Singer, conductor and administrator
Plácido Domingo has been described in the international press as “the King of Opera,” “a true renaissance man in music” and “the greatest operatic artist of modern times.” At home on the world’s stages for over half a century, he has sung – as of 2015 – over 3,800 performances of 147 roles, in addition to having conducted well over 500 performances and made hundreds of audio and video recordings and films.
He has been included in the Guinness Book of Records for the size of his repertoire and for having received 101 curtain calls after a performance – Verdi’s Otello at the Vienna State Opera. His appearances around the world with his colleagues José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti in the now legendary Three Tenors concerts were one of the great musical success stories of the 1990s. As an opera administrator, too, Domingo has played an essential role in raising regional companies into an internationally recognized ensemble, as General Director, first, of Washington National Opera, and currently as General Director of Los Angeles Opera.
Few if any other performers have been able to look back on so successful, variegated and well-documented a career, and at the age of seventy-three Domingo forges ahead with a total, unabated sense of commitment. His charm and the extraordinary kindness that he demonstrates towards everyone with whom he comes in contact enthrall thousands year after year. His voice’s exceptionally warm timbre and equally exceptional flexibility combine with his remarkable acting talent to give him what he thinks of as a great opportunity to give pleasure to people throughout the world.
Plácido Domingo Embil was born in Madrid on 21 January 1941. His father, Plácido Domingo, Sr., and his mother, Pepita Embil, were celebrated performers of zarzuela, the Spanish form of operetta, which their son loves to this day. In 1949 his parents established their own theatre company in Mexico, and the eight-year-old Plácido and his sister followed their parents there. Mexico City remained his home for thirteen years: he went to school there and was enthusiastic about football (soccer) and the corrida (bullfighting). Football has remained one of Domingo’s great passions, mainly as a spectator – especially as a fan of the Real Madrid team – although he has occasionally participated in benefit matches, and he also attends Formula One races whenever he can.
He received his first piano lessons when he was eight years old, and at the age of fourteen he was accepted at Mexico’s National Music Conservatory. But he soon faced major difficulties. He married when he was sixteen, and the following year he became the father of a son, José. His first marriage did not last long, but these early responsibilities explain why he had to begin to work hard at so early an age. He took any job that came his way in the colorful world of music and the theatre, and thanks to his work with parents’ ensemble he learned all the basics of musical theatre, including its harsh economic realities. These experiences stood him in good stead later, in his various positions as an opera administrator. Young Plácido accompanied singers at the piano, in classy and not-so-classy bars; played piano for a travelling ballet troupe; arranged his own music program with a new cultural radio station in Mexico City; accepted small acting roles in television productions of plays by Pirandello, Benavente, García Lorca and Chekhov; and compiled background music for radio series. But he also sang in the musical The Redhead, trained choruses for zarzuelas and musicals, produced Spanish-language arrangements of American pop music for Mexican recordings, and made himself available as a singer of background music. He became his mother’s piano accompanist during her solo performances, and he took on smaller baritone roles in his parents’ company as well as a minor role in the first Mexican production of My Fair Lady, which was performed 185 times. And he appeared in 170 performances of The Merry Widow. Each of these activities would prove to be of great benefit to him later in his life.
Nineteen-fifty-nine was a decisive year: Domingo, only eighteen years old, auditioned as a baritone for the Mexican National Opera. The committee liked his voice very much and the members also allowed him to audition with a tenor aria, which made him realize that he was really a tenor and not a baritone. He was initially engaged to sing small tenor parts, and he debuted that autumn as Borsa in Verdi’s Rigoletto. The first leading role followed only two years later, in Monterrey: Alfredo in La traviata.
At first, however, he sang mainly minor roles, and in November 1961 he made his U.S. debut in Dallas as Arturo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. The following year brought important changes: Plácido Domingo married the soprano Marta Ornelas, with whom he had become acquainted at the conservatory. Both moved to Tel Aviv, where they performed with the Hebrew National Opera for three seasons, learning a great deal in the process. At the same time, Marta and their friend Franco Iglesias – a Mexican baritone who also belonged to the ensemble – helped Plácido to develop his singing technique.
Thus the path for one of the greatest careers in the history of opera was paved. Upon the Domingos’ return from Israel, Marta gave up her singing career to devote herself entirely to raising their two sons (Plácido, Jr., was born in 1965 and Alvaro in 1968) and to her husband’s career. She remains his adviser to this day, and now that the children are grown up she has regained a foothold in the opera world as a stage director – a fact of which Plácido is very proud.
Only six months after his departure from Tel Aviv, Domingo was called to New York: the New York City Opera wanted him for the U.S. première of Alberto Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo, with which the ensemble opened its Lincoln Center residency at the New York State Theater.
The breakthrough had been achieved, and Plácido Domingo received a wealth of engagements. In 1967 he debuted at the Hamburg State Opera, in Tosca, and at the Vienna State Opera in Don Carlo; in 1969 at the Verona Arena in Turandot, at San Francisco Opera La bohème, and at La Scala in Milan in Ernani; in 1970 in his native Madrid (La gioconda) and at the Edinburgh Festival (Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis); in 1971 at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Tosca); in 1972 at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich (La bohème); in 1973 at the Paris Opéra (Il trovatore); and in 1975 at the Salzburg Festival (Don Carlo). The audience at the Bayreuth Festival experienced Plácido Domingo for the first time in 1992 when he sang the title role in Parsifal. Numerous engagements since then have regularly brought this exceptional performer to virtually all of the world’s great opera houses.
Domingo has neither a favorite opera role nor a favorite opera house, yet he has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in New York more frequently than at any other theatre. He made his house debut in 1968 as Maurizio in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, and since then he has sung with the company every season, in a total of over 800 performances of 46 roles. To date he has opened the Met’s season no fewer than twenty times, breaking the record previously held by Enrico Caruso. He has also conducted there many times – increasingly so in recent years.
In 1983, in his memoir (original title: My First Forty Years), Domingo defended himself against critics who had accused him of taking too many vocal risks by singing too much and singing roles that were not right for his voice. Of course, every singer has successful and less successful evenings, but Domingo – who can look back on many thousands of rehearsals and performances over nearly half a century, and at the highest artistic level – can assert with pride that his decisions were the right ones. His voice has endured in beautiful condition far beyond the average professional lifetime of most singers. Among many other achievements, his interpretation of Otello remains unequalled.
Domingo’s opera repertoire extends from Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie (1733) to numerous world premieres of operas by contemporary composers. In Anton García Abril’s Las Divinas palabras he inaugurated the restored Teatro Real in Madrid in October 1997. In Los Angeles in September 2003, he sang the role of Rasputin at the world premiere of Deborah Drattell’s Nicholas and Alexandra, and in Vienna the following July he performed Goya, an opera written especially for him by Gian Carlo Menotti (first performance 1986, in Washington). Met audiences saw him in the title role in the world premiere, in 2007, of The First Emperor by the Chinese composer Tan Dun, and in Los Angeles in 2010 Domingo created the role of Pablo Neruda in the world premiere of Il Postino by the Mexican composer Daniel Catán. In 2011 he was Neptune in the world premiere production of the Met’s Baroque pastiche opera, The Enchanted Island. Domingo has also been instrumental in reviving some rarely performed operas from the past, notably Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, in which he sang the title role at the Met in May 2005 and later performed at La Scala and elsewhere. But well-known works such as Tosca, La bohème and Carmen have accompanied Domingo on his path through life, and he has also conducted many of these operas. He set a personal record in July 2003 in London when he sang the matinee performance of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and conducted the evening performance of the same opera.
His major new roles in recent years have included Siegmund in Wagner’s Die Walküre and the title part in the same composer’s Parsifal, as well as Gherman in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. In 2007 Domingo devoted himself to important works of the baroque and early classical eras by giving his first performances as Oreste in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride at the Seattle Opera as well as the Met and as Bajazet in Handel’s Tamerlano at the Washington National Opera. Since 2009 he has been adding lyric baritone parts to his repertoire: the title role of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at the Berlin Staatsoper, La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden and Madrid’s Teatro Real; the title role in Verdi’s Rigoletto in an on-location worldwide telecast; Athanaël in Massenet’s Thaïs; and five other Verdi roles: Francesco Foscari in I due Foscari, Giorgio Germont in La traviata, the title part in Nabucco, Giacomo in Giovanna d’Arco, and the Count di Luna in Il Trovatore.
Since 1993 Domingo has promoted highly talented young singers through the Operalia voice competition. Each year, in a different international city, forty pre-selected singers take part and have the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities before an international jury, and Operalia has helped to launch the careers of such artists as Joyce DiDonato, Eric Owens, Rolando Villazón, Erwin Schrott, Joseph Calleja, Isabelle Bayrakdarian, and many others. In March 2002 the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program – another of Domingo’s undertakings to nurture and give opportunities to promising young talents – came into being at the Washington National Opera, and similar objectives are at the heart of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, subsequently founded under the auspices of Los Angeles Opera.
Plácido Domingo has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and has been a Kennedy Center Honoree in the United States; he is also a Commandant of the Legion of Honor in France, an Honorary Knight of the British Empire, and both a Grande Ufficiale and a Cavaliere di Gran Croce of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic. He has received honorary doctorates from Oxford University and New York University for his lifelong commitment and contribution to music and the arts. In October 2009, King Carl Gustaf of Sweden presented him with the first Birgit Nilsson Prize (at one million dollars, the most generous prize in the world of classical music) for his outstanding achievements in opera; the prize was donated to help fund Operalia. Domingo has raised millions of dollars through benefit concerts to aid the victims of Mexico’s devastating 1985 earthquake, of the floods caused by Hurricane Paulina in Guerrero and Yucatán (also in Mexico and in El Salvador), and of the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where, in 2009, the stage of the Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts was named for him. In 2006, he conducted Verdi’s Requiem in Warsaw, to commemorate the first anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s passing.
Many of Domingo’s recordings – including some of light and Latino music – have sold over a million copies, and this achievement has garnered for him several gold and platinum records as well as twelve Grammy awards. In addition, he has collaborated in three famous opera films: La traviata and Otello under the direction of Franco Zeffirelli and Carmen directed by Francesco Rosi. Domingo was honored with Emmy awards for the television film “Hommage à Sevilla” and for the Met’s Silver Gala. He has also made excursions into popular culture: his voice was featured in the 2008 Disney film “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” in a 2012 special edition of the children’s educational cartoon “Dora the Explorer,” and as Skeleton Jorge in the 2014 animated film “Book of Life,” and he appeared as himself (in cartoon format) in a 2007 episode of “The Simpsons.” He appeared at the closing night of the 2014 iTunes Festival and performed with pianist Lang Lang in a headliner concert during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Domingo is President of Europa Nostra, an organization that champions projects of restoration and preservation of Europe's cultural heritage. His role as Chairman of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) has him lobbying for the protection of intellectual property within the music industry and on the Internet. He also sits on the Board of Trustees of the National YoungArts Foundation, which supports all artistic disciplines among young American-based high school graduates; through this program he became the first teacher on the HBO MasterClass series, on which he was followed by Frank Gehry, Julian Schnabel, Josh Groban, Joshua Bell, Alan Alda, Renée Fleming, Michael Tilson Thomas, Liv Ullmann, Edward Albee, Jacques d'Amboise, Kathleen Turner, and others.
Domingo’s strong bond with zarzuela stimulated him to promote this wonderful form of Spanish operetta and make it more accessible to an international audience. He appeared in Federico Moreno Torroba’s Luisa Fernanda in Milan and Vienna, singing – like his father many years ago – the baritone role of Don Vidal. Luisa Fernanda was also performed by Washington National Opera in 2004, at the Teatro Real in Madrid in 2006 and by Los Angeles Opera in 2007.
Years ago, a fan suggested that Plácido Domingo (whose name translates literally as “Placid Sunday”) should use the saying “If I rest, I rust™” as a motto. In fact, Domingo has been incessantly active since the age of sixteen ― and the more he has studied, travelled and performed, the more he has felt fulfilled and the deeper his love of music has become. All in all, he considers himself the happiest person he knows, since he has seen much of the world and has been able to give pleasure to millions through his art. He thinks of his talent and his voice as gifts to be shared, and this is why he is currently working on a book , The Joy of Opera, in which he will convey the greatness of the art he has so devotedly served throughout his long professional life.