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Calmly past the mark
When tenor Placido Domingo made his opening night appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1999, he set a record that had stood for over seven decades in becoming the first person to make eighteen opening night appearances at the Met. Caruso's dominance as a singer could be attested to by the fact that he had made opening-night appearances at the Met in 16 of the next 17 years, a streak that would end with 17 appearances over nineteen years. There were many pretenders to the throne such as the Italian bass-baritone Ezio Pinza but Pinza's star faded before he reached double digits - he managed nine opening nights with the Met over a 22-year career.
Domingo claimed that any thoughts he had with surpassing the seemingly unbreakable record were triggered by a casual remark sometime after he had reached eleven or twelve opening appearances. Before then, the record had never even entered his mind. Unlike Caruso, who was the dominant singer of his time, Domingo never enjoyed such success, and was perhaps slightly in the shadow of the more extrovert Luciano Pavarotti, who was a media favourite not only for his singing, but for his weight battles and romantic life. Pavarotti regularly gave the print media lots to write about, where it was in the form of reviews of his performances, his battles with his weight, or his romantic life. But while Domingo's contemporary may have regularly fed the column inches, he only managed seven opening night performances with the Met. It may have been because Pavarotti's schedule did not coincide with the Met's, or perhaps it was because Domingo's greater stamina and his range of repertoire, recognised to be of more depth, was known to those within the industry, and that the industry preferred him to his handkerchief-waving compatriot.
Domingo's first performance with the Met was in 1971 in the role of Verdi's Don Carlo. Another role that he would go on to do was the title role in Verdi's Otello, and his diverse range also saw him take the part of Sigmund in Die Walkurie by the German Romantic composer Richard Wagner. It was perhaps appropriate that the lead role he sang on the night he made his record-setting appearance was in the role of Canio in Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. The opera is the only one of Leoncavallo's that is widely performed, and is "a play within a play" - an opera about actors. The role of Canio in Pagliacci was one of the signature roles of Caruso, and perhaps the staging of that opera on the night was not only a nod of reverence to Caruso, but a mark that a new singer was emerging from his shadow.
And when he made his Met debut, Domingo had been called at the last minute to replace Franco Corelli, who had cancelled at the last minute. Domingo had only returned to New Jersey from rehearsing and faced a frantic drive back to New York. He only made it with 35 minutes to spare before the curtain rose. He even had to warm up in the car! When he was laughed at by the couple in the next car, he rolled down the window, and upon learning they too were going to the Met, admonished, “Well then, don’t laugh, because you are going to hear me sing there tonight.”
The record-breaking night was much calmer.
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