Despite months of preparation for the title role in Franco Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac, Plácido Domingo still found himself adjusting to one crucial facet of Cyrano's character during performances.
"Sometimes I would cross my eyes because I would see this big nose in front of me," admits Domingo, who tried on seven noses of different shapes and sizes during rehearsals before settling on one. "But that only happened in the dressing room," he declares with a laugh, "I never did that on stage!"
At an age when most singers are either contemplating retirement or quietly slipping into smaller character parts‹the superstar Spanish tenor just turned 65‹Domingo is not only still a highly sought after leading man, but is also tackling new roles in both long-neglected and world-premiere works. These include Cyrano, which he debuted at the Met last season and reprises this month, and the title character in Tan Dun's opera The First Emperor, which will receive its world premiere at the Met next December.
Over the last several years, Domingo has added three especially weighty and challenging roles to his ever-growing repertoire, which illustrate the breadth of his musicianship. In addition to being general director of both the Washington National Opera and the Los Angeles Opera, he has also become a well-respected conductor of opera and symphony orchestras.
"I'm doing more and more things," he acknowledges. "In addition to my duties in Washington and Los Angeles, I'm having many more offers to conduct‹and I'm taking them, because I enjoy it so much. But I'm still singing‹it tempts me very much. And sometimes I say, 'Okay, Plácido, how much can you expand the singing career if you conduct?' But I'll keep expanding it as long as I feel comfortable singing."
Expand it he does. Cyrano marks the 121st role in Domingo's vast repertoire‹42 of which he's sung at the Met, with more than 500 performances here to his credit. In the process of broadening his role repertory, Domingo has managed to broaden the overall operatic repertory as well, helping to return several forgotten operas, like Giordano's Fedora and Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini, to the operatic stage. Cyrano, composed by Alfano in 1936, is the tenor's most recent repertory addition.
"Through the years I've searched for works with good roles for the tenor," Domingo explains, "in that they are important vocally and dramatically. After I had done so many roles, I wanted to find something that was uncharacteristic‹like nothing that I had ever done. And when I found Cyrano, and saw the score, and saw the story, which of course I knew, I immediately thought it was a superb role for me."
What appealed to Domingo most about Cyrano's character was his striking contrast to the romantic hero the tenor typically portrays. "Cyrano is obviously a loser," he says, "because of his physical aspects, and his insecurities. But then, all of a sudden he can speak through the lips of somebody else, and in his letters, he can express himself, and be loved. He is such a noble character‹he is so good to everyone and suffers so much for his love. It's a beautiful role, and I'm so happy I could discover it this late in my career, and that I had the help of Francesca Zambello, our wonderful director."
As the demands of Domingo's career have grown, so has the time it takes him to learn a new role‹from a couple of weeks, in the early days, to several months now. His core method of study, however, has remained primarily the same.
"I sit down at the piano, playing it myself, and I connect the words with the music. At the start of my career, just sitting and playing it, I would learn it. But as I got busier I needed more time; and now I go everyplace with the score: I go to the dentist with the score, when I'm flying I take the score, if I take a taxi I take the score. I'm always reading, always studying‹trying to use every moment."
When available, Domingo also listens to recordings of the role he's currently learning. "Some singers say, 'Oh, I don't like to hear any recordings,' but I do. I like to find everything that is available‹as a tribute to the artists who did it before me. I want to hear what they did."
How, then, does he feel about creating a role for a world premiere, such as Tan Dun's The First Emperor? "It's a beautiful challenge," states the singer, who is already anxious to have the score one year before the opera's premiere. "Also," he says, smiling broadly, "it has a built-in advantage: you are going to be the best, and the worst, so far."
Even with his unceasing audience popularity and critical success, Domingo is surprisingly pragmatic about the present‹and future‹path of his vocal career. "Your own voice demands the direction in which it's to go, and what's right for it at the time. You add some roles, and you give some up. Little by little, I've had to say, 'well, this role is more taxing, and the public has seen me sing this role so well before, so why should I be suffering with it now? If I can give them something else, I prefer to give them something else.
"I'm still in the process of adding new roles to my repertory," he continues reflectively, "I just don't know for how long. But it's a wonderful feeling being able to continue to develop."
Domingo continues to develop his operatic chops offstage as well‹in the orchestra pit and behind the general director's desk‹and is learning that with each new position comes a new, and greater, level of responsibility.
"As a singer, I used to worry‹and still worry‹about myself. As a conductor, I worry about everything else, because the whole evening is in my hands. But as a general director, when I sit in the box at an opening night, that's when I feel that a further responsibility has come to me. The casting, the production ... I'm responsible for it all. It's about pleasing everybody."
The hardest to please may be Domingo himself, who, despite being the most renowned tenor in the world, and in the golden years of his storied career, is still unwilling to rest on his laurels.
"I don't have the need to do any new roles," he says nonchalantly. "But there are several," he adds, with a sudden glimmer in his eye, "that I am contemplating, some that I will do: Handel's Oreste, and Bajazet, in his opera Tamerlano, and also there's a Hamlet, by an Italian composer contemporary to Verdi. For that one, right now I'm looking for a score."