When Men Sing More Than One Role in the Same Opera

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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.