“When I knew that I had Covid,” the Spanish opera singer Plácido Domingo told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in August 2020, “I promised myself that if I came out alive, I would fight to clear my name.” In response to sexual harassment allegations that had emerged the previous year, he had said, “I never abused anyone. I will repeat that as long as I live.”
Domingo, who turned 82 in January, was one of the most prominent targets of the #MeToo movement in the performing arts. After multiple accusers leveled allegations against him in 2019, he was effectively banished from professional work in the United States. His stage engagements were canceled. He resigned as director of the Los Angeles Opera after 19 years with the company. The Washington National Opera, which Domingo led to great acclaim from 1996 to 2011, removed his name from the young artists program he founded.
In Europe, however, Domingo’s career has continued more or less intact. Only in Britain and his native Spain did he encounter some opposition to performing. In most operatic capitals, he has soldiered on, mainly in the baritone roles he began to perform after decades as a tenor. Milan’s La Scala theater and the Verona Festival, among other venues, have accorded him solo recitals. He regularly appears in stage productions elsewhere on the continent, and still introduces new parts and projects into his work. As of 2020, he had accumulated an unequaled 151 roles across the repertoire. In February 2020, he made his then-last appearance in the United States, a private concert for high-level supporters of the Palm Beach Symphony, hosted at the town’s storied Everglades Club.
Three years later, with the pandemic receding in America and #MeToo less prominent, Palm Beach’s Society of the Four Arts, a multifaceted arts organization with a devoted local membership that welcomes the general public when tickets do not sell out to members, has broken ranks in the U.S. and welcomed Domingo back. This is not Four Arts’s first bold move against an establishment consensus. In December 2020, it was probably the first American arts organization to resume live performances.
The sold-out audience reacted with thunderous applause and multiple standing ovations. Originally billed as a discussion of Domingo’s life and career, the event was instead a recital shaped around fond memories and new horizons. No mention was made of Domingo’s troubles, though it is hard to imagine that anyone present was unaware of them. He was accompanied at the piano by the conductor Eugene Kohn, with whom he has worked for some 25 years, and by the soprano Jennifer Rowley, who has appeared in recent Palm Beach Opera productions as well as at the Met. Rowley seemed delighted to collaborate closely with Domingo, though her publicly accessible social media accounts avoided any mention of it. When Domingo addressed the audience to offer greetings or tell an anecdote, he was his old charming self, though perhaps moving more slowly with age. The voice, however, retains its breathtaking technique and still resounds with the distinctive timbre that has thrilled generations of audiences.
He began the evening with the aria “Nemico della patria” (“Enemy of the Fatherland”) from Umberto Giordano’s opera Andrea Chénier. Performed by the baritone villain Gérard, a former servant who has become an agent of the French Revolution, the piece reflects on the hollowness of revolutionary ideals and the naïveté of ideologues. Domingo continued by introducing his new project, a curatorial exercise to identify and perform art songs that composers wrote in their youth and later developed into great opera arias. To demonstrate, he gave a fine reading of Vincenzo Bellini’s “La ricordanza,” which Rowley followed with a reasonable rendition of its revision, “Qui la voce,” from the composer’s bel canto masterpiece I Puritani. After a diversion into more recent musical theater with a rousing performance of “Some Enchanted Evening” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, the duo returned to the exercise. Domingo performed Verdi’s “In solitaria stanza,” whose rhythms made their way into the soprano aria “Tacea la notte placida” from the composer’s middle period masterpiece Il Trovatore. Rowley lacked the bloom to pull the aria’s soaring heights, but the connection was made.
The rest of the recital was devoted to lighter works. Rowley returned for an enjoyable jaunt through “I Could Have Danced All Night,” from Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady. She and Domingo then performed beguilingly in the famous Waltz Duet from Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow. Rowley followed up with a perky “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” before Domingo returned solo for the Mexican songwriter Agustín Lara’s stirring “Granada,” a 1932 homage to the Spanish city that he performed to great acclaim in the blockbuster Three Tenors concerts alongside Luciano Pavarotti and José Carreras. For encores, he revisited his early career in Mexico, singing “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady in Spanish, the only language in which he learned it. The program concluded with an homage to his family roots, in the tradition of zarzuela, Spanish light opera. Joined by Rowley, he sang the love duet from Manuel Penella’s El Gato Montés, a work in the genre that Domingo championed in the 1990s.
“If I rest, I rust,” is Domingo’s personal motto. Three years after the apparent end of his North American stage career, he is not resting. If other arts administrators in the U.S. choose to bring him back, his enduring appeal, combined with the controversy, will surely sell out any box office that offers tickets to his performances.
Photo by Marcos Brindicci/Getty Images