When Men Sing More Than One Role in the Same Opera

Friday, August 17, 2012 - 09:24 AM

It is a rare gift among singers, dancers and actors to know when and how to gracefully let go of a part for which they are no longer suitable. As often as not, performers cling to prize roles as a franchise for as long as audiences are willing to buy tickets.

Think of Carol Channing as Dolly Levi or Yul Brynner as the King of Siam. They played those parts thousands of times over the decades and audiences were delighted to be in their presence. But, by the end, these performers strained credibility as productions had to be altered to accommodate their reduced abilities. In the case of Brynner, it was painful to watch. Channing miraculously retained her allure and crowd-pleasing ability forever and that was worth the price of admission. I do hope she finally will be recognized this year with a long overdue Kennedy Center honor.

Recently, when I wrote a tribute to the late Evelyn Lear, it occurred to me that some performers make the intelligent and courageous decision to take on a second role in the same work rather than overstay their welcome in the principal part. Let me cite two famous examples from the theater. Dame Judith Anderson was the great Medea of the mid-twentieth century and, in old age, was deeply affecting in the supporting role of the nurse opposite the Medea of Diana Rigg. Similarly, I saw Rigg as Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion in 1974 and, last year, she was a knowing Mrs. Higgins in a revival of Shaw’s play. Both Anderson and Rigg remained in the hearts of audiences because they embraced aging rather than pretend it did not exist.

In opera it is not so much a question of the aging of the face or physique as the inevitable changes in the voice, which is where the performance is centered. I chatted with Mirella Freni when she was in her mid-sixties and still singing Mimì. “I’m old enough to be Mimì’s grandmother,” said the soprano, but vocally, physically and dramatically she was entirely convincing. In contrast, Evelyn Lear was an unforgettable Lulu in the early 1960s. While she retained her physical beauty for decades, her voice’s center moved toward mezzo-soprano in later years and she became a heartbreaking Countess Geschwitz in Berg’s opera rather than overstaying her welcome as the soprano Lulu.

In thinking about this phenomenon of doing more than one role in the same opera, it struck me that there is a huge difference between male and female singers. A male singer might do a small role in an opera early in his career and then take on the lead, but he would seldom revert to a smaller role in that opera in his later years. Females often transition from starring roles to interesting character parts. I will discuss famous and admirable examples of this in my next article.

A Multiplicity of Mozartean Roles

There is one opera, Don Giovanni, in which it is normal for men to do two roles. Bass-baritones, including Ferruccio Furlanetto, René Pape, Samuel Ramey and Bryn Terfel, have sung both Don Giovanni and Leporello. This makes sense, as these two roles are interlocked and, in fact, the characters pretend to be one another at the start of the second act. There are some bass-baritones who sing Figaro and the Count Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro, but there are range differences in these two roles. Similarly, in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, some bass-baritones who once did the title role later take on the oily character part of Don Basilio.

Mozart and earlier composers provided more flexibility for role-changing for men because some parts were written for castrato and then were sung by mezzo-sopranos or tenors. Luciano Pavarotti sang Idamante, son of Idomeneo, in England very early in his career. Listen to his gorgeous singing of that part in this rare clip. In the 1980s, Pavarotti played Idomeneo at the Met and his son was played by mezzo Frederica von Stade. You can watch the entire performance here:

With one outstanding exception, I am hard-pressed to think of male singers who have customarily done more than one role in the same opera. That exception, of course, is Plácido Domingo, who is a phenomenon unto himself.  Last time I checked, Domingo--born in 1941--has played 139 roles in his illustrious career.  

Domingo’s secret, apart from longevity, stamina and intelligence, is that he began his career with baritonal underpinnings to his tenor voice. He sang lower-voiced supporting parts at the beginning as well as character tenor parts before taking on starring roles. Now he judiciously chooses tenor roles that are congenial to his current vocal abilities and has added important baritone parts, especially those of Verdi. These roles, including Simon Boccanegra, Rigoletto and the upcoming Giorgio Germont next spring at the Met, show tenor colorings. Some opera lovers have lamented that Domingo’s Verdi baritone parts are sung more in the tenor range, but I find that his musicianship and insights into the characters offer many compensations.

Domingo added the tenor Gabriele Adorno, a smaller role in Simon Boccanegra, in the 1990s, rather late in his career and, only a few years later, began his transition by doing the title role, written for baritone. It is interesting to contrast how he sounded as Gabriele with his Boccanegra to understand  how he decides what to sing and when to sing it.

Domingo is one of the rare singers who teaches himself his roles at the piano. He also has been a conductor for decades, which means that he has learned whole operas rather than just the music for his own role. As such, he found roles early on that he might do in an opera later in his career. He sang Borsa in Rigoletto as his first role, in Mexico City, in 1959. Ten years later he was a dashing Duke of Mantua and, quite recently, played the title role. He conducted the opera at the Met in 2002.

Mining Roles in Familiar Operas

In 1960 Domingo sang the old Emperor Altoum in Turandot and, a few days later, was Pang. He did not do Calaf until 1969, at the Arena di Verona. Here is a glorious performance from that time. Might he one day sing Calaf’s father, Timur? Also in 1960, Domingo sang Remendado in Carmen. His first role outside of Mexico was Don José in the same opera, in Tel Aviv in 1963. He conducted Carmen at the Met in 1988. I wonder if there is an Escamillo in his future?

On August 21,1961, he was the slimy Spoletta in Tosca. On September 30 of the same year he was Mario Cavaradossi in one of his first major roles. It has been one of this most-performed parts ever since. He conducted the opera at the Met in 1991 in the same period he was singing Parsifal. A Domingo Scarpia in Tosca is sure to come, if it has not already while I was not looking. Also in 1961 he played the scheming Goro in Madama Butterfly and added Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton the following year. He conducted the opera at the Met in 1995. Sharpless in this opera is a wonderful, though not particularly showy, part and I think Domingo could make it quite poignant.

Opera lovers hope Domingo will continue singing for a long time. Not only is he the last great star of his generation but he is a superb artist. He once said he would likely retire after doing Simon Boccanegra but he obviously has found more roles he wants to do. I have another role for him: He was a stirring Riccardo in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera and I think he would be equally fine as Renato. 

If you could propose one role to Plácido Domingo that is realistic and fascinating, which would it be?

Note: In his next article, Fred Plotkin will review women that have played multiple roles in the same opera.

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Comments [10]

Matthew Brooks

I believe Domingo's first role outside of Mexico was actually in 1961 when he played the supporting role of Arturo in Lucia Di Lammermoor at Dallas Opera. If I'm correct Joan Sutherland was the Lucia. Domingo has sung multiple roles within the same opera more than probably anyone. I'd like to mention another tenor who did this on a couple occasions, Ramon Vinay. Vinay was definitively the only man to ever play both Otello and Iago.

Aug. 25 2012 12:30 AM
william dean

Domingo needs to play the role of retiree, with all due respect. If he continues to take on baritone roles, he is not fully respecting the musical, baritonal, and interpretative properties. I am not sure I understand his compensations he provides singing these baritone role as the author suggests.

Aug. 24 2012 10:22 PM

Nice lovely article, but confusing. There are many, many famous examples of singers changing fach, and often. Most singers I know study by the piano, learning the whole opera. And Domingos longevity has to do with genetics, charm, beauty of sound, sensibility in not singing too much or wrong parts, and always working! No sane singer would try to imitate his very odd and tense vocal production. it strangely works for him. also, most older male singers revert to smaller parts

Aug. 24 2012 10:04 PM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau county

Very fine and interesting article. Thanks. Domingo is that marvelous type of tenor, the voice darkens and can then do baritone roles. I think Vinay ended his career as Iago, not sure. What a handsome devil he was. As for Domingo, he is a very fine singing actor. Does he really have to sing Papa Germont, one of the most boring roles in opera. My father used to say and I know you understand Italian, "Il piu fesso baritono puo cantare Papa Germont e Sharpless".
My very best wishes,

Aug. 20 2012 02:53 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Thank you Fred for your correction of my comments. Schiotz's performances of Lieder , particularly Schubert and Schumann are landmarks of interpretation, vocalized by an admirable vocal technique and distinctive timbre.

Aug. 19 2012 12:21 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York

To Kenneth B.Lane, a correction to your comment. Aksel Schøtz was Danish, not Swedish. His sad disfigurement was the result of cancer, not an automobile accident. He did not do too many opera roles but was sovereign in Lieder. With his voice change, he explored baritone repertory after having spent years doing tenor rep. He was a close friend of my family and I knew him well when I was a boy. He is mentioned in my recent article about my collection of recordings.

Aug. 19 2012 03:24 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Three world famous Met Opera heldentenors, Lauritz Melchior, Ramon Vinay and Set Svanholm, whom I personally knew for most if their careers in the US and Europe, started their careers as baritones and trained to become heldentenors. Vinay in mid-career returned to the baritone and eventually bass fach. A famous Swedish tenor, Aksel Schiotz, after an automobile accident which paralyzed one side of his face and limited drastically any use of his upper range, resolved his career continuence by turning to the baritone rep.
GREATEST LOVE SONGS IN BROADWAY MUSICALS is a 23 selection program choice that I will sing at the New Life EXpo at the New Yorker Hotel on Saturday October 20th, with my commentaries on each selection. I am a Wagnerian romantischer heldentenor. My wide vocal range permits me to sing music of the tenor , baritone and bass rep convincingly and aptly. The selections are by Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Frank Loesser, Andrew Lloyd Webber, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Rudolf Friml, Harold Arlen, Frederick Loewe, Burton Lane, Cy Coleman, Mitch Leigh, Jerry Bock, Stephen Sondheim, Victor Herbert, Jerry Herman, Oscar Straus, Joe Darion, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Sigmund Romberg, Hoagy Carmichael, and Ralph Blane. My performances on Broadway, in opera, and in three solo concerts and one Joint Recital in the main hall, Isaac Stern Auditorium, of Carnegie Hall, credentialize my teaching voice production and coaching all the Wagner and Shakespeare roles at the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute. www. WagnerOpera.com

Aug. 18 2012 08:22 PM
Barbara from New Zealand

Thank you for such an interesting article. I enjoyed reading it.

Aug. 18 2012 01:06 AM
Julian Sachs

Let's not forget Domingo singing two roles "simultaneously" (albeit with overlapped recordings) in "Barbiere" in Ponelle's Homage to Sevilla:


Aug. 17 2012 12:52 PM
Lan Xiao

Thank you for this article.

I would love to hear Domingo as Don Giovanni. (He sang Don Ottavio very early in his career.) I never really think the role of Don Giovanni should be a bass-baritone part although there were great basses, such as Cesare Siepi who was most convincing. Also Domingo’s CORE timbre, still tenorial (and always will be), should be able to emphasize the contrasts between the Don and Leporello.

My wish is just my wish. Domingo already has three new Verdi baritone roles in his announced schedule, Francesco Foscari, Germont padre and Nabucco, all very important undertakings. I with him all the success with those roles. What I’m sure is that he will always be true to the music, true to the art of opera, and true to himself.

I love him forever.

Aug. 17 2012 11:22 AM

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