On Music

Was Plácido a pest?

Domingo is far from the monster that America’s #MeToo movement has made of him

One october night in Paris, the embattled opera singer Plácido Domingo was cheered to the echo as he handed out European Heritage Awards on the stage of the Théatre du Chatelet. Domingo had nipped over for the day from Vienna, where he was singing Verdi’s Macbeth to sold-out houses. 

Macbeth is his one hundred and fiftieth operatic role and, while purists may cavil at the baritonal furriness of a voice that has dropped down from tenor, his endurance represents an unparalleled feat of stamina and memory. Domingo will turn 79 in a few weeks’ time. He is beyond question one of the towering figures in the history of opera.

This same Plácido Domingo was recently booted out of the United States of America, forced to resign as general director of the Los Angeles Opera (which he co-founded) and banned from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where he had sung 706 times. The cause of his dismissal was a pair of reports by the Associated Press citing claims from 20 women that he had asked them for sex. All but two were unnamed. 

None accused him of using force or threats. Those who declined his advances suffered no career damage; one described working with Domingo as a career summit. Yet such is the force of #MeToo that a mere whisper of sex in the workplace is enough to bin a McDonald’s boss and consign a great artist to ignominy.

It appears that US mass media, unable to touch bankers who crashed the economy, social media that imperil democracy and a president who bragged of grabbing women’s parts, have turned to softer targets. In the first wave of exposures, a Hollywood mogul was humbled by women he allegedly raped and several actors were shamed. In classical music, James Levine was toppled as music director at the Met, the Swiss maestro Charles Dutoit was blacklisted and America’s top-paid concertmaster was suspended, among a dozen of the more prominent #MeToo cases. A countertenor presently awaits trial in a Texas jail on charges of male rape.

None of these comeuppances excited much surprise. I personally took testimony from bright-eyed Met juniors who found their prospects blighted by Levine, and I published accounts by other women who were manhandled by various maestros. I initially assisted the AP in confirming some of their suspicions, hoping that by doing so I could help clear the decks of some fairly notorious musical sex pests.

Music is a nebulous art, dependent on top-down approval. For a young singer, the difference between a starring role and life in the chorus can be a wink from a conductor or director. 

Before I’m accused of being his poodle, I have never come away from Domingo liking him very much as a man

When that wink is made conditional on sexual acquiescence, as it sometimes is, the postulant faces an agonising choice between personal integrity and professional ambition. None of us can say, hand on heart, how we would respond in that situation. The existence of such propositions — yes, I’ve seen them — embeds an abuse of power at the heart of the opera world. This, in a nutshell, is AP’s justification for pursuing Domingo who, as well as singing and conducting around the world, had powers of patronage as head of LA Opera and the National Opera in Washington, DC.

The flaw is that the facts don’t fit the story. There is no sign Domingo ever bothered to give a bad report to a soprano who turned him down. Plácido’s propositions were, anyway, something of a backstage joke. Like many a Latin male singer, he was a compulsive importuner of women, capable in dim light of whispering sweet nothings to a curvaceous lamppost.

Women may have found him a bit of a nuisance but he was shadowed pretty much everywhere by his possessive wife, Marta, and his schedule was never less than punishing. Opportunity was scarce and swift. Some ribald jokes did the rounds.

The other side of Domingo, which I have observed from my first encounter with him in 1985 on the set of Zeffirelli’s film Otello, was a concern for colleagues in need and a desire to advance young singers, latterly through his Operalia competition. Yes, he could be vain, avaricious and consumed by envy of his rival Luciano Pavarotti, but he was human enough to take months off to raise funds for Mexican quake victims and insecure enough to fear that the absence would wreck his career. 

Whatever else I saw of him, he was not inhuman, not an abuser, not the monster that America’s #MeToo media has made of him.

And before I’m accused of being his poodle, I have never come away from Domingo liking him very much as a man. He always seemed to be trying just that bit too hard to be liked.

This month, La Scala will mark his fiftieth anniversary with a glittering gala. His denunciation in America has been comprehensively rejected by the rest of the civilised world. Domingo’s place in history is secure, and mostly for the right reasons. The wrong ones will soon be forgotten.

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