I understand that the music selections you’ll be performing in San Antonio will range from opera to zarzuela to Broadway numbers — can you give us some specific examples of what the audience can look forward to?
I always believe it is important to give a diversified audience like the one I hope to have on June 19 at the Alamodome, a diversified program. I will sing arias and songs ranging from some of the beloved zarzuela pieces that I grew up with and some of the romantic Mexican ballads that I serenaded my wife with to the fabulous operatic repertoire that has taken precedence in my career and brought me to where I am today. I will refrain from mentioning the actual numbers, but I can assure the audience that it is going to be thrilled by all the flavors of the music that I have prepared for them.
Many of our readers might not be familiar with zarzuela — how would you best explain it? How does it sound different than other forms of opera?
Well, most importantly, zarzuela is the music that my parents Pepita Embil and Plácido Domingo used to perform. They created a company with which they traveled to the Americas to introduce these musical jewels to new audiences and seduce their hearts. In a nutshell, zarzuela is the Spanish operatic repertoire. Just as one may enjoy the German repertoire of notable composers like Wagner, the rich French repertoire headed by Bizet, and the great Italian operas of Puccini and Verdi, zarzuela encompasses passionate and predominantly Spanish compositions. Zarzuela can be just as dramatic as the biggest of Italian dramas, but it often finishes on a happy note.
How do you adapt your performance when doing a more intimate concert such as this? How does your interaction with the crowd change?
I think I always give one hundred percent regardless of whether I am performing a full-blown opera or singing a concert for 1,200 people or for 20,000. I think the nerves are similar, and I get butterflies either way. One of the fundamental differences of these concerts is that the larger spaces require the musicians and singers to be amplified. This opens a whole other world of technical considerations. The beautiful thing however, is that more people can attend. The interaction with the crowd is completely different — in opera I am performing a role where both the singing and the interpretation of the role come into play to make the piece believable whereas in concert, you practically dedicate every aria, duet, or song directly to the audience.
Will any other singer(s) be appearing with you at the San Antonio concert?
Yes. The San Antonio Opera Orchestra will be conducted by my longtime friend and collaborator Maestro Eugene Kohn, and I will also be accompanied by a wonderful young Argentinean soprano named Virginia Tola with whom I have been doing many concerts recently, notably in Portugal, Taipei, and Barcelona.
The last time you performed in San Antonio was in 1986 for a benefit for victims of the Mexico City earthquake — what are you looking forward to on your return? Do you plan to do any sightseeing? Anything in particular you like about the city and/or its residents?
San Antonio was very good to me. I remember that concert fondly. The people of San Antonio were generous and committed to the cause of helping the victims and to the rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of the earthquake. It is really special for me to return to San Antonio after twenty years and under very different circumstances. Let this upcoming concert be a celebration of our long-lasting friendship with the dear audience of San Antonio and Texas. As much as I love to go to new cities or return to other places where I have not been for a long time, my trips are always quick because of my busy schedule. I don’t have the opportunity to visit leisurely, let alone sightsee. My closest contact with San Antonio is going to be through its audience and their warmth.
How have audiences (and their preferences) changed since you first began performing? What shifts have you had to make to stay relevant in the industry?
I suppose my principal shifts have been in repertoire. I outgrew some roles, and at the same time, I had the curiosity of tackling new ones. This ever-growing audience needs to be persuaded and needs to be convinced to go to the opera while having the choice to go to Broadway musicals, the theater, or simply other musical alternatives. As opera performers we have a responsibility to transport the audience with the music, the staging, and our overall performance. This is how we are going to stay on our toes, keep the audiences we now have, and strive to make it grow.
You are constantly challenging yourself with new roles (I’m thinking of your recent turn in The First Emperor, your plan to take on Simon Boccanegra in 2009, etc), but you could easily sing the same role for the rest of your career and still pack houses across the world. So why do you push yourself? What do you get out of these challenges as a performer?
The First Emperor was a fantastic role. I enjoyed tackling this incredibly complex character. In fact, I really enjoy learning new roles. It keeps my mind busy — learning and memorizing text that I will then have to interpret and sing believably. One must give the audience many new roles and alternatives, but one must also give them some of what made them follow you to begin with. I feel that updating my repertoire has been good for me and for my voice. Simon Boccanegra is simply one of Verdi’s most beautiful roles, and I have always dreamed of doing it before I retire.
How do you select your roles? What criteria do you look for in choosing to pursue one role over the other?
The role must have a strong range both vocally and interpretably. It must permit me to grow as an actor and attempt some new emotions, but it must always be true to my age and moment in life. I would not choose the role of a gallant young man but rather a mature and wise one. Such is the case of Cyrano de Bergerac, The First Emperor, Simon Boccanegra and, in 2009, baroque opera Tamerlano and Il Postino.
Many critics are beginning to mention these roles as “the final phase of your career.” How do you feel about the increasing speculation about when your final performance will be?
Honestly, I even surprise myself sometimes, but as long as the voice continues to sound like it is sounding and God gives me the stamina to perform to the high standards that I have always demanded of myself, I will go on for a little longer. I doubt very much that I will embark on an everlasting farewell tour but rather just announce my retirement after a good performance somewhere sometime.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
Operalia and my work with Young Artist are two programs very close to my heart. I have always wanted to give back to this career that has given me so many satisfactions and to pass on whatever I can to future generations of singers. Through mentoring Young Artists and by discovering them in Operalia, I can add my grain of sand to the solid foundation of opera’s future.
Answered and dictated telephonically from Vienna, Austria