With a big bow, the hug falls on stage. It is a small bull to which a woman carefully tied a long rose earlier in the evening in the foyer. Amused, the man for whom it is intended takes the stuffed animal and moves it in front of the concertmaster as if he were giving his grandson a present. You get a glimpse of what he might be like as a grandfather: the great opera star Plácido Domingo.
The 81-year-old singer and conductor sings a collection of opera hits, zarzuela arias and musical songs in the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg on Monday evening. The atmosphere is cheerful and festive, although one might expect otherwise. Because again, after the #MeToo broadcasts in 2019, his name was associated with a sex scandal.
That scandal concerns a yoga school in Buenos Aires. Yoga was covered by a sectarian society that made $500,000 a month from human trafficking. Women and men, including minors, were recruited and forced to have sex with paying members, which allegedly included the opera star. This is evident from intercepted conversations where, according to Argentine authorities, Domingo’s voice can be heard. He is not facing criminal charges in this investigation.
Not only the human Domingo, the musician also seemed to have fallen from his pedestal. In Verona’s arena he was even whistled this summer, Italian media talked about a flop. As a conductor (in Puccini’s Turandot) mistake after mistake and suggested vocally (in Verdi’s Aida and la traviata) disappoint. Even more humiliating was that the musicians did not even stand up for him at the closing applause. Domingo later apologized.
This does not prevent the audience in the Elbphilharmonie from coming. There are no signs of any kind of protest outside. Inside, evening dresses sparkle, patent leather shoes shine like mirrors. A woman who introduces herself as Lara, who works at Norddeutscher Rundfunk, notes that she hears different accents around her: ‘They come here from all over the country. That’s the overall picture; the great opera star, the hall, the champagne. These are rich people and they just want to have fun.’
On one of the many stairs in the Elbphilharmonie sits a man (77, ‘My name doesn’t need to be in the newspaper’) in a jacket that it is a size too big for him. ‘This concert was a fantastic opportunity,’ he says. “I’ve been a Domingo fan all my life. I’ve seen him once before. This evening is a gift from my daughter, with an overnight stay at the hotel.’ The daughter is generous; for a good seat you pay between four hundred and more than six hundred euros.
‘We choose to enjoy the evening, in this beautiful room with beautiful music. We are not governed by the politics behind it,” said one couple as they walk away to avoid further questions about the sex scandals.
In 2019, Domingo was accused of sexually transgressive behavior by more than 20 women. He was forced to resign from his position as director of the Los Angeles Opera (since 2003). The Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Washington National Opera and the San Francisco Opera also removed him from their rosters. Domingo is no longer welcome in the United States.
Asked for her thoughts on this, Caroline, a young woman who works at the opera house in Halle, says: ‘These accusations came at a time when so many men were accused of something. The question is how much of it is true. And if it’s true, I want to get it off my chest tonight. It has been such a great desire to see Domingo live again for so long.’
When the backstage door opens and Domingo’s silhouette bursts out of the darkness, there is a huge cheer that takes him all the way to the center of the stage. He hasn’t sung a note yet.
Out of breath
Domingo is one of the greatest tenors of the post-war period, but he has been singing baritone parts for over ten years; a voice fades with age. Every now and then there is a critical noise that he must stop, if not here. But in his first aria— Oh wine, dissipate la tristesse from Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas – he sounds out of breath. He can’t finish his sentences without sobbing. His vibrato vibrates so hard it makes you sick, you don’t understand the words.
As the concert progresses, his voice becomes firmer. The two guest singers, the American soprano Micaëla Oeste and the Kosovo tenor Rame Lahaj, are very loud and drag Domingo along. All three are reinforced, which shouldn’t be necessary in this room. The audience shouts ‘bravo’ and claps through all the closing chords so that the squeaky loop doesn’t bother anyone.
It’s break. Two elderly ladies in line for the champagne sigh blissfully. They are friends and come from the middle of the country. Do they enjoy it? ‘Insanity is! Still amazing, that man.’ Mention the latest scandal involving Domingo’s name and eyes glaze over. “We don’t know anything about that.”
In Hamburg, 2,000 people clap and stamp in the meantime for six encores. On the left, a woman has taken pictures that fail throughout the concert. She says nothing. As she tries to zoom in on Domingo, her hands shake. To the right, another woman whistles, screams, whoops and kicks her chair excitedly. The man in front of her, smiling broadly, puts his fingers into his ears. At least people here were enjoying themselves.
Placido Domingo was born in Madrid. When he was eight years old, the family moved to Mexico City. The child of zarzuela artists (Spanish folkloric opera music), he started as a professional singer in his parents’ genre when he was 16 years old. With his clear tenor voice and charming stage presence, he became a huge star.
In the 1990s he had great public success with José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti, with whom he formed The Three Tenors.