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It's a slam-dunk friendship

L.A. Opera's Placido Domingo and Lakers star Pau Gasol enjoy each other's work.

December 02, 2009|Reed Johnson

Last week, on one of his rare evenings not spent in makeup sweating under a spotlight, Plácido Domingo watched from a luxury box as the resurgent L.A. Lakers dusted off the New York Knicks 100-90 at Staples Center. Down on the floor, Domingo's friend and fellow Spaniard, the power forward and center Pau Gasol, who was back in action after missing the Lakers' first 11 games with a pulled hamstring, helped lift the home team with 11 points and 16 rebounds.

The following night, it was Gasol's turn to watch and applaud as he took in a performance of L.A. Opera's production of Handel's Orientalist fantasia, "Tamerlano." Domingo, the world-renowned tenor who also serves as the opera company's general director, played the defeated Turkish sultan Bajazet, bending his robust tenor to the baroque score's intricate demands. A Times reviewer praised the singer's "compelling power," "sympathy and appeal."

After the final curtain fell, Gasol was whisked backstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where he and Domingo embraced and chatted in their mother tongue for a few minutes, surrounded by a gaggle of flashing cameras and buzzing onlookers.

"I really enjoyed Placido, above everything, which was what most motivated me to come see it, and it was a very high-quality thing," Gasol said in an interview moments later, speaking in Spanish. "Not a lot of action, but very dramatic in a classical sense."

Of course, Angelenos are used to seeing power pairings of Hollywood celebs and aspiring politicians, brand-name architects and empire-building philanthropists, or what have you. But the growing camaraderie between the 29-year-old athlete and the 68-year-old artist appears to be based less on star-power attraction than on simpatico sensibilities and mutual respect for the varied forms that professional excellence takes.

"The truth is that it's a great good fortune for him to have come, a champion like Pau is, here in Los Angeles," Domingo said, also favoring Castilian over English, in a dressing-room interview. "He's a great champion, and the truth is as a person he's extremely pleasant. God willing that we should have a lot more free time to share, because up until this point we see each other when he comes to the opera or I go to Lakers games. We are making plans for a moment in which we could get together for dinner."

The two men said their friendship began shortly after Gasol arrived in Los Angeles in a February 2008 trade with the Memphis Grizzlies, where the native of Sant Boi de Llobregat, Barcelona, launched his NBA career. Domingo suggested to Marc Stern, L.A. Opera's chairman and chief executive -- as well as a Lakers fan whose fanaticism is reputedly on par with Jack Nicholson's -- that they reach out to the new arrival and invite him to come watch the fat lady sing as their guest.

Although he considers himself a culture aficionado in general, Gasol said, before this overture he never had followed opera before. (For the record, Memphis does have an opera company, but Gasol wasn't a regular.)

"He [Domingo] welcomed me to the community of the city of Los Angeles when I came over from there. I said that I was curious to go to the opera some time and, well, I could take advantage of this opportunity to come and enjoy it and get to know this world."

To date, Domingo said, Gasol has attended about half a dozen productions. "He doesn't just come to see me, he comes to see other operas when I'm not there."

Their Ibero-Latino pedigree, and that of Los Angeles, also helped bring the men together. With the presence of Gasol and Domingo, a Mexican American mayor in Antonio Villaraigosa and the Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel recently taking over as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's music director, Los Angeles, already one of the world's most heavily Spanish-speaking and bilingual cities, is acquiring even more of a Latin character.

"It's marvelous," Domingo said. "I would love to talk, the four of us, that we could do it with Antonio, with Gustavo and Pau." The "fantastic corner" of Grand Avenue and 1st Street, where the Chandler and Walt Disney Concert Hall face each other, Domingo said, has become "a great cultural force of our Latin world."

Gasol echoed those sentiments. "This is a powerful moment, a sweet moment," he said of the convergence. "We hope it continues that way."

But perhaps what binds Domingo and Gasol as much as anything is their sense of what it takes to raise your performance stature up to meet high expectations in an excruciatingly demanding field, whether you're 7 feet tall or not.

"I admire him a lot for his devotion and the passion that he dedicates," Gasol said of Domingo, adding that the tenor has put a positive face on Spain and is now doing the same for Los Angeles.

Domingo, for his part, suggested a parallel between his and Gasol's chosen vocations.

"A team like the Lakers, all the team plays hard, because they know they are the best, at this moment, they are the champions, no?" he said. "The same comparison is that when you are in an important position within the world of music, well, all the world hopes for the best. That is to say, the people don't come if they are not content. It's the same level. When you have the responsibility, at this height, you have to work very hard to give it."

So in bocca al lupo!, as they say at La Scala. Bring the heat, as they say at Staples. For two friends at the top of their respective games, a night at the opera is suddenly akin to an evening at center court.

--

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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