Exclusive: Plácido Domingo on building his career, the importance of opera, and fellow tenor José Carreras

Kicking off the inaugural performance at the Dubai Opera on Wednesday evening, the legendary tenor says he would love to one day return and present a full opera performance.

Opera star Placido Domingo will perform at the opening night of the new Dubai Opera. Antonie Robertson / The National
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When I meet Plácido Domingo, the day before his concert at the grand opening of Dubai Opera, the legendary figure is fresh from the stage, after his first taste of rehearsing at the venue.

It is far from the first opera house the 75-year-old has inaugurated, but the Spanish tenor is visibly impressed.

“I find it an amazing place, and the acoustics are very, very good,” says the man who was dubbed the “King of Opera” more than three decades ago.

“It’s beautiful – you always hope, but it’s wonderful when you feel the acoustics go fine,” he adds, greeting me warmly with a firm handshake, mixing style and comfort in a loose navy suit.

Having made close to 4,000 stage appearances as a singer – as well as more than 500 as a conductor – on many of the world’s grandest stages, it is staggering to hear Domingo is already keen to return to Dubai and present a full opera performance.

“I would love to come back one day to sing an opera,” he adds, “and to conduct one.”

The opening of Dubai Opera marks a monumental moment for the arts not only in the UAE, but in the wider region. What does culture, and opera in particular, bring to an area?

It’s very important, because I believe in this magnificent city live important people – locals and from around the world – and music and culture is a need of the people.

The music, the love for any kind of art, has to be accessible for your children. [This weekend Dubai Opera] has two operas, but most of the performances for the time being are going to be musicals, ballet, symphonic music – but all that is culture, and this is the way this is going to grow.

More than three decades ago, you faced criticism from peers and critics who said you were singing “too much” and would burn out your voice. Yet here you are today – what is your secret?

I cannot tell you. Maybe it is my parents, they were both performers and I learnt what it is to deal with everything in a theatre through them.

Even though, like every human being, we have different things with our health, I have separated the problems so far, and I feel fine. I feel strong and I feel in good shape vocally – and I continue. So let’s see.

Yet you once said you were not a “natural talent”, which sounds extraordinary.

It’s not exactly natural talent – I was very well prepared. I studied music, I am a musician, but my voice was not like some of my colleagues, who were tenors from when they first opened their mouths.

I had to work, half-step by half-step – I had to build like the Burj Khalifa, note by note.

But maybe because I knew how difficult it was, that’s the reason I can still sing. I had to build a technique which many other singers didn’t know about – they had it easy and they just sang, but they sang for a few years, so I am very lucky that I am still singing.

Speaking of colleagues, next month your great friend, rival and comrade José Carreras will perform at Dubai Opera.

We are very good friends, and I am very happy he is coming. The public has a love, the public who likes me, likes José – maybe there are two exalted people, who very dramatically say “no no no, it’s only you”, maybe two or three – but the rest of the public is so happy to hear José, like they are happy to hear me. Without the public, we are nothing. So it’s the public who decides – and thanks to them, we are there.

José’s visit is part of his final tour. Yet you show no sign of retiring.

I think he chose to do that because he feels it’s time. I don’t feel it. Maybe I have to stop singing opera, because let’s face it, opera is very tiring – you have to rehearse six, eight hours a day, for two weeks. But José has been doing for years only concerts. Perhaps I will leave the opera and do only concerts.

But I don’t know – maybe the voice says “that’s enough”. But I know then I will be conducting, and I will be directing the Los Angeles Opera. If I feel psychically strong enough I will continue – music is my life and I have to be with the music for all the rest of my life.

We’re always told about concert halls and opera houses closing in Europe and around the world – and we are opening one in Dubai. How do you see the next generation?

Opera for me is immortal. It will live forever. As long as there are sentimentalists, romanticists, and feelings, the fantastic music the geniuses created will live forever. So I’m not worried. Technology will do nothing against a voice which has lived for more than 400 years.