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Placido Domingo: A Happy Maxi-achiever

September 14, 1986|DONNA PERLMUTTER

It's a Westwood movie house and the trailer for Franco Zeffirelli's "Otello," which has its Los Angeles premiere Sept. 26, flashes on the screen. Placido Domingo, looming larger than life as Verdi's tragic Moor, explodes in a fusion of torment and menace.

It's late-night TV with Johnny Carson and the same celebrated tenor sits at the piano accompanying himself in an ardently sung Mexican ballad, a foretaste of his Universal Amphitheatre concert (Aug. 12) benefiting Mexico's earthquake victims.

It's a downtown record store and plastered on a wall is a poster of his more-than-a-million-sold pop album with John Denver, "Perhaps Love." A nearby bin holds his other crossover recordings, one of them showing a tuxedoed Domingo with sophisticated ladies draped around him--while the opera department smartly touts the dashing tenor's voluminous entries (he reportedly sings more than 80 roles).

It's a press conference for the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, with TV crews and their bright lights beamed on the superstar's smiling face as he quips metaphorically--"I hope our new baby will be a healthy one"--about the upcoming inaugural season, tagged at $5 million, of this big-time project he champions.

It's a rehearsal break for the company's premiere production, "Otello," which opens Oct. 7, and the man of the moment makes his way from stage to pit where he consults animatedly with conductor Lawrence Foster on phrasing details.

One could say that Domingo covers a few bases. Or that he is all things to many people from continent to continent.

Over the past two weeks, for one mind-boggling example, he traveled the following route: Mexico City, Berlin, Salzburg, Vienna, Berlin, Madrid, Paris, New York, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Denver, London, Madrid, Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, Los Angeles. It has been said that Domingo is his own time zone.

Careful juggling of options has become a way of life for the Spanish singer whose name means "Peaceful Sunday."

"The only solution for handling all these commitments," he says with a mix of good humor and concerned acknowledgement, "is to apply logic. If something comes along and it doesn't fit the itinerary, then I might have to refuse."

But being both an outgoing personality and a compulsive achiever, Domingo is not inclined to refuse. He has been known to squeeze a quickie trip from London to Puerto Rico for a recording in the middle of weeklong "Hoffmanns" at Covent Garden.

When San Francisco suddenly found itself without an opening night Otello three years ago, the rescuing hero wriggled out of rehearsals at the Met, boarded a S.F. Opera patron's private jet in New York, applied makeup in his police-escorted taxi to the opera house and raised the curtain at 10:30 p.m.

The Music Center Opera has cargoed him in and out of LAX for several high-level meetings this year. He continues to lend himself eagerly to all kinds of causes, but particularly to that of Mexican earthquake relief and to this new company, saying he's "happy to be used for worthy efforts."

Add to that his enormous popularity with audiences, concert managers and opera company administrators, all of which landed him a Newsweek cover story in 1982, and you have some idea of a human perpetuum mobile --or how many unpeaceful Sundays that can mean.

A trail of people turns into an entourage. Domingo, a charmer even at the testiest moments, makes fans out of business associates and record producers. He is beloved by conductors who find in him the consummate musician and by stage/film directors who can tap a rare vulnerability, a sensitive spirit.

When he first sang Otello 12 years ago, skeptics were betting against his vocal success with the heroic role. They speculated that he might cause his rich, dark tenor irreparable wear and tear, foreshortening chances to keep up the lyric wing of his repertory. But now, after appearing in what he claims are "all the major productions" of Verdi's penultimate opera, he has proven himself to be the soundest judge.

"I know how to protect and program for my voice," he says, relaxing pool-side at his rented Bel-Air manse. "By alternating this heavy role with light ones I enhance my capabilities in both departments."

Indeed, Otello is the Domingo signature these days. And the tenor says he's happy to be celebrating the opera's 100th anniversary in Los Angeles with a double exposure on stage and screen.

"Luckily, we had already pre-recorded by the time filming began (for the Zeffirelli picture)," he explains, in his lilting Spanish accent. "When I arrived on location (Crete), three weeks after the earthquake, my voice was a wreck from all the dust I breathed in Mexico City."

Having lost an aunt, uncle and two cousins in the catastrophe, he complains of being "emotionally drained" while making the film. As if that were not enough, Domingo next required a hernia operation, which took months of recovery before he was well enough for the strenuous act of singing.

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