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Domingo And Bocelli: Keeping Opera Relevant

Placido Domingo and Andrea Bocelli in the NPR studios.
Coburn Dukehart/NPR
Placido Domingo and Andrea Bocelli in the NPR studios.

They're the hottest tickets in Washington, D.C., this week. They're being scalped for up to hundreds of dollars apiece. And they're not for the Obama-Biden inauguration. Two of the world's most famous tenors are performing together for the first time.

Placido Domingo (on the conductor's podium) and Andrea Bocelli (as a soloist) will perform Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle for two nights in Washington. The two men are beloved by different audiences.

The two superstars sat together and talked about a wide range of topics with NPR's Robert Siegel, including how to keep opera relevant in the 21st century.

Loving The Tenor Voice

Domingo has the respect of the classical and opera worlds. He has sung more than 125 different roles onstage. Bocelli has sold more than 60 million albums and draws a wider swath of fans. Bocelli, 17 years Domingo's junior, says he listened to Domingo's records as a kid.

"From that time, I considered the singer a giant," Bocelli says. "And now, to perform with him is a big emotion, and I'm very proud."

But Domingo wasn't the first tenor voice Bocelli fell in love with. He says it was probably Mario Lanza.

"My mother tells me," Bocelli says, "that when I heard the tenor voice, at 2 years old, I started to cry."

Bocelli includes the song "Because," a Lanza staple, on his new CD Incanto, which is filled with Neopolitan songs of the "Santa Lucia" type.

"Those were the popular songs of the day," Domingo says. "Today, we have to be careful what we sing, because the new type of popular music, we can't sing. In those days, the tenors of the day were singing the popular music. Today, we have to go back to those days to re-create those melodies if we want to sing something lighter than opera."

Opera Evangelism

Both Domingo and Bocelli seem acutely aware of the impact they've had bringing young people and nonbelievers into the opera house.

"The popularity of Andrea and the Three Tenors," Domingo says, "yes, we are responsible for bringing more people to the opera, and that's very important."

"There are two kinds of people who do not go to the opera: those who can't afford it and those who are uninterested," he adds. "They say, 'No, it's boring.' No. If you see opera properly, and you hear great singers, you are going to love it."

"When I hear that young people have come to the theater for the first time to listen to opera, I'm very happy," Bocelli says. "Because it's the same thing that happened to me as a child. When I first heard the tenor voice, I immediately fell in love with this kind of music. And I received so many beautiful moments from this kind of music that I really hope that many young people can know, understand and love this music."

"For children," Bocelli adds, "it's difficult to [listen] to opera on radio or CD, because they are used to listening to very different music — the rap, the soul, the pop music in general. But if they come into the theater, they'll enjoy themselves a lot."

Of Opera Gods And iPods

Bocelli says he loves listening to his iPod. What's on it? One guess.

"In my iPod," Bocelli says, "there are many operas, from A to Z. I have Aida and Boheme and Butterfly and Cavalleria. My passion is for opera, but when I'm in the car, I listen to everything."

Domingo has an iPod, too, but says he's scared of it.

"The ears are precious for musicians," he says. Domingo doesn't like sticking little loudspeakers so close to his eardrums. He says he's flummoxed by the concept of being miniaturized.

"I'm very happy that people can put so much music in such a little thing, but it scares me so much," Domingo says. "I've been recording for 40 years now; how is it possible that my whole career can be in a little thing like this?"

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