Unlikely fan: Why opera's biggest star Domingo Placido is crazy for Lady Gaga
00:40 GMT, 4 May 2012
Funny how sniffy you can get about hotel lobby music when you are waiting for an audience with Placido Domingo. A piped arrangement of Moon River is never going to make the heart soar but today it is particularly irksome.
Don’t these people know that arguably the greatest tenor on the planet is in the building I reclaim the cultural high ground with Domingo’s greatest hits on my iPod.
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Opera icon: Domingo Placido revealed he is a fan of Lady Gaga and thinks she has a good voice
‘Nothing,’ he says in a surprisingly soft voice. ‘My No. 1 rule is I do not put anything in my ears. No iPod, nothing like this. Even on a plane I won’t put the headphones on to watch a film. When I am teaching, I tell all the young musicians “never put something in your ear to hear music”. Hear it naturally. Then memorise it. The ear is the most precious thing a singer has.’
My biggest worry is not Placido’s ears but his voice. Opera stars can be bad interviewees, because their throat muscles ‘need to rest’. My other worry is he’ll be very highbrow and turn a question about whether he sings in the shower into an exposition about his boxed-set recording of Verdi’s aria.
Mercifully he answers: ‘Of course! I have some of my best performances in the shower. You can risk anything there without worrying about mistakes. I sing more or less my whole repertoire.’
Lady Gaga with several trophies at the MTV Europe Music Awards 2011
He’s no opera snob either, which shouldn’t come as a surprise as he once recorded an album with John Denver, and he says: ‘I love Celine Dion very much. And Mariah Carey. And Madonna. And Whitney Houston had a wonderful voice.’
His mournful eyes look desperately sad at the mention of Whitney. But then he smiles: ‘And I think Lady Gaga has a very good voice. Absolutely. She has a wonderful voice.
‘I know she’s very wild in her performance, and clever, and she does all these things to please the youth. But when you listen to her, the voice is good.’
A Domingo/Gaga collaboration won’t be happening soon, though, as he is booked solid for years despite being 71.
Next month he is in London for a production of Turandot that is being described as the biggest opera in the world.
Eight hundred performers, many of them from China, will take part in the extravaganza directed by Zhang Yimon, the man responsible for the Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony.
It will be at Wembley Stadium, specifically targeting those people who attained their operatic education from the Go Compare ads.
The only damp squib is that Domingo won’t be singing but conducting. So will people pay up to 80 a ticket to hear him not sing
He insists: ‘I think they will feel my passion just as much through my conducting. The point is bringing this great work to people who may not be usual opera-goers. That is what is important.’
Most people are familiar with Turandot because of its aria Nessun Dorma, the ‘football song’ made famous by Domingo’s pal Luciano Pavarotti during the 1990 World Cup. The pair sang it with Jose Carreras six years later at Wembley. And their collaboration as The Three Tenors brought opera to the masses in a way that’s still stirring.
Placido says: ‘I don’t think any classical singer will ever sell that amount of records again.
‘We’ve had a lot of requests to do another Three Tenors, with someone else taking Luciano’s role but I’ve turned them down. I may sing with another tenor but not two. I will never do The Three Tenors again out of respect to Luciano.
‘Anyway, it could not be repeated. It was unique.’ Luciano died from pancreatic cancer in 2007, at the age Domingo is now. His death, and the fact Placido had a malignant polyp removed in 2010, must have given a jolt, as he hit the treadmill and is now more svelte. ‘About a year ago I told myself that I had to start keeping myself in shape,’ he admits. ‘I don’t do as much as I want but I go on the treadmill, I lift some weights.
‘Dying is a fact of life but when you see people of your generation go, you start to be more aware. It is a reality. There are no miracles, we are mortals.’ On the subject of age, he explains why he now splits his time between singing and conducting.
‘Logically, I shouldn’t be singing any more. At this age, you would expect the voice to be going. The cracking is not what you worry about. A cracking voice is an accident, like a dancer falling. The thing to worry about is when the throat gets weakened and cannot support the voice. Then the projection goes.’
His voice’s amazing power is disguised by his gentle, understated personality, and he admits he likes to keep the drama for concerts.
‘I always say that I play all sorts of characters on stage. I am a king and an emperor, a pauper and a vagabond. I am a god, a painter, a writer, a matador. I love to suffer . . . on the stage. We all have suffering in life that we cannot avoid but I do not seek it out off the stage.’
He hasn’t had a volatile private life, and has been happily married to wife Marta for 50 years. They met at music college, and he recalls: ‘There was a very famous singer who studied with us, Giuseppe di Stefano, and all the girls were crazy about him, so she was not interested in me. But in time, she changed her mind.’
Placido Domingo performs with the New York Philharmonic during the Centinnial Gala Afternoon Concert in Carnegie Hall
Previously he was wed at 16 to pianist Ana Maria Guerra Cue. They had a son but split up within a year.
‘I was not mature the first time, but I cannot say I was mature the second time either,’ he muses. ‘Maybe I am not mature now.’
But of his second marriage, which brought him two more sons, he adds: ‘We had a lot in common, we studied together, we went to Israel to sing together. We share everything still.’
Marta gave up her career as a soprano to raise their sons. ‘When she was expecting our first baby she said, “You know what, I am not going to sing. I want to dedicate myself to your career.” I didn’t think she had to make that sacrifice but she was convinced. She has gone back to stage-directing now, which is wonderful to see.’
Now, there are eight grandchildren, and some of them like to play at being mini Three Tenors. Placido says: ‘They get dressed up with the ties and the glasses, and they know all the songs by heart.
‘All my grandchildren have quite operatic voices. They will be involved in music, I think.’ When it comes to music, which is his favourite song What, say, would he like to be played at his funeral
‘I haven’t thought of that,’ he answers. ‘I think death is so frightening, such a mystery, that I don’t associate it with music. Maybe at my funeral they will have a toast, with a good red wine.’
His voice will probably die before then, and that is something he has thought about. Each time he performs he says a prayer to St Cecilia, the patron saint of singers, asking her to protect his voice.
‘When it goes, which it will, I will miss it — but I will go down on my knees and say, “Thank you, God in Heaven, for letting me sing so long.”’
Turandot with Placido Domingo is at Wembley Stadium on June 23. For tickets, go to www.livenation.co.uk or call 0844 576 5483.