright, "Elixir of Love." That is, here you are Nemorino. And you meet that very marvelous baritone bass part, [Geraint the Welsh?], Geraint Evans, who is Doctor Dulcamara, the medicine man.
Placido Domingo You know, of course she likes him very much but he cannot get it, you know. He every time he he, he say something is wrong, you know. And and he's despair. So, really this very very clever, very sympathetic character, Dulcamara.
Placido Domingo He is. You know, he's full of tricks and so on, but I mean after all you know, all he made this, to give this this so-called elixir, you know, for very little money and you know it has his his side of sympathy, you know. And of course he is sort of naïve then he really believes in this.
Studs Terkel In hearing that, of course, we hear Placido Domingo as well as Geraint Evans. And here again your relationship to other singers. You have a reputation as being a very open-hearted, generous person with other talented people. There is no sense of competition with you. And working with Evans, I suppose was a delight.
Placido Domingo Oh, yes. It is wonderful. Unfortunately our repertoire doesn't doesn't give us the opportunity to sing very much together. But I, as a person as an artist, I have always a great emulation for him. And very soon we'll be doing something quite interesting. In in London we are doing a new production of "Tales of Hoffman" and with very lavish production with Carlos Kleiber conducting and John Schlesinger--
Placido Domingo Yes, he will be staging it. Something really -- I I'm really looking for something sensational. And that's part of next year. Of course, it will be the anniversary of of Offenbach. And I'm doing different productions of -- I do other one in Salzburg with with Levine and Ponnelle, which could be a very good combination--
Studs Terkel You know, this is interesting what you're saying about John Schlesinger directing this. The idea that we knew a good number more and more stage directors. Zeffirelli did the the version, the television version of "Carmen"--
Studs Terkel Which leads, of course, to again you speak of having some fun as Nemorino. And now we come to -- of course, we think of most of the roles are tragic heroes. So Otello. We come to Otello. How do you interpret, that is, Otello?
Placido Domingo Well, the "Otello" of course is, for me, without any doubt, the opera of operas and the role of roles, you know. As as both ways is a great way of show the vocal as well as dramatic ability of a singer. I mean, "Otello" is not half way. I mean, you can never attempt to do "Otello", really, if there is not an ability to portray the character. Because, listen: I mean, a trumpet sound, a trombone sound or whatever, can- cannon sound, it wouldn't be enough to do any part of Otello. You might say, "Wow, wow, what a powerful voice", but its not enough. That's a definite opera, then, that's essentially combining the acting. And I'm not talking only about the Otello, but about every other, every one of the characters involved in the opera.
Placido Domingo You know, especially Iago, which is a combination really of great acting with singing. So much that I am sorry my knowledge and I'd say not my knowledge, but my accent, won't allow me to portray the part of Otello in the theater. But my dream one day is being, for instance, in a Spanish country, Spanish-speaking country or in Italian, which I dominate very well the language, it will be during the rehearsals to do actually the second act of "Othello" in drama.
Studs Terkel Ah!
Studs Terkel That's a great idea! You. then here's the actor now. You want to get that role, the -- God knows how many dimensions Othello has. Not just the blackness, but the age. He's older than she is--
Placido Domingo There are so many so many strange -- and you know is never enough what you learn about this part. First of all, all the reading you do. I have read Shakespeare in, of course, in the original, in English. I have done it. I have read it in Italian and I have read it to see what Verdi did, because Verdi wrote, read it in Italian. And I have read it on my own language, in Spanish to get even -- and then I have work, you know, with this stage directors of the quality of Zeffirelli, Everding, Terry Hands and Ponnelle. And for instance now, next month I'm doing "Otello" in Covent Garden. It's not a new production. It's done. But I have something very interesting I'm looking for. At the time I be doing "Otello", the Royal Shakespeare Company in in London, they were being -- rehearsing "Othello" also. Peter Hall is the directing--
Studs Terkel Scofield.
Studs Terkel You know, this is marvelous. You're going to attend the rehearsals of the Royal Shakespeare National Theatre Company, seeing Scofield's "Othello," Peter Hall directing. And so the drama, the Shakespearean power, you will somehow absorb, will be in your opera role.
Placido Domingo Absolutely, absolutely. Because I I do believe then "Otello" doesn't matter how many times you do it -- I'm nearly to 50 performances now -- I am ready to learn always. And I am ready to mature the role. And I think then still that many different ways then you can see the role, you know.
Placido Domingo Well, the monologue of "Otello" is one of the ever, you know, one of the masterpieces in any opera. It's set in the third act, after the beginning of the act when Desdemona comes to Otello and he's almost -- I'd like to put myself into the position of almost trying to forget. I mean almost trying to -- don't think anymore. And of course the naivete and the goodness of Desdemona asking about Casio again makes [his burn?], really. I mean he's always -- I mean of course it won't exist, the drama, if these situations they don't exist, you know. But there's a little lack of timing on Desdemona's part. But also she's so absolutely blind and so absolutely innocent, you know, then. That's the reason she brings up the conversation. So, they start on a very, very heavy and very, very, very strong discussion about the situation. He's asking for the handkerchief and, you know, she gave her another handkerchief to him. And he's really very, very upset and really, I'm crying and she asks me why I am crying. And finally I say, you know, then she has committed the darkest of all sins. And I said she's a [coltigana?] you know, which will mean practicli- practically--
Placido Domingo Adultery, she has committed adultery. In that moment Desdemona, really runs away to, absolutely speechless and absolutely petrified of this side of her husband which she has never known.
Studs Terkel [Unintelligible]
Placido Domingo And in this the moment is coming the monologue, "Dio, mi potevi scagliar," which is one of the, as I say said, one of the most most touching moments of any opera. And I believe for me, that's any of any operatic of musical experience I have in my life.
Studs Terkel Boy that's powerful. Again. See here, even even in not seeing you, hearing you on the recording, the drama. Just a, not too long ago on national television, on public television was the simulcast of station and it was at the Met.
Placido Domingo Yes.
Studs Terkel But I'm thinking of the heroes. Here again, Jose, who could be done as an old-time comic fashion. I mean that is done stand and sing arias. But no, here's this guy who just gave up everything.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Placido Domingo Eighty roles. Which of course I perform very -- constantly I perform about 30 to 35 of them. And the rest, you know, of course they come eventually, and some of them they will never come back. And some of them they will come on an special occasion, you know.
Studs Terkel You know, the thing about Placido Domingo is that swinging with ease back and forth from Otello, so they come to the beautiful music of Puccini. And so I suppose Cavaradossi, one of your roles.
Placido Domingo Well, Cavaradossi's music is, you know, one of the very much, one of the most popular operas and because he's one of the most popular operas also, very much attacked by this [mob? nove?], criticism of some people saying that "Tosca", it sounds like background background music for film. Well, if we, if that's called background music--
Placido Domingo I love the background music, you know. And Cavaradossi's part -- This is an old recording, it's one of the first things I did. This this recording is already 1971. It was a recording I enjoyed very much with Leontyne Price and Sherrill Milnes and Zubin Mehta conducting. It's so much -- I always like to go back to the old recordings and in the beginning and I don't like them, and after I enjoy them later on. So much I'm going to record another "Tosca.
Placido Domingo Absolutely, especially on the on the side of "Tosca," Cavaradossi. When I portrayed -- when I did that the recording maybe, I have done on my in my life, I have done about 50 performances of "Tosca." By now I have done over 140 performances of "Tosca" so it's an entirely different interpretation, sure.
Studs Terkel Suppose we hear -- here's Cavaradossi is about -- Should we hear it "Recondita Armonia" as he thinks about harmony? Or or perhaps before he dies. The sun is shining. What should we do? Which one you prefer?
Placido Domingo Okay.
Studs Terkel Okay. [pause in recording] You know it's so beautiful. As you say, background music? Who says that? Isn't it funny they often attack because something is so beautiful. People can't accept it.
Placido Domingo I just don't understand and even more. I mean, Puccini has accepted, you know, perhaps not by the purist. But, I mean the fact of the very small composers they are attacked completely. You know they attack so much Giordano, they attack so much Leoncavallo, they attack Mascagni, Cilea. Which I think they wrote masterpieces also, you know, in their own way. And, I mean, who can attack Pagliacci? Who can attack [Shinea?]. I mean those are operas and there are really absolutely the public is thrilled, you know, as it is in any of the Verdi operas or any other the Mozart or Wagner operas.
Studs Terkel You know the thing about you saying this is beautiful because you have the credentials. You can sing anything. You you you you made your -- you scored mightily in the Ginastera's "Don Rodrigo," which is very contemporary.
Placido Domingo Yes, that's right. And I always I, you know, I'm open for any kind of music that it will make really sense, it will make beauty and why not, if it's contemporary also. Of course, I will.
Placido Domingo I haven't done, I haven't done too much. I have now a world premiere coming, doing next year in Madrid, an opera that they have wrote for me, which is called "The Poet" and it's based on the life of Espronceda, a Spanish writer. And I'm going to do the premiere in June in Madrid. After Menotti is preparing an opera for me.
Studs Terkel Inferno?
Placido Domingo Comedia.
Studs Terkel This is, I suppose the thing is your your versatility as a thing too. And by the way, people say to you, aren't you singing -- it's almost superhuman -- Aren't you singing too often? They say to you, don't they?
Placido Domingo Well, I think it's an old [studio?] really. As long as I feel the way I feel now and I have my right time to rest and so on, I have to keep this kind of singing. And believe me, there are many other singers and they sing as much as me and maybe more. Perhaps you don't hear it as often, you know. But you know they do it, yes.
Placido Domingo Absolutely.
Studs Terkel Really?
Placido Domingo Yes when I -- I, you know, I am doing a lot of conducting and I don't have enough time to do more. But I'm preparing myself to to change into a full-time career when I will, when I won't be able to sing anymore.
Studs Terkel but not a full. No, that'd be fan- again, I was thinking, you speak of Spain. And some day perhaps you can even act, straight acting as you say, in Spanish theater or Italian theater, a duet with one of your compatriots Montserrat Caballe.
Placido Domingo We hear the "Tosca" I think the "Manon Lescaut" is is one of the most beautiful love duets. You know it's -- They are comparing -- it's a lot of influence in the Puccini music of "Tristan" music, you know, you can hear a lot of--
Placido Domingo A lot a lot of Wagner influence in there. And his inspiration is, for me, "Manon Lescaut" as my personal taste, is the number one opera, Puccini's number one. I tell you why. The "Tosca" -- "La Boheme", "Tosca", and "Butterfly" and so the the later works, they came already as a product of the big name, of an artist already established and the big name that he has. But the "Manon Lescaut", it was his third opera after "Edgar" and "Le Villi", not having really accomplished a great success. So the "Manon Lescaut" it was the real--
Placido Domingo Focal point on his future. And I think he pour melodies and inspiration. Then never mind how much perfection it might be in "Boheme", which is also perfect opera. And you know it's nothing extra but because everything is tried, is nothing you can cut in "Boheme," is nothing you can add, it's just perfection. But "Manon Lescaut" it has the kind of melodies and the variety of melodies which Puccini perhaps never wrote again in his life as much as he did in "Manon Lescaut." He was putting everything, he was risking everything. He was really trying to convince the world and tried to convince the publishers, in those days, recording then he was you know a real--
Placido Domingo And come spontaneously. And in this duet you know with Monserrat I think that one thing here -- I mean I hear the combination of two Spanish voices together and while this is also, this recordings from '71, '72, I cannot recall now. And we repeated again in a performance at the Met in the last concert for Mr. Bing being there. And, I mean, you might have your choice of putting one duet or the other one.
Studs Terkel Ah. Can't miss with either. [pause in recording] You know, as we hear the beautiful Puccini in the duet with you and your colleague, Montserrat Caballe, you mentioned something about touches of Tristan, the love. And so we come to you and Wagner. You've done "Lohengrin" in Hamburg.
Placido Domingo Yes.
Placido Domingo Mmmhmm.
Studs Terkel Well, Tristan comes to mind more often than I like to think because there's constantly invitations to do the role, temptations to do the role. And no doubt it's one of the roles I am very very much looking to do. But I think I I like to wait. I like to wait a lot more, you know, because I think I have seen, you know, different performers doing it and I think I still have to have more experience to have more endurance, especially to arrive fresh to the third act, which is, I find it's so, so taxing, you know.
Studs Terkel Admittedly, you you're almost a perfectionist. I mean you want to, you -- there's little doubt you could do it now, a good job. But you don't want to do a good job. You want to, you want to do it--
Placido Domingo Absolutely. And I I, you know what, my -- I think the kind of work I like to do with the Tristan is the following: I don't like to put myself a date. I like to study carefully the score. And once I know it, once I I know that I can sing, then to try to think of a date. Then it could be tomorrow, you see?
Placido Domingo Yes. But if I commit myself then I would be either worrying or worrying people, will he do it or will he even do it? I think I prefer just to start preparing my -- I think you will be wise perhaps to start preparing the third act which is by far the most demanding. And if I am able to sing the third act, then I know I can sing first and second.
Placido Domingo Yes. And then I will then I will do it. Maybe then it will take just -- I mean if they tell me, well next month we are doing the performance in [Bairo?]. I say, okay I do it, if I think I can.
Studs Terkel You know, I know that you have much more to say because the stuff flows out of you: the thoughts, your knowledge, as well as your giftedness in singing. Perhaps we should close this hour with the remarkable Spanish tenor singing -- a Spanish tenor who's called Italianate or is it Italianate? Singing a German song, singing Wagner. And "Walther's Prize Song" from "Die Meistersinger."
Placido Domingo Oh wonderful. That I I enjoyed very much. It has been my only Wagner complete opera till now on records, and I enjoy it very much. I I think I think of Walther as a pure -- this is one example of of almost pure singing. I don't like the character of Walther, so that's the reason.
Placido Domingo No decisions, you know no no change of characterization, you know. But I I'm not that particular crazy about the role. I cannot say I would've never done on the stage, but it's not one that is appealing. But, the prize lied and--
Studs Terkel Before we hear you sing the prize song, this thing you said attracts me very much. The ambivalent character, the conflict within a character. The drama always attracts you. There's not enough drama in Walther's character.
Placido Domingo Absolutely.
Placido Domingo Well, yes. And I try not to, I try not to do roles when they are not interesting, you know. There are some roles as far as vocal ability, they are very interesting, but then there are not that interesting, you know, and on the stage. So, I try not to do it--
Placido Domingo Well, I have in the few years to come now very, very interesting new roles starting by -- I mean, of course, the operas that had been written for me. And then I'm doing next season, I am doing at the Met Tchaikovsky's Tchaikovsky's "Pique Dame."
Studs Terkel Mmm.
Placido Domingo Then I will be doing "La Scala." Verdi's "Aroldo," which will be a new role too. I will be doing also in Munich, Verdi "I Masnadieri." And I will be doing at the Met "Les Troyens", Berlioz for the first time. And I will be doing also "L'Amico Fritz," not "L'Amico Fritz," "Il piccolo Marat" at the Met.
Placido Domingo Yes.
Placido Domingo Well, I just want to say that it has been so enjoyable the time for me in Chicago. It's a city that by circumstances of timing. I mean, Miss Fox has constantly asking me, and it has been very difficult to establish. I want to tell you that we have established now, like for '81 on, almost every year I'll be here. Surely, '8-, '82, we have, we have set something and '84, '85 also. '81, '83 [is in the way?] but I can promise you then I will do my best to come because I I enjoyed very much, first of all, the the city and then the the theater and the public.