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Have you listened, really listened to Placido Domingo’s conducting?

During my first year of graduate school, the Westminster Symphonic Choir sang the Verdi “Requiem” with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center.  The choir of 200 was located behind the orchestra of 110.

By request

The orchestration is extremely dense, with a lot of brass sound.  With that in mind, our conductor, Zubin Mehta, handed his baton to Placido Domingo, our tenor soloist, at one point.  Mehta walked out into the hall in order to listen to the balance in the “Dies Irae” (which turned out to be fine).

I was somewhat surprised, not knowing that Domingo actually was a conductor.  (That happens when you spend 1/3 of your life in the practice room, 1/3 in class, and 1/3 in a sub-basement of the library.)  But according to his web site, he had studied both conducting and piano before circumstances led him, at age 17, to focus intently on his singing career.

In that rehearsal, Domingo stood hunched over the conductor’s score.  Considering that Mehta hadn’t given him a chance to prepare for conducting that day, we understood completely.

Domingo, of course, knew the entire score, orchestration included.  (Soloists learn only their part all too often.  Done with your aria?  Close the score and check out.)  He cued all the orchestral entrances and the chorus.  We were impressed!

At The Met

Fast forward to Saturday’s Metropolitan Opera broadcast of “Madama Butterfly”  with Domingo conducting.  This is what I heard:

  • extended applause before each act upon his arrival at the podium.
  • the most wonderful cohesiveness throughout the performance, with the conductor, orchestra, and cast breathing exactly as one.

By “breathing,” I mean not only the intake of breath, but the apportioning of its release throughout every phrase.

From the first note, the orchestra was stunning.  I did not personally enjoy the singing quite as much, but it was certainly credible.

Domingo’s understanding of how to breathe was so irreproachable, when a singer needed what may have been an emergency breath just prior to the end of a phrase, the entire orchestra was right there.

A special talent

In his book, The Complete Collaborator:  The Pianist as Partner (Oxford, 2009), Martin Katz emphasizes that:

The primary building block of successful collaboration is surely the breath.


… nothing approaches the importance of breathing in the quest for true collaboration.

He insisted that all his collaborative piano students breathe this way.  The breathing must be visceral:

  • deeply felt in the body;
  • never merely intellectual;
  • the way one breathes when feeling raw emotion.
(adapted from Merriam-Webster.com)

Maestro Domingo has this in his blood, a wonderful thing to witness.


Please take a few minutes to watch this video of the violinist Sarah Chang conducted by Domingo.  She plays Pablo Sarasate’s “Ziegeunerweisen” with the Berlin Philharmonic.  You will enjoy listening as well as seeing the unspoken, joyous communication between soloist and conductor.

The audience is also shown, in completely immersed appreciation.

I would imagine that no violinist could have asked for a more responsive, gifted, energized, sensitive conductor.

What do you think?  Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below!

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