Oh, Luciano! Opera's Other Tenor, Placido Domingo, Is Hot on Your Heels

updated 03/29/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/29/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

For almost a decade Placido Domingo has been the tenor's tenor, a professional of astounding energy, range of voice and acting ability. In opera's battle of the high C's, his rival, Luciano Pavarotti, makes little effort to play any character but himself, but wins the popular audience with his Falstaffian exuberance. By contrast, Spanish-born Domingo is the aristocrat, the consummate musician and the more versatile singer. Currently he is proving that his appeal reaches beyond opera's dress circle. His pop album Perhaps Love, with John Denver, has just gone gold, although classical critics are feeling vaguely let down. Denver's songs, sniffed the New York Times, "are not really his m├ętier."

Three operatic performances on PBS this season plus TV concerts and an NBC special on Caruso have made Domingo the year's most televised tenor. Earlier this month he knocked the silk socks off Manhattan critics when he opened the Met's new production of Tales of Hoffmann. "Little short of magnificent," trumpeted one. "The Hoffmann of Every woman's dreams," chimed another.

While recent performances by Pavarotti, 46, have been increasingly criticized, Domingo's voice is getting better even as he maintains a breakneck schedule of up to 60 operas a year. This summer, as Pavarotti's first feature film, Yes, Giorgio!, is released, Domingo is scheduled to work on a movie version of The Merry Widow, with a new script by Alan Jay Lerner.

Domingo's ventures into the not-so-fine arts are, in fact, true to his roots. His parents were stars of the zarzuela, a kind of Spanish operetta. When Placido was 8, the family moved from his native Madrid to Mexico City. Though he sang constantly around the house ("It was a nice voice, nothing special," he says), Placido pointed toward a conductor's career. Married and a father by 17, he dropped out of the local conservatory of music to support his child bride and their newborn son, Jose (now 23 and a London photographer). Then, at 18, Domingo successfully auditioned for the Mexican National Opera and the same year was divorced from his wife. ("We were too young," he says of his first marriage.)

Within the company, he courted the soprano Marta Ornelas. A neighbor once called the police during one of his post-midnight serenades beneath Marta's window. They married in 1962.

Marta quit singing to raise their sons, Placido and Alvaro, and to mother and coach Domingo. When he moved from the New York City Opera to the Met, she first kept house in New Jersey; then for nine years the couple made Barcelona their home base "to bring up the children as Europeans." As for Domingo's image as a great lover, she is not disturbed. "I understand all these women who fall in love with him," says Marta, who has now joined him in Manhattan. "He is such an adorable companion."

At the Met Domingo pulls in the top scale ($8,000 a performance), while in Europe he can make more than $20,000 a night. This season he is singing in 11 cities on four continents. Though he probably grosses a million a year, he also bears the cost of constant international commuting (first-class to accommodate his 6'2", 200-pound frame).

"Why can't people accept the pace at which I work?" wonders Domingo. "I sing every four days. That's the same rate that Tom Seaver pitches." Placido is a fan of the Cincinnati ballplayer and indeed relates pitching to singing ("One false move and the pitcher blows his concentration"). Domingo has been a sports enthusiast since his days as a high school soccer goalie. A few years ago, during a rehearsal break, he impulsively joined a stagehands' soccer game, sprained his back, but defied doctor's orders and sang a double bill that night. Twenty-five pounds lighter after the Weight Watchers diet, Domingo now avoids alcohol and desserts. He favors jogging suits for rehearsals and likes to go to Shea Stadium ball games with singer Robert Merrill. But, notes a friend, "He has no private life. Everything is work." Explains Marta, "To my Placido, opera is not a profession. It is in his blood. He loves the music so much, he would need two lives to really enjoy and appreciate it all."

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