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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the most soaring voices in the world has taken a dive.

Mr. PLACIDO DOMINGO (Opera Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: The voice belongs to Placido Domingo and the dive is into the deeper reaches of that voice. This fall in Berlin, the great tenor is singing a leading role as a baritone.

Fans have come from all over Europe to hear it: Domingo, a baritone?

Mr. DOMINGO: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: Well, he is 68 years old, and voices do tend to get lower as they age. But still, we had some questions about this transformation so we turned to our music commentator Miles Hoffman. Good morning.

MILES HOFFMAN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And Miles, let's keep listening to Placido Domingo as a baritone.

Mr. DOMINGO: (Singing in foreign language)

HOFFMAN: Renee, that's Domingo singing the Verdi role of �Simon Boccanegra.� He was singing that at the Berlin State Opera. Domingo will be singing this all over Europe, actually, and he'll be singing at the Metropolitan Opera in 2010, again, as a baritone in �Simone Boccanegra.�

MONTAGNE: Well, there was a review in the Times of London that speculated as to why Domingo might be doing this and its quip was that the singer might be aiming to end his career on a low note.

HOFFMAN: Right.

MONTAGNE: In a way he's trying to make sense - career-wise - out of some natural progression as far as his voice is.

HOFFMAN: Well, and that's true, but it's also a natural progression that went in the other direction, Renee. First of all, Domingo is a very interesting, and intellectually curious and ambitious musician. He's always tried different things, and he has always had a rich lower register to his voice. And in fact, Placido Domingo started out his career as a baritone. He started as a baritone, and somewhere along the line, early on actually, people said, you know, Placido, I think you should try to sing tenor because that seems to be what your voice is even better suited for.

MONTAGNE: Why don't we listen then to the difference by taking a listen to someone who's made a career as a baritone?

HOFFMAN: I think that's a good idea, Renee. We can do a little A-B comparison. From the opera �Simon Boccanegra� - singing the same role, here is the great Italian baritone Piero Cappuccilli.

Mr. PIERO CAPPUCCILLI (Opera singer): (Singing in foreign language)

HOFFMAN: And now let's hear Domingo singing the same thing.

Mr. DOMINGO: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: He really does sound - if you could put it that way, it's quite a pretty voice, but less rich than Cappuccilli.

HOFFMAN: Exactly. It's a beautiful voice and always has been. And in fact, Renee, the ranges, the actual pitch ranges, the notes that tenors and baritones sing are not that very different. What's different is the quality. Baritones have a richer, lower, darker quality; and when they sing up high, it sounds like somebody with a low voice trying to sing high. When Domingo sings high, it's easy for him. But one of the things we should stress here, Renee, is that different tenors have different qualities. If you listen to somebody like Pavarotti, Pavarotti never had that deep quality at the bottom of his voice. And Domingo never sang just bunches of high Cs, one after the other.

Mr. LUCIANO PAVAROTTI (Opera Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: Whoa.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. Whoa. That's Pavarotti, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

HOFFMAN: A totally different sound from Domingo.

MONTAGNE: Well, I - are you saying then in a way that singers are prisoners of the vocal cords that they were born with?

HOFFMAN: A little bit. Here's the thing: I'm never going to sound like James Earl Jones. And I can sing low notes, but I'm never going to sound like a bosso. I'm never going to sound like a deep bass singer. Frankly, neither am I going to sound like a tenor, but that's a different story. We are born with certain physical equipment. What's interesting is that singers develop.

And students starting out usually have to figure out, at some point, what their voice type is. They don't start out necessarily knowing their voice type. You see students in music schools arriving all the time, having to figure out, am I a tenor, am I a baritone, am I a soprano, am I a mezzo-soprano?

MONTAGNE: Well, now you've just mentioned sopranos. We've been talking about tenors and baritones, but assuming, of course, that everything that you've just been saying is true for women singers as well?

HOFFMAN: It is, absolutely. A wonderful example of somebody who is in some ways like Domingo, would be the great soprano Maria Callas.

Ms. MARIA CALLAS (Opera Singer): (Singing in a foreign language)

HOFFMAN: She was famous for that aria. That's the aria �Una voce poco fa� from Rossini's �Barber of Seville. That's a coloratura - a high aria. Now let's hear her sing a mezzo-soprano aria from Camille Saint-Saens's opera �Samson and Delilah.�

Ms. CALLAS: (Singing in foreign language)

HOFFMAN: Callas, like Domingo, had this extraordinary rich lower register, lower range, so she could do this. She could go from one to the other.

MONTAGNE: Well, apparently, the opera world will be getting both from Placido Domingo in the coming years because his opera roles now are booked, as I understand it, five years into the future and he's going to mix in, now, both tenor and baritone roles.

HOFFMAN: That's right. That's right, Renee. And it might be fun to go out with a recording of Domingo singing one of the most famous baritone roles in the repertoire, the role of Figaro in Rossini's �Barber of Seville� and this is the �Largo Al Factotum� where he sings Figaro, Figaro, Figaro.

MONTAGNE: And Miles, thank you, thank you, thank you.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee.

Mr. DOMINGO: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: Sorry to interrupt those Figaros. Just a reminder that that was Miles Hoffman, violist of the American Chamber Players and Dean of the Petrie School of Music at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

To hear more Placido Domingo at both ends of his voice range, go to npr.org/music.

Mr. DOMINGO: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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