PLÁCIDO DOMINGO – An Interview with the Tenor turned Baritone for “Cyrano”

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

I recently joined San Francisco Opera’s General Director David Gockley and tenor Plácido Domingo for a fascinating discussion about his role in the current production of Cyrano de Bergerac. The 69-year-old tenor has successfully claimed the role, having sung the US premiere in 2005 at the Metropolitan Opera. Several years ago, Domingo called David Gockley. The conversation began with something about his making a return to San Francisco.

“In what?” recalls Gockley. “You mean, like, an arena concert? A one-night phenomenon? ‘No’, he says. ‘In an opera!’ We talked about a number of titles, one of them being Cyrano – which Plácido had already performed at the Royal Opera, the Met, at Valencia. I was not aware of Cyrano and went to Milan to see a performance at La Scala. I said, ‘this is very, very special’. Not only do I think it is a better work than people give it credit for, but it is a wonderful vehicle for Placido at this stage of his career. He can be the poet who may not have the youthful attractiveness of “Christian”, but has the experience and the eloquence to play the role in a way that breaks your heart. The response in Milan was really, really something.”

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PLÁCIDO DOMINGO – as Cyrano de Bergerac
Photo, Cory Weaver

Domingo has performed in eighteen productions at San Francisco Opera. He debuted in 1969 as “Rodolfo” in La Bohème featuring soprano Dorothy Kirsten as “Mimi”. Within a decade he had appeared in Carmen, Tosca, Il Trovatore, L’Africaine, Andrea Chénier, Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci, Otello, and La Fanciulla del West. During the ’80s he was seen in Samson et Dalila, Les Contes d’Hoffmann, and returned in productions of L’Africaine and Carmen. On Friday, September 9th, 1983, Domingo made it into the history books with the season’s Opening Night performance of Otello. Earlier that day, the scheduled tenor, Carlo Cossutta, was diagnosed with laryngitis. Two days before, Domingo was in Madrid and had only just arrived in New York to begin rehearsals of Lohengrin at The Met. He was also scheduled to sing the role of “Otello” there and would be conducting La Boheme. At the beginning of the rehearsal, the Met’s Executive Director, Anthony Bliss, told Domingo that Terry McEwen, then General Director of SF Opera, had called to say he was needed in San Francisco – that day! – to replace the ailing tenor.

“What?!” recalled Domingo, “I saw the hour and said, ‘How can this be done?’”

He began vocalizing and knew that his voice was ready to go. “Let’s call Terry,” he said. “If they have a way to bring me there, I am going. So, they sent me on a private plane, one that was already in New York”

Mr. Gockley quickly pointed out the good news of the story. “And you gained three hours!”

The plane belonged to Gordon Getty. The only thing that had to be changed was the timing of the Gala dinner. Rather than being after the performance, it was held before.

“The performance started about 10:15. By that time, I think I did well. But it doesn’t matter – I think everybody was, you know, already very happy, very sleepy or also very bored. I don’t know. But we had a fantastic evening.”

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CYRANO DE BERGERAC – Act 1: Theater of the Hotel de Bourgogne
Set design, Petrika Ionesco. Photo, Cory Weaver

I am fascinated by the fact that one of the greatest tenor voices of our time is working in the baritone repertoire. Domingo has taken on “Simon Boccanegra”, performing it for the first time in Berlin under the baton of Daniel Barenboim. His success with the role has taken him to Covent Garden, Madrid and the Metropolitan, accumulating 28 performances along the way. This tough Verdi role happened for Plácido earlier than he’d anticipated.

“I thought that Simon was, maybe, going to start about now. But I can sing and I’m not going to retire one day earlier than I can still sing. I will be there one day more, you know. If I cannot sing, I would like to know it also. Now I get tempted by other baritone roles. I just did Rigoletto in Mantua. Honestly, I’ve been enjoying very much this combination of being able to sing the baritone and tenor roles.”

In 2012 Plácido is scheduled to sing one of my favorites – the role of “Athanael” in Massenet’s Thaïs at the Théâtre du Châtelet. The baritones who have performed and recorded the role include Robert Massard, Thomas Hampson, and Sherrill Milnes – who performed here in the unforgettable 1976 production starring a beautifully blonded Beverly Sills. The Tito Capobianco production opened the season and was broadcast live on the radio. I voiced my enthusiasm to Mr. Gockley that Domingo repeat the role at SF Opera. The role involves a desert monk whose dream-life has lately been troubled by visions of the exotic-erotic “Thaïs” – the most popular whore in all of Alexandria. Athanael is convinced that if he can convert her from her devotion to the goddess Venus not only will the city be better off, but the soul of his old friend “Nicias” (who has been keeping her in style for the past month) will be saved. He succeeds. It takes a while, but Thaïs blissfully enters a convent while Brother Athanael – who has fallen for her by the time he hands her over to the Mother Superior – is doomed to a life of unrequited passion. For some guys – an ageless problem.

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Ainhoa Arteta (Roxane) and Plácido Domingo (Cyrano)
Photo, Cory Weaver

“I have to look for parts I can do at my age,” says Domingo. “I don’t pretend to be a baritone. But certainly the color has to be different in the middle of the voice. When you are singing an E-flat or an F as a baritone…”

“The climactic moment,” interrupted Gockley.

“You have been a baritone also! You know that the F is a high note for the baritone.”

“That was my highest note. That’s why I didn’t go on.”

“Athanael is a wonderful part,” says Domingo, “that could have any age. Even Cyrano. Cyrano, in reality, is younger, maybe four or five years older than Christian. So, young. But, OK, because he’s a loser, he could have any age.”

“Aaaah, no!” groaned Mr. Gockley.

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Plácido Domingo (Cyrano) and Thiago Arancam (Christian)
Photo, Cory Weaver

“But he is!” laughed Domingo. “I mean, there are losers when you are young and you can be a loser when you are old. But, to be the man who takes the girl – you have to be young and handsome – you know?”

As Mr. Gockley pointed out, Plácido Domingo is a man with many vital parts. Besides being available as a tenor and a baritone, he is a conductor of tremendous repute, a General Director of opera companies, and a restauranteur. So, how does he find down-time in the midst of that? Where does his re-charging come from? Or is the energy found in the singer’s day-in/day-out routine?

Domingo is charged by the resulting energy of what he is doing. “When you see the public being happy,” he said, “when you see that you are in an opera house that is sold-out, and the public reacts how they react – you have to have the energy. Tonight, for instance, I have taped a football game. My team, Real Madrid, was playing against Milan this morning – so, I’ll watch it tonight. Somebody already told me the result – 1 to zero. Va bene! My wife Marta and I follow the Spanish soap operas. I follow the World Series.” But, for Domingo, the voice comes first. Gockley had invited him to the Giants strategic game last Friday night. “I cannot bear to go because, if it’s cold, I can’t risk it. The game is in-between dress rehearsal and the premiere. This is one of the sacrifices. But we get together with our children and our grandchildren. They give me all the energy I need.”

Placido’s best advice to anyone who wants to be a tenor: “Think it over.”

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Plácido Domingo (Cyrano) and Stephen Powell (De Guiche)

Photo, Cory Weaver

Sung in French with English supertitles, Cyrano de Bergerac continues Wednesday, 10/27 at 7:30 pm; Saturday, 10/30 at 8 pm; Tuesday, 11/2 at 8:00 pm; Saturday, 11/6 at 2:00 pm; Tuesday, 11/9 at 7:30 pm; and Friday, 11/12 at 8:00 pm.
Click here to purchase tickets on-line: Cyrano de Bergerac

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.


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