You donʼt have to see Plácido Domingo to know heʼs coming.
The king of opera moves like a force of nature, with an entourage of never less than half a dozen and an electric air of anticipation that has people applauding before he even enters a room. That includes journalists, who have been as fawning as everyone else during Domingoʼs two visits to Prague to promote his October engagement at the Estates Theater conducting the 230th anniversary performances of Don Giovanni.
His most recent visit came on a blindingly bright Tuesday afternoon earlier this month. Domingo arrived in Prague on a private jet from Dresden, where he had a morning rehearsal with the Dresden Staatskapelle. Already waiting at the theater was his wife, Marta, brought by the private jet from Vienna that morning. Though she has no official role in Don Giovanni, Marta is never far from her husbandʼs side and keenly interested in the details of the project. Like John and Yoko or Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Plácido and Marta come as a team.
The first order of business was to look at the sets. Domingo hopes to re-create the original 1787 production as closely as possible, but as a practical matter the sets and costumes have to be more recent. And he couldnʼt ask for anything better than the sets by Josef Svoboda and costumes by Teodor Pištěk from a landmark 1969 National Theater production.
The sets were still being unloaded from a pair of huge red trailers when Domingo was ushered into the hall, so there wasnʼt much to see. But he didnʼt miss a beat, gauging the size of the pit and discussing production details with theater managers. The acoustics? Perfectly fine. The starting time? 19:00 seemed right. Would Maestro Domingo make a speech before the performance? Not necessary. “The public will know,” he assured his eager admirers.
Then Domingo needed food – “something sweet,” he requested – before facing the reporters and photographers waiting in the Mozart Salon upstairs. The organizers used the time to rearrange the furniture, as the afternoon sun was heating up the chairs and ruining the light for the photographers. Five of them stood poised with giant cameras like big-game hunters and started snapping away the instant Domingo appeared. They never stopped. For the entire 20 minutes, the room sounded more like a shooting match than a press conference, with a constant stream of metallic shutters ka-zhinging like rifle shots.
Relaxed and affable, Domingo greeted the group and immediately launched into a reverie. “I was just conducting Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera last month, and I couldnʼt stop thinking during those performances that in a few months I will be right here, where it happened,” he said. “If you can imagine Mozart and Da Ponte working at this theater – well, itʼs really a great privilege.”
For Domingo, no doubt. For Prague, itʼs mostly a prestigious promotional event. In the music world, the cityʼs enduring claim to fame is the premiere of Don Giovanni at what was then the Nostitz Theater on October 29, 1787, with Mozart at the podium. How many people outside the music world are aware of this? Even Domingo thinks itʼs pitifully few. “Many people know about Don Giovanni, but only the experts know that it premiered here,” he said. “When we do this, people will recognize Prague as the city that gave Mozart the ability to create his masterpiece.”
That will not happen at the two anniversary performances, which are gala affairs, not really for the general public, and both already sold out. Most of the seats will be filled with VIPs and sponsors in formal wear – “we want them to come dressed like people used to dress,” Domingo said. Accordingly, black tie will be required, and since a city ordinance prohibits theaters from evicting patrons for not being dressed properly, the dress code stipulation may have to be printed on the tickets.
The value for the city will come from a 50-minute documentary about the project to be completed and shown afterward. No slouch at promotion, Domingo insisted on this. “When I come to Prague I see Mucha and I see Kafka but nothing about Don Giovanni,” he told Hospodářské noviny in an interview after the press conference. “Thatʼs the reason I said to the government, you have to make a video, make a documentary to let people know.”
Working with Czech Television, the organizers have filmed almost every minute of Domingoʼs visits to Prague so far, with plenty more to come when he returns in the fall. ARTE, the European culture channel, has expressed interest, and the organizers are also hoping to talk to noted documentary producer Brian Larch. But no distribution plan is in place yet, and itʼs far from certain that the government agencies and private sponsors funding the project will get their moneyʼs worth from the estimated 12-15 million CZK price tag. (That figure does not include production costs absorbed by the National Theater.)
The project also works as promotion for Domingo – or more accurately, for Operalia, his annual competition for young singers. He hand-picked the eight singers for Don Giovanni, five of whom are Operalia laureates. All of them would have been, Domingo admitted at the press conference, were it not for conflicting commitments that singers like Sonya Yoncheva already have. Russian tenor Dmitry Korchak is in the cast only because Domingo happened to run into him at the Vienna State Opera last month and pushed him to check his schedule and open up those dates.
When he was here in January, Domingo (with Marta at his side) auditioned 13 Czech singers recommended by the National Theater. He chose Kateřina Kněžíková, a veteran of many Mozart productions, to sing Donna Elvira, and Jiří Brückler, a versatile bass, as Masetto. The unseen voice of the murdered Commendatore will be Brno native Jan Šťáva. Asked about Czech singers at the press conference, Domingo was effusive: “Extremely good, great quality.” But the fact remains that the cast of this production will largely be a walking advertisement for Operalia.
None of which is to suggest that Domingo is anything other than totally sincere and devoted to the project. The original idea was his, and according to organizer Gabriela Boháčová, the first time he visited the Estates Theater, he was nearly moved to tears. He has a long history with Don Giovanni dating back to the early 1960s, when he and Marta, a Mexican opera star, lived in Tel Aviv and sang together in Don Giovanni dozens of times at the Israel National Opera. “This opera has been inside of us for more than half a century,” he said.
Still, he doesnʼt much like the title character. “There is nothing good about him,” Domingo said. “Women are crazy about him, yet he is so bad to them. And he is very cruel to Leporello. Mozart and Da Ponte did the right thing, he deserves to be punished.” Nor is Don Giovanni his favorite Mozart opera. That would be Idomeneo, an earlier work about the Cretan king who must sacrifice his son to appease the gods. After Domingo made his debut in the title role at the Met in 1994, it became a personal favorite. “Idomeneo is a phenomenal part,” he enthused at the press conference. “It is my dream to one day conduct this opera.”
At the age of 76, most people have retired their dreams and ambitions and are content to relax. This may be the most remarkable thing about Domingo. He has sung more than 3,800 performances of nearly 150 different roles, conducted well over 500 operas, made hundreds of audio and video recordings and movies, run opera houses in Washington, DC and Los Angeles, found time to take on significant humanitarian work, and shows no signs of slowing down. This summer alone, he is singing in six different opera productions throughout Europe and overseeing the Operalia competition, held this year in Astana, Kazakhstan. How does he do it?
“The only answer I have is the passion for what I am doing,” he told HN, then added a caveat: “Actually, when you have this kind of life for a long time, when you stop, you feel down.”
Staying busy is clearly a tonic for Domingo, who radiates positive energy and has the enthusiasm of someone just starting his career. Wrapping up the press conference, he promised to be back for rehearsals in October, then paused for a moment and marveled, “I can hardly believe this is happening.”
Prague feels the same way.