On the Pitcher’s Mound with Plácido Domingo

There are ballplayers who can carry a tune, and tenors who can swing some wood. But nobody belts one like Plácido Domingo

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Los Angeles magazine, February 2008

The pitcher leans in and studies the plate with an intensity that makes it clear he means business. Wasn’t this supposed to be a friendly exhibition? Well, Plácido Domingo never does anything halfway.

The man on the mound is one of opera’s greatest tenors, famous for his luscious voice, longevity—he’s still going strong at 67—and over-the-top work ethic. The previous day, Domingo was in New York, where he starred in Iphigénie en Tauride in the afternoon and conducted Roméo et Juliette at night; he then caught a red-eye so he could conduct today’s matinee of La Bohème at the Music Center. Domingo’s schedule is so formidable, people assume he’s got no interest in having fun. Not so. He is crazy about soccer, which is big in his native Madrid, and baseball, which he discovered while growing up in Mexico. “I love the game so much,” he says. He also loves L.A., where he has helped the city’s opera company zoom to prominence. Like any good Angeleno, Domingo is a Dodger fan. Which is why he has squeezed out time—between Bohème and his flight back to New York—to indulge in a True Blue fantasy: playing ball at Dodger Stadium.

When he arrives at the team’s offices, Domingo looks the part of cosmopolitan opera star. He is stylishly dressed in navy from head to toe, his silver-streaked hair and wispy beard framing a majestic face punctuated by smoky eyes. Appearances can be deceiving. He is presented with a Dodger jersey as a memento and instead of handing it to some assistant, he sheds his jacket and puts it on. Soon he’s telling jokes and rattling off stories about his favorite players (Tom Seaver and Fernando Valenzuela).

It’s a Sunday in the off-season, so the stadium is empty, which makes it feel both gigantic and intimate. The winter sun is fading fast, and at five o’clock it’s nearly dark and chilly. Domingo grabs a glove and trots to the third-base line to warm up. After a few tentative tosses, he settles into a rhythm.

“You know what is amazing?” he asks. “That they throw it from so far away.” He is eyeing the pitcher’s mound. “I have never tried it from there.” He turns and starts to walk. Belatedly I realize his intentions and hurry to the catcher’s box. Domingo has played a Persian prince, the Moor of Venice, a bandit, and a king, but he has never looked more imposing than he does now, standing atop the mound surrounded by an expanse of stadium seats and the hills of Chavez Ravine.

Kneeling in the gathering gloom, I have two immediate fears. Domingo might actually be good. If so, his wicked curve could be hard to handle—let alone see—and I could end up with a broken nose. Or he might be bad, which means I’d be dodging errant balls while trying to maintain a semblance of grace.

“Is it too dark for you?”

“I am fine,” he declares mellifluously.

Fortunately, Domingo’s first pitch is on target, albeit a few feet Domingo keeps the rest of his pitches close to the plate. You can tell he played in high school. “I did much better fielding. I did make hits, but I was not a home-run hitter.” Domingo learns fast. Orestes, his role in Iphigénie, is his 125th, said to be the most any tenor has learned. After mastering the French and Italian canons, he is exploring the German and Russian repertoires. He also enjoys new works, such as Tan Dun’s The First Emperor at the Metropolitan Opera last winter, and new roles in old works: This spring he will sing his first Handel opera.

After he has finished pitching, Domingo strolls around the infield. By the time he crosses home plate, night has fallen. A Dodger official tries to herd us along. It’s time for dinner and a tour. Reluctantly Domingo hands over the ball, removes his glove, and walks off the field.

Domingo has been able to stay at the top of his game for so long because he is blessed with natural gifts and the wisdom to know how to use them. “I go on because of a great passion,” he says as he eats a meat loaf sandwich in a team conference room. “Every time it still feels like it’s the first day.”

His parents were stars of zarzuela, Spanish operetta. When he was eight, they moved to Mexico City to run a zarzuela company. At 14, Domingo entered the National Conservatory of Music to study piano and conducting— until instructors heard his voice. He started as a baritone, but as a young man he switched to tenor. In 1962, he married the soprano Marta Ornelas, with whom he joined the Israeli National Opera. After three seasons, Marta retired to raise their two sons. (Domingo also has a son from a brief first marriage.) His breakthrough was as Don Rodrigo for the New York City Opera in 1966. He made his L.A. debut in that production in 1967, an event the Los Angeles Opera will celebrate with a gala this spring. His striking timbre, physical presence, and ability to act as well as sing made him an opera superstar. Along with Luciano Pavarotti and José Carreras, he became a household name in the wider world as one of the Three Tenors. Domingo has outlasted many peers, whose aging voices have forced them to retire. He is careful about his career choices, pragmatic about what he can and cannot do. “The burnished sound and the vigor of his singing continue to be astonishing,” The New York Times said of his performance in Iphigénie. “There were phrases in which you could hear him conserving power, getting by. But the artistry, integrity and physicality of his impetuous portrayal drew you in.”

As he sips a Perrier, Domingo has a small epiphany. “Baseball and opera actually connected for me,” he says. About 25 years ago, he attended a Dodger game with friends who asked if he would help them start an opera company in L.A. He sang in the Los Angeles Opera’s 1986 inaugural production of Otello and was an adviser to founding general director Peter Hemmings. After Hemmings retired in 1999 , Domingo was appointed artistic director, and he became general director in 2003.

Skeptics had wondered if Domingo could off er L.A. more than his celebrity name, especially given that he took over the Washington National Opera in 1996. Domingo travels a lot. He keeps an apartment here but also has homes in four other cities. He brought in Edgar Baitzel to run the day-to-day and recruited Kent Nagano, who along with his successor, James Conlon, transformed the company’s orchestra. Domingo himself brings star power that is invaluable in this starstruck city. He also uses his connections to engage coveted singers and raise money for adventurous works like German theater maverick Achim Freyer’s upcoming Ring cycle, which Domingo calls “our biggest challenge ever.”

Baitzel’s death last year was a major loss for both the L.A. Opera and Domingo. “What can we do but go on,” he says. He sits quietly for a moment, and then he brightens as he talks about the next season, which will include the latest in a series of operas for which he has enlisted filmmakers as directors: The Fly, guided by David Cronenberg, and a Puccini triple bill presented by Woody Allen and William Friedkin. “The beauty,” says Domingo, “is that these are not gimmicks. Things are good when they truly work.”

Domingo lingers in the dugout and has his photo taken with Tommy Lasorda’s retired jersey. He reminisces about meeting Yogi Berra and watching Jackie Robinson play. In the ’60s, he followed the Mets and the Yankees. Then he adopted the Dodgers. “The most dramatic thing I’ve seen was Kirk Gibson,” he says. “He could not walk, but he hit that home run in the World Series.” Rarely has Domingo himself been sidelined, except for occasional illnesses and when tragedies—the 1985 Mexico City quake, the deaths of loved ones—left him unable to feel “that joy and passion.” How long will he keep singing? He has hinted that he may stop when he turns 70 in 2011. Asked if this is true, he laughs: “Who knows?” Then he can’t help adding, “I have a few more roles booked, you know, including 2012.”

He’s been knighted, won Grammys and received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, appeared on The Simpsons, and voiced his first Disney movie character. As we head to his car, I ask if there’s anything Domingo hasn’t done that he wants to do. He smiles but won’t say. As he takes a last look at Dodger Stadium, the answer seems clear.

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