‘Plácido Domingo wanted to be both a saint and a superman’: how an unrepeatable collection of characters changed opera forever

From Cecilia Bartoli to Javier Camarena, from Luciano Pavarotti to Plácido Domingo, a new book records meetings with the greatest opera singers of recent years

Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and Angela Gheorghiu
Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and Angela GheorghiuGetty Images / Blanca López (Collage)

Back in 2003, when Spanish journalist Jesús Ruiz Mantilla left the home of Luciano Pavarotti, the world came crashing down on him. He didn’t know what to do: he needed to talk to someone trustworthy and tell them what had just happened in his interview with the legendary tenor. He hadn’t managed to get a sad headline, nor a good testimony or a single interesting revelation. Worst of all, the legend had fallen asleep during the conversation.

Upon hearing this story, Carlos Boyero – a film critic at EL PAÍS – couldn’t stop laughing. The incident was hilarious. The two men realized that the best way to write the article was to tell everything exactly as it had happened. Finally, what was going to be just another piece in the newspaper became the cover story. And what at first seemed like a failed interview became one of the great successes of Ruiz Mantilla’s journalistic career.

This story is now part of Divos – a collection of profiles of opera singers whom Ruiz Mantilla, 58, has interviewed throughout his career as a musical chronicler. In these pages, analysis and personal memories are intermingled, covering three generations of artists, ranging from Teresa Berganza to Cecilia Bartoli to the Three Tenors. “Looking back, I realized that I had the opportunity to speak with the best opera singers of the time,” reflects the journalist and author, while sipping his beer.

There are 25 names that perfectly define opera in the early-21st century. “An ultra-golden age of the art,” according to Ruiz Mantilla. “When we look back, we realize that never before have so many people gone to the opera, nor have there been so many quality singers in global terms, who come from places where great talents didn’t traditionally come from.”

The geopolitics of operatic singing has shifted over the past century. The author highlights two great quarries: Latin America – from which figures such as Juan Diego Flórez, Rolando Villazón and Julián Camarena have emerged – and Eastern Europe, the birthplace of Anna Netrebko, Sonya Yonheva and Ermonela Jaho.

Since he began his career as a musical chronicler, he has subconsciously been asking himself what the word divine means to people. “Everyone lives and coexists with divinity, [in terms of] something intimate and meditated,” he writes in the book. Originally, the divos were a select group of artists related to divinity. “A divo is someone who makes a difference on stage. The one you can’t look away from for a second, because he’s telling you a story that goes straight to your heart.” The divos were marked by greatness, but also by fragility.

“They’re obsessed with fragility, because they have the instrument inside their bodies,” the writer explains. “They’re always worried about avoiding cold places, eating warm things – nothing can affect their throats. They’re terrified of entering a place with air conditioning or heating. They don’t smoke, they drink moderately and, in general, they take good care of themselves.”

There are singers who continue to make you recall the term divo or diva, “such as Cecilia Bartoli or Javier Camarena.” However, there are others who degenerate or pervert it. “From the time of the castrati until today, some [opera singers] have been unbearable, capricious, contemptuous and miserable. That’s the opposite meaning of the word,” he insists. “The word ‘divine’ has also shifted to [being used] in other fields, to describe the greatest of rock, movie or soccer stars. But there’s a kind of antibody in the world of opera that strongly rejects all of this.”

Ruiz Mantilla points to the case of the Romanian singer Angela Gheorghiu. “When she crossed the line (in terms of how she treated people) – using her status as a diva in the worst way – she destroyed her career, to the point that no one wanted her in the theater anymore. The operatic framework seeks virtuous divos and divas… she was [supposed] to be the goddess of an age, [but only] lasted five years.”

According to Ruiz Mantilla, it has never been so difficult to become an opera star as today. “In each era, there’s always been a new challenge to becoming a singer. Maria Callas – apart from singing in a glorious and special way – contributed the art of theatrical interpretation. The great divos of today sing wonderfully… [but also] act phenomenally. Each one has to offer something more [than singing].”

“There are [other singers] who have a good management of their public profile on social media, in addition to being open to adapting to the changes proposed by stage directors, who are the other great opera revolutionaries of the early-21st century.” He also warns of the trend towards specialization. “There will no longer be a record holder like Plácido Domingo, who [had a] broad repertoire,” he predicts.

The decline of Plácido Domingo

The chapter dedicated to the Madrid tenor – accused of harassing women according to the testimonies of at least 27 people – begins with Domingo asking Ruiz Mantilla to promise not to write about him again. That was back in 1999… and since then, they’ve had a succession of meetings and disagreements, which eventually ended with a final reproach: “Why do you have to write these things about me? It’s unnecessary.”

The author compares Domingo’s decline with Spanish King Juan Carlos I, who, in 2014, abdicated the throne due to a spending scandal. “Both were legends and both – faced with the strength of a world prone to tearing down symbols – don’t understand their own falls,” he writes in Divos. He also admits that, 20 years ago, nobody could expect an ending like this: “Plácido was a Don Juan, yes, absolutely… but nobody judged him.”

In the tenor’s biography – written by Rubén Amón – he confesses that “he never played Don Juan [on stage], because he was afraid of seeing himself.” Ruiz Mantilla clarifies: “He said that [Don Juan] seemed like an unpleasant character. That’s a phrase for a psychologist.”

He portrays Domingo as a person obsessed with being liked by everyone. “He’s someone who, whenever a new Pope is elected, the first thing he does is go to seek his blessing,” the journalist notes. In his opinion, works such as the biography that Walter Isaacson wrote about Steve Jobs, or The Crown series portraying Queen Elizabeth II are proof that, today, myths are extolled based on people’s greatest weaknesses. “That’s what Plácido never understood – that by openly showing all your miseries and your fears, you highlight your virtues.”

The tenor had, according to the author, “an aspiration to be holy.” He wanted to be everything. “It’s incompatible to want to be both the Nietzschean superman and the saint of the sacred scriptures.” Ruiz Mantilla rules out that Domingo felt guilty after hearing the testimony of the victims. “If he ever asked for forgiveness, it [was because] he didn’t want to damage his image. But I don’t think he feels guilty about anything.”

Ruiz Mantilla witnessed the live concert that Domingo gave in Salzburg, Austria, only 12 days after the accusations were made public. “It was one of the most impressive moments I’ve ever experienced.” He describes it as “a war of mentalities” between Europeans and North Americans. “With that indifference that characterizes the [Austrian] public, they seemed to say: ‘Who are these nouveau riche to come and tell us who’s worthy in the world of opera?’” No matter what happened, the public applauded and defended the tenor. “He played a role in which he was defending his honor at all times. Everything he sang was an emotional and personal state, embodied in a character. He sang with a rage to vindicate himself… it didn’t matter if it sounded good or bad.”

After decades dealing with these operatic characters, Ruiz Mantilla recommends confronting them like any other interviewee: “Try to delve into their contradictions, their dark sides and their doubts, precisely so that they show their weaknesses and can reveal themselves to be more human.”

It was more difficult for him with Luciano Pavarotti, whom he could only meet when the tenor had already become a caricature of himself. “It made me especially sad to have to do that. Because, to me, [he had the best voice] of all time. In this world, there’s a virtue in knowing when to retire.”

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