For decades, Placido Domingo, one of the most celebrated and powerful men in opera, has tried to pressure women into sexual relationships by dangling jobs and then sometimes punishing the women professionally when they refused his advances, numerous accusers told The Associated Press.
Regarded as one of the greatest opera singers of all time, Domingo also is a prolific conductor and the director of the Los Angeles Opera. The multiple Grammy winner is an immensely respected figure in his rarefied world, described by colleagues as a man of prodigious charm and energy who works tirelessly to promote his art form.
But his accusers and others in the industry say there is a troubling side to the 78-year-old Domingo — one they say has long been an open secret in the opera world.
Eight singers and a dancer have told the AP that they were sexually harassed by the long-married, Spanish-born superstar in encounters that took place over three decades beginning in the late 1980s, at venues that included opera companies where he held top managerial positions.
One accuser said Domingo stuck his hand down her skirt and three others said he forced wet kisses on their lips — in a dressing room, a hotel room and at a lunch meeting.
“A business lunch is not strange,” said one of the singers. “Somebody trying to hold your hand during a business lunch is strange, or putting their hand on your knee is a little strange. He was always touching you in some way, and always kissing you.”
In addition to the nine accusers, a half-dozen other women told the AP that suggestive overtures by Domingo made them uncomfortable, including one singer who said he repeatedly asked her out on dates after hiring her to sing a series of concerts with him in the 1990s.
The AP also spoke to almost three dozen other singers, dancers, orchestra musicians, backstage staff, voice teachers and administrators who said they witnessed inappropriate sexually tinged behaviour by Domingo and that he pursued younger women with impunity.
Domingo did not respond to detailed questions from the AP about specific incidents, but issued a statement saying: “The allegations from these unnamed individuals dating back as many as thirty years are deeply troubling, and as presented, inaccurate.
“Still, it is painful to hear that I may have upset anyone or made them feel uncomfortable, no matter how long ago and despite my best intentions. I believed that all of my interactions and relationships were always welcomed and consensual. People who know me or who have worked with me know that I am not someone who would intentionally harm, offend, or embarrass anyone.
“However, I recognize that the rules and standards by which we are — and should be — measured against today are very different than they were in the past. I am blessed and privileged to have had a more than 50-year career in opera and will hold myself to the highest standards.”
Seven of the nine accusers told the AP they feel their careers were adversely impacted after they rejected Domingo’s advances, with some saying that roles he promised never materialized and several noting that while they went on to work with other companies, they were never hired to work with him again.
Only one of the nine women would allow her name to be used — Patricia Wulf — a mezzo-soprano who sang with Domingo at the Washington Opera. The others requested anonymity, saying they either still work in the business and feared reprisals or worried they might be publicly humiliated and even harassed.
The accusers’ stories lay out strikingly similar patterns of behaviour that included Domingo persistently contacting them — often calling them repeatedly at home late at night — expressing interest in their careers and urging them to meet him privately under the guise of offering professional advice.
None of the women could offer documentation, such as phone messages, but the AP spoke to many colleagues and friends that they confided in. In addition, the AP independently verified that the women worked where they said they did and that Domingo overlapped with them at those locations.
Two of the women said they briefly gave in to Domingo’s advances, feeling they couldn’t risk jeopardizing their careers by saying no to the most powerful man in their profession.
One of them said she had sex with him twice, including at the Biltmore hotel in Los Angeles. When Domingo left for a performance, the woman said, he put $10 on the dresser, saying, “I don’t want you to feel like a prostitute, but I also don’t want you to have to pay to park.”
The women making the accusations — who said they were emboldened to speak out by the #MeToo movement — were mostly young and starting their careers at the time.
Several said they took extreme measures to avoid Domingo, including asking colleagues to stick with them while at work and not answering their home phones. The dancer called her avoidance technique “the bob and weave, the giggle and get out,” and one soprano labeled it “walking the tightrope.”
One singer who is among Domingo’s accusers was 23 and performing in the LA Opera chorus when she first met the superstar in 1988. She said she remembers wiping his saliva off her face from a sloppy, wet stage kiss after which he whispered in her ear, “I wish we weren’t on stage.”
Domingo started calling her at home frequently, she said, although she had not given him her number. “He would say things like, ‘Come to my apartment. Let’s sing through some arias. I’ll give you coaching. I’d like to hear what you can do for casting,'” she said.
Whenever he returned to Los Angeles over the course of the next three years, she said he was uncomfortably affectionate, slipping a hand around her waist or kissing her on the cheek too close to her mouth. He would enter her dressing room uninvited, she said, which she said she assumed was to catch her undressed.
The mezzo-soprano said she strenuously tried to avoid being alone with him, while also striving not to insult him. But he did not take the hint, she said.
She said she agreed to meet Domingo about 11 p.m. one night “and then I had a full-blown panic attack. I freaked out, and I just kept not answering the phone. He just filled up the machine, calling me until 3:30 in the morning.”
In 1991, she said, “I finally gave in and slept with him. I ran out of excuses. It was like, ‘OK, I guess this is what I have to do.'”
She said she had sex with Domingo on two occasions, at his Los Angeles apartment and at the Biltmore hotel, where he left the money on the dresser.
Another young singer at the LA Opera, where Domingo was the incoming artistic director, said he immediately started calling her at home after she met him at a rehearsal in 1988.
“He would say, ‘I’m going to talk to you as the future artistic director of the company'” and discuss possible roles, she said. “Then he would lower his voice and say, ‘Now I’m going to talk to you as Placido,'” she said, and ask her to meet him — for a drink, to see a movie, to come to his apartment so he could cook her breakfast.
During one of his frequent visits to her dressing room, he admired her costume, leaning forward to kiss her cheeks and placing one hand on the side of her breast, she said.
The singer — who was 27 and just starting her career — said she felt trapped.
“I was totally intimidated and felt like saying no to him would be saying no to God. How do you say no to God?” she said.
As the calls wore on, she stopped picking up the phone. In person, she gave excuses, she said: She was busy, she was tired, she was married. Finally, she said, she surrendered to “a feeling of impending doom” that “I wasn’t going to have an opera career if I didn’t give in.”
She said she went to his apartment, where they engaged in “heavy petting” and “groping.”
In the days and weeks after, she said Domingo repeatedly called her. “I felt like prey. I felt like I was being hunted by him,” she said.
The singer said that once Domingo took over control of casting decisions at the LA Opera in 2000, he never hired her again.
Another singer who worked in Los Angeles in the mid-2000s told the AP that she already knew of Domingo’s reputation when he took an extreme interest in her career and made sure she always had an excuse for leaving right after work.
One night after rehearsal, however, he caught her off-guard by asking her for a ride home, she said, which she found “ridiculous. Why would Placido Domingo not have a ride home? But what was I going to do?”
In the car, she said, he put his hand on her leg, told her to pull over near his building and then “leaned in and tried to kiss me.” She said he asked her upstairs, which she avoided by saying she had other plans.
Several weeks later, she said, Domingo approached her on a night he knew she was scheduled to stay late and invited her to his apartment to run through an aria.
She went, she said, because “I felt like I have dragged this out and avoided him for six weeks and he is Placido and he is my boss and he is offering to work with me on this role.”
After he poured two glasses of wine, she said, “He sat down at the grand piano and we really did sing this aria, and we worked on it. And he gave me coaching and was very complimentary.”
But then, she said, “When it was over, he stood up and slid his hand down my skirt, and that was when I had to get out of there.”
“I went home and was terrified to go back to work,” she said. “I was frozen in terror for that whole contract.”
Since then, she has sung at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Opera and elsewhere, but said she has never again been hired to sing at the Los Angeles house or with Domingo.
At the Washington Opera, where Domingo served as artistic and then general director for 15 years, mezzo-soprano Patricia Wulf said the star would confront her night after night with the same whispered question.
“Every time I would walk off stage, he would be in the wings waiting for me,” she said. “He would come right up to me, as close as could be, put his face right in my face, lower his voice and say, ‘Patricia, do you have to go home tonight?'”
She said she regularly would rebuff him, but that his pursuit remained relentless.
It got to a point, Wulf said, that she would try to hide from Domingo behind a pillar. She also would hide in her dressing room and peek to make sure he was not in the hallway before she left, she said.
“As soon as you walk away and get away, you think, ‘Did I just ruin my career?’ And that went on through that entire production.”
A dancer who worked with the superstar in several cities said a flirtatious Domingo called her late at night on-and-off for about a decade in the 1990s, leaving brazen messages that she would listen to in shock with her husband.
Domingo would ask her to meet him, including in his hotel room, but she said she would only go to lunch with him, always framed as a business meal. Still, she said, his hands would wander to her knee or he would hold her hand or kiss her cheek in ways that made her uncomfortable.
She said she would wonder to her husband: “‘Does he understand the risk he’s putting me in, that he could wreck my marriage, wreck my career?'”
“When you’re working for the most powerful man in the opera, you try to play ball,” she said.
One afternoon when they were working together at the Washington Opera, she said Domingo asked her to meet for lunch at his hotel restaurant to discuss work. After the meal, he said he needed to stop at his room before they walked to a rehearsal.
“He took me up to his room, ostensibly to pick up his stuff, and he invites me in,” she said. “And he starts hugging me and kissing me.”
She pushed him away, she said, and insisted she had to get to rehearsal.
“When I clearly was not going to have sex with him, he just walked me to the elevator and went back to his room,” she said. “The elevator doors opened, and I dropped. I just fell to the floor in the elevator and was sweating profusely.”
A former opera administrator said he was aware for years that Domingo was “constantly chasing” the dancer. And a conductor who is friends with the dancer said he recalled after she “said no to Domingo, she had the rug pulled out for several years.”
After the hotel incident, the dancer said she didn’t work with the superstar for several years.
“There were years when I was a wreck about it and scared that I’d never be hired again,” the dancer said. Eventually, she said, she was “let back into his good graces.”
“What he did is wrong,” she said. “He used his power, he stalked women, he put women in positions of vulnerability. People have dropped out of the business and been just erased because of submitting or not submitting to him.”