A couple of local luminaries – more or less local, anyway – went down for the count this week. Marin Alsop injured her wrist in a minor accident in her hotel room and has cancelled her conducting appearances in Brazil and at the Cabrillo Festival this summer; Carolyn Kuan and Brad Lubman are taking over her Cabrillo concerts. And Placido Domingo, who no longer heads the Washington National Opera but retains a hometown flavor, was hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism in Madrid, where he was scheduled to sing in Daniel Catan’s “Il Postino,” and will not be performing for another few weeks.
The Alsop news is clearly a fluke, a one-off. But Domingo is 72, according to his press materials, so health issues with him inevitably raise debate about how long he can maintain the pace of running an opera company (the Los Angeles Opera), singing, and conducting.
Not that 72 is necessarily old. In our culture, the octogenarian conductor is less a figure of note than of archetype (Karajan, Gunter Wand, Toscanini, etc). Christoph Eschenbach, music director of the NSO, is 73, and Lorin Maazel is going strong at 83, holding down the chief conductorship of the Munich Philharmonic and running the Castleton Festival in Rappahannock County. Indeed, one reason that Domingo started branching out into conducting is that conducting, unlike singing, is a musical activity that one can pursue into older age (though Giovanni Martinelli still sang occasionally into late old age, and YouTube videos preserve notable performances by a 90-year-old Mark Reizen and a 91-year-old Angelo Lofrese).
Above: Age doesn’t necessarily preclude vocal ability: Ivan Kozlovsky, age 80, hits heights (at minute 1:24) where a smart boy soprano won’t follow. His recordings from his youth are even more terrific.
Age hasn’t particularly slowed down Domingo’s singing, either. He once said his dream was to sing the baritone role of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra before he retired, which some took to mean Simon was to be his swan song; instead, it opened the door to the whole Verdi baritone repertoire, from Germont (“La traviata”) to Rigoletto. This entails learning lots of new roles, as well as working on scores from a conductor’s point of view.
Ten years ago, when one compared the later years of Pavarotti and Domingo, Domingo seemed to have emerged with the artistic upper hand: Pavarotti did a range of pop appearances and increasingly bizarre recitals, plus a few rehashings of very familiar roles, while Domingo, a few years younger, was still singing wonderful and consistently pushing himself into new artistic terrain: from the world premiere of “Il Postino,” in which he bravely let himself play old, to an essay in Handel with “Tamerlano.” I, for one, took his first Boccanegra attempts seriously, and liked them a lot more than many people did. But taking on more and more baritone roles as well as conducting, moving into an area and a range in which he has less authority and less mastery, starts to smack of the kind of refusal to let go that marked Pavarotti’s late performances.
It’s absurd to say that anyone “should” retire, especially when he has as much to offer as Domingo has. Say rather that a health scare to a great artist serves as a reminder to everyone of how much they appreciate him, and thus boosts the hope that what he does in the next years of his career helps to bolster his artistic legacy rather than detracting from it.