AN interview isn’t normally going well when your subject has got the hump. But when he is Placido Domingo, and he has just leapt up from the sofa to give you his version of Verdi’s hunchback jester Rigoletto, then it is a less perilous development in the conversation.
“It’s difficult, you know?” he says as he twists his body this way and that.
“I try not to have too much of a hump,” Domingo grunts as he mimes the character’s usual hobbling gait. “Although they talk about him being deformed, I’m taller than most Rigolettos.”
The Spanish tenor stands straighter and looks more real, more wary, more interesting. “If you are like this, it’s enough. It doesn’t have to be exaggerated.”
We are talking backstage at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, where Domingo is rehearsing for the European premiere of an operatic version of Il Postino (he plays the postman’s wise mentor, poet Pablo Neruda).
Later this month, Domingo will give an evening of arias and duets in London with Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu and, later in the year, will appear in arena concerts in Sydney and Melbourne with Welsh mezzo Katherine Jenkins.
“I am a beast of the stage,” he concedes, stroking a leonine beard. “But I have been doing a lot of concerts because it’s a good way to be in contact with the public.”
Domingo turned 70 in January: did he imagine the moment quite like this? “It’s quite an event for me,” he responds. “And whatever I imagined, I never thought that I would still be singing. Conducting, yes. But this is a bonus.”
Hard to imagine, too, that his tenor record of 130 operatic roles will be topped. “One hundred and thirty-six roles,” he corrects me, courteously.
The singer is craggier than he was once. He has a bit of a paunch, too. But when he flexes his dramatic muscles, Domingo remains a dominating presence. The 188cm frame is imposing. His charisma is underpinned by easy charm and a tendency to self-deprecation.
No doubt the hundreds of thousands who flocked to see the Three Tenors recognised the same virtues. Opera’s most famous trio toured for 12 years after the heady days of the 1990 World Cup, when for a brief moment it seemed as if opera was as popular as football.
If you were casting them as footballers, Domingo was the linchpin defender, Carreras did chippy work in midfield and Pavarotti was the show-off striker. Core opera fans, however, knew who was the most versatile, striking and courageous.
As he contemplates his next round of performances, that remarkable voice is in flux. I called him a tenor, but Rigoletto is a baritone role, as is Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, which he sang last year.
Although he once promised that Boccanegra would be a “grand finale”, Domingo will return to London’s Royal Opera House next season in a three-act gala. And he rattles off a breathtaking list of new roles in the pipeline, from Verdi (Rigoletto, Germont from La traviata, Miller from Luisa Miller), to Massenet (Athanael in Thais) and even Handel (Samson).
However audacious it seems to drop a vocal register, he says the baritone v tenor thing is actually a red herring. “I know how to colour the voice,” he observes, “and I have substantial weight in the lower part, and the middle, for the big line, the legato cantabile [“tied together” in a song-like way].
“But I never pretend to be a baritone. I can’t say if I’ll ever be one properly.”
The baritone as father is one of those cast-iron operatic rules, particularly in Verdi. “They give me a lot more satisfaction than the heroes and big lovers,” Domingo says. “OK, when you’re a father and you have young children you’re still close to those young parts, but then your children start to grow and you start to feel like a real father figure.”
Born in Madrid in 1941, the young Placido followed his parents, singers of traditional Spanish operetta, zarzuela, to Mexico at the age of eight. It was while studying music at the National Conservatory — he had an eye to being a conductor — he married his first wife, a fellow student, at 16. That year he became a father, to Jose, who is now his manager cum assistant.
“It’s a joke when you are a teenager and become a father,” he says. “I had my second child when I was 25 and third when I was 28. And I think I was not even mature for the third one. I was building my career. I didn’t know what it was to be a father.”
Enter wife No 2, Mexican opera singer Marta Ornelas, mother of his two younger sons, Placido Jr (a composer) and Alvaro (a film producer). Next year will be their 50th wedding anniversary.
“She’s not only my wife, mother of my children and mother to my grandchildren, she’s also an expert, and she advised me so much for my career, advice that any of my colleagues would have liked to have received.”
Marta Domingo dropped her singing career to support his and to look after their sons. She later became known for her stage productions, some of which have appeared at the two companies that Domingo has run as artistic director, the Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera.
“People remember her productions as really beautiful. Maybe her only mistake has been that she’s my wife.”
Meaning that people think she gets the jobs because of his influence? “The critics sometimes say things that are completely unfair,” he says, sighing. “Most of the productions she did I didn’t have anything to do with.”
But her primary legacy to opera is how she helped to mould her husband’s voice and longevity. In Tel Aviv, where a 20-something Domingo incongruously learned his trade, he blitzed through role after role, prepped by Marta and their friend Franco Iglesias. The tally was 280 performances in 2 1/2 years.
But he has been careful not to overtax his voice. “With more than 3500 performances under my belt you can find very, very little the occasions when I sang two days in a row.”
For tenors, he says, that is particularly important. “I always compare it to . . . baseball. In baseball every player plays every day, but the pitcher can only play every four days.”
He has nothing but pride for the Three Tenors phenomenon, no matter what monstrosities the mega-trio were to spawn. “Many things came after,” he jokes. “After the Three Tenors came the Three Sopranos, then the Celtic Tenors, then the Three Finnish Basses. But it was great for everybody. I know there were many people who were purist about it, but I don’t care because I have given to the purists all my life. I have the right to enjoy it.”
Crossover, or something like it, is a leitmotif throughout his career. “This is something that has always been. Opera singers like Gigli, Pons, Chaliapin, Melchior . . . you see all those people involved in what was crossover those days.
“If there was TV in those days, they would have sung on TV, and if there were pop singers in those days, they would have sung with them. If something is in accord with what is going on, you do it.”
Last month a concert of his in Toronto was streamed live on Facebook. “It was an experiment,” he says. “You have to go wherever is technology, but without betraying what you are doing.”
The odd arena gig and internet adventure is understandable. But why go on in the distinctly odd, uniquely draining world of opera? “I feel I can give of myself. I live and enjoy the characters.” He smiles. “I do love the suffering on stage. But to be a suffering character is something that I don’t like to be in life.”
That’s a contrast with his two complicated colleagues from the Three Tenors. Pavarotti sang and acted the boyish fool until the end of his days, but off-stage he struggled with darker demons. Carreras battled health problems: his opera successes — now he confines himself to concerts — were signposts that he was conquering them. Domingo, if he has dark days, channels them into tormented figures.
Meanwhile, Domingo the good guy is supposed to be sorting out international soccer. The singer has missed only one World Cup final since 1970 and is a keen amateur player. Last month came the bizarre news that the disgraced Sepp Blatter, president of the international football federation, had appointed Domingo to a committee (with Henry Kissinger) to restore ethics to FIFA.
“I have always been going to World Cups, and they’ve always helped me with tickets, but I don’t know what they expect of me,” he says, suggesting he knew nothing about the appointment until it was made. “I would say they want me to give a clean-up of football, but I don’t know what one can do. I wish I could do something positive. I would love to be more involved . . . but I have my own career.”
And he is far from his last bout of suffering.
“I won’t sing one more day than I should, but I won’t sing one more day than I can. This is my love, this is my passion. And as long as the public come, and the theatre is sold out, I will be singing.”
It is time for rehearsals. And the theatre is sold out.