When Placido Domingo sang his first Otello at the Metropolitan Opera in 1979, there was much anticipation and even worry. Was the title role of Verdi's Shakespearean opera too heavy for the 38-year-old tenor? Would he strain to carry it off? Would it damage his voice?
Domingo's performance for the Met's opening night turned out to be a rousing success, and in his review, New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg called him "one of the great Otellos of our day," adding, "[Domingo] approached the role with a kind of furious intensity, and with a darker vocal quality than uses elsewhere in his repertory."
In retrospect, concern about long-term vocal damage appears unfounded: Now 72, Domingo remains a paragon of longevity in the opera field, and continues to sing on major stages while juggling roles as a conductor and an administrator. In the coming months he is scheduled to sing in Berlin, Vienna, Valencia, Spain and the Metropolitan Opera, among other houses. In time for the Verdi bicentennial, he has just released a recording of Verdi baritone arias for Sony.
In an interview with WQXR's Jeff Spurgeon, Domingo called Otello his favorite Verdi role of all time. "The epic of my career in Verdi has to be the monologue of Otello in the third act,” he said, referring to the tenor soliloquy, "Dio! mi potevi scagliar." “It is just unbelievable that the evil driving of Iago destroys this hero in minutes."
"I was able to detach myself, like in no other Verdi opera, from the fact that I was singing,” he said of his interpretive approach. "I was there, doing a character. I didn’t care about the difficult passages and I forgot about everything."
But Otello was more than a compelling character. It planted the seeds for a long-term transition from tenor to baritone roles, with their darker color pallet. "When I was singing Otellos I needed really dark colors; you cannot sing Otello with a light voice."
Domingo channeled those darker hues when, in 2009, he began taking on baritone parts starting with the title character of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. He sang it first at the invitation of conductor Daniel Barenboim for the Berlin State Opera and then La Scala. "Then, every theater was interested,” Domingo said. Among the other offers was a live telecast of Rigoletto from Mantua, Italy.
The singer says he has performed 24 different Verdi roles, 19 as a tenor, five as a baritone and another 12 as a conductor. Citing his website slogan, "when I rest, I rust," Domingo says he has no immediate plans to retire, even despite some recent health setbacks. "I feel comfortable in the baritone register," he said. "Every day, more and more, with the coloring in the voice, I feel more comfortable."
Listen to the full interview above and tune in for a one-hour special with Domingo on Tuesday night at 8 pm on WQXR.
Below: Watch a 2002 performance of Domingo as Otello - and tell us about your favorite Domingo moment in the comments box below.