Women: Opera's Placido Domingo abused power to sexually harass them
Photos of retired opera singer Patricia Wulf shows photos of herself at right and also at far left in the photo at left, in costume for her role in "The Magic Flute" in 1998 at the Washington Opera, at her home in rural northern Virginia, on Friday, July 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
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.
At 78, Domingo still attracts sellout crowds around the globe and continues adding to the 150 roles he has sung in 4,000-plus performances, more than any opera singer in history.
But his accusers and others in the industry say there is a troubling side to 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, members of backstage staff, voice teachers and an administrator 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 rejecting 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 layout strikingly similar patterns of behavior 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 for a drink or a meal, or at his apartment or hotel room, 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 who 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.
The AP has withheld certain details in cases where it could lead to the identification of the accuser.
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."
Many of the accusers said they were warned repeatedly by colleagues to never be alone with Domingo, even in an elevator. If they did join him for a meal, they said they were told to avoid alcohol and meet at a public place — for lunch, not dinner.
The women making the accusations were mostly young and starting their careers at the time.
Several said they took extreme measures to avoid Domingo, including no longer using the ladies' room near his office, asking other singers or backstage staff to stick with them while at work, and not answering their phones at home.
The dancer called her avoidance technique "the bob and weave, the giggle and get out," and one soprano labelled it "walking the tightrope."
Domingo's influence in the opera world is so great that Wulf was the only person among the dozens who talked to the AP who spoke on the record. And many of those who spoke did so reluctantly, fearing retribution but also not wanting to inflict collateral damage on the industry itself.
But ultimately, those who talked to the AP said they felt emboldened by the #MeToo movement and decided the most effective way to attack the entrenched sexual misconduct in their industry was to call out the behaviour of opera's most prominent figure.
"There is an oral tradition of warning women against Placido Domingo," said a mezzo-soprano who worked at the LA Opera but is not among the accusers. She echoed advice that several women said they had received: "Avoid interaction with him at all costs. And definitely, don't be alone with him."
"Am I going to be the target or not?"
Another mezzo-soprano who is one of the accusers was 23 and singing in the LA Opera chorus when she first met Domingo in 1988.
During a rehearsal of "Tales of Hoffman," she was selected to kiss Domingo in an orgy scene. She said she remembers wiping his saliva off her face from a sloppy, wet kiss after which he whispered in her ear, "I wish we weren't on stage."
After that incident, she said, Domingo started calling her at home frequently, although she had not given him her number. He told her she was a talented singer with a promising future and he wanted to help her.
"I hadn't started my career yet. I was completely flattered. And floored. And excited," she said. "Then it got creepier."
"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.'"
Over the course of the next three years, she said, he was uncomfortably affectionate, slipping a hand around her waist when they crossed backstage or giving her a kiss on the cheek a bit too close to the mouth. He knew the key codes for the dressing rooms and would enter uninvited, she said, which she said she assumed was to catch her undressed.
Domingo was an artistic consultant at LA Opera in the 1980s when his stardom went mainstream. Newsweek magazine dubbed him "The King of The Opera" in a 1982 cover story and he appeared on popular television shows like "Sesame Street," where a character, Placido Flamingo, was named for him. His collaboration in the "Three Tenors," with the late Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras, produced the best-selling classical recording of all time.
Rather than offend Domingo and risk losing future assignments, 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 and resumed his unwelcome pursuit whenever he returned to Los Angeles.
One night, she said, she agreed to meet Domingo about 11 p.m. "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."
She said she didn't report his behaviour because "that just wasn't done" and also feared any misstep could kill her career.
Singers and administrators would "smile and shrug," she said. "Everybody would see me running around to avoid him and laugh it off. That's how everybody dealt with Placido."
One backstage staff member said many felt Domingo was pursuing the mezzo-soprano "in some way that she was not wanting. We were all aware of that." And a male singer and friend told the AP that he remembered the singer seeking his advice about how to navigate the situation.
The mezzo-soprano said she would mentally prepare herself for the star's returns to Los Angeles. "I used to steel myself when he was in town, thinking, 'Am I going to be the target or not? What will I say to him when he asks me again? How am I going to get out of it?'"
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 the Biltmore and at his Los Angeles apartment.
She said the superstar mentioned his "superstition that he had to be with a woman before a show" to help him relax and calm his nerves.
"I will sing better — and it will all be because of you," she said he told her before he deposited $10 on the hotel dresser for the parking fee.
She cut off physical contact after the second encounter, a move she is convinced derailed her career at LA Opera.
"I don't have a smoking gun," she said, but "for somebody who was calling me and trying to see me every year, every time he was in town, to just never contact me again and never hire me again is pretty convenient."
"How do you say no to God?"
The LA Opera announced in 1998 that Domingo would become its artistic director, after working for years as a consultant for the company.
A young singer who met Domingo at a rehearsal that year said he immediately began calling her at home.
"He would say, 'I'm going to talk to you as the future artistic director of the company'" and discuss possible roles for her, 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 in Santa Monica, to see a movie, to come to his apartment so he could cook her breakfast.
During one of his frequent uninvited 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.
From the beginning, the singer — who was 27 and just starting her career — said she felt panicked and 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 had an audition, she was married. She quoted Domingo as replying on one occasion: "It's a shame your husband doesn't understand about your career."
After one performance, the singer said she went home and answered the phone, her heart sinking when she heard Domingo's voice.
He told her he had champagne and asked if he could come to pick her up so they could celebrate the performance. At that moment, she said, she had "a feeling of impending doom" that "I wasn't going to have an opera career if I didn't give in." So, she said, she reluctantly agreed.
"He picked me up in his BMW and I got in the car with him. He was very excited. He was touching my knee. I went in my mind into acting so I could live with myself," she said. She said they drove to his apartment near the opera's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where champagne was waiting.
"We were sitting on the couch and at some point, he started kissing me," she said. She said he then led her to a bedroom where he took her clothes off, then undressed himself. They engaged in "heavy petting" and "groping," she said.
Domingo continued to pursue her in the days and weeks after, she said, calling her repeatedly. "I felt like prey. I felt like I was being hunted by him," she said.
Ultimately, she told him the calls needed to stop and reminded him that she was married.
"I was not prepared for how much it would mess with my confidence, and my feeling shame about it and wondering who knew and if they thought that's why I got an opportunity or a role," she said. "I started to doubt my own talent and skills."
The singer's husband confirmed to the AP that she had told him at the time Domingo was persistently calling and that "eventually it was quite clear he was propositioning her." When she confessed to what had happened with Domingo, the husband said her description of the star's behaviour persuaded him "that the only way to get out of it was to either give in — or give him a hard no and give up all concerns of your career."
A friend and colleague of the singer told the AP that she remembered the singer saying Domingo was inundating her with calls and ignoring requests to stop. The singer's weight dropped dramatically and she developed problems with her nerves, the colleague said.
"It was like watching someone be psychologically killed," the colleague said. "She got smaller and smaller as a person."
The singer said that once Domingo took over control of casting decisions at the LA Opera, he never hired her again.
Now 49 and retired, she said she is haunted by fears that submitting to Domingo had mitigated any wrongdoing on his part.
"I still struggle with the sense that I let myself down, pushing through and doing my job when I should have raised holy hell," she said.
"Do you have to go home tonight?"
Patricia Wulf, another mezzo-soprano who worked with Domingo, said he 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?'"
At first, she said, she nervously laughed off Domingo's remarks, even though she considered them offensive. But when he persisted, she made her position clear.
"I would say, 'Yes! I have to go home tonight.' And I would walk away."
It was 1998 and Wulf's career was taking off at the Washington Opera, where Domingo served as artistic director from 1996-2003 and general director from 2003-2011.
Then 40, she had been hired to do two solo roles that year, first in a production of "The Magic Flute" and later in "Fedora," which starred Domingo and the great Italian soprano Mirella Freni. The opportunity to work with such famous singers was a career high point, she said, but the experience quickly became a nightmare.
In an interview at her home in Virginia, Wulf, now 61, held back tears as she related how, after investing years training her voice, she finally arrived on the big stage, only to find herself facing a predicament she didn't know how to handle.
"You have to understand that when a man that powerful — he is almost like God in my business — when he would come up that close and say that, the first thing that goes through your mind is 'What?!'
"But," she added, "you also think 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."
Wulf said Domingo's pursuit seemingly had no bounds.
"It got to a point that I would come off stage and try to slither behind a pillar, and he would still find a way to get to me," she said.
She said Domingo would often knock on her dressing room door uninvited and that she feared leaving the room if he was in the hallway.
"I'd open the door and peek and see if he was there. And if he was there, I would just wait," she said.
She said when she brought her husband, Richard Lew, to the "Magic Flute" opening night party, Domingo "came right up to me, took my hand, shook my hand, kissed both cheeks and he whispered in my ear, 'I would like to meet my rival.'"
Lew told the AP that he would ask his wife after each performance, "Did it happen again? Did he say the same thing?" He added that "at a certain point, we didn't have to ask. You could just tell by how upset she was."
Wulf recalled the compassion of a male colleague who offered to stand up for her if she wanted to report him. "They're not going to fire him — they'll fire me," she remembered telling him.
Contacted by the AP, the former colleague recalled Wulf's discomfort and said he would accompany her to her car at work because she feared going alone.
Wulf said that Domingo did not physically touch her but that there was no mistaking his intentions.
"Absolutely and most certainly, that was sexual harassment," she said. "When a man steps that close to you and with a wry smile asks if I have to go home — repeatedly — I can come up with no other conclusion than him wanting to bed me. Especially given his reputation for that."
"It affected the way I dealt with men for the rest of my operatic career and the rest of my life," she added.
Wulf said she is speaking out because the silence about what she called the "well-known secret" of Domingo's behavior has stretched on too long. "I'm stepping forward because I hope that it can help other women come forward, or be strong enough to say no," she said.
"I was frozen in terror."
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. She made sure she always had an excuse for leaving right after work.
"In the beginning, I wasn't scared. I thought I could handle it," she said, noting that he was persistent but not physically aggressive.
But one night after rehearsal, he caught her off-guard, she said, asking her for a ride home.
"The whole premise was ridiculous: Why would Placido Domingo not have a ride home?" she said. "But what was I going to do?"
Halfway through the short drive, she said, he put his hand on her leg and, as she reached his building, directed her toward a side entrance and told her to pull over.
"He leaned in and tried to kiss me," then asked her upstairs, she said. She added that she declined, saying she had other plans.
Several weeks later, she said, Domingo approached her on a night that he knew she was scheduled to stay late.
He told her, "I've been trying to get you to work on this aria with me for weeks. I really want to hear you sing this role. Can you come to my apartment and we'll run through this aria?"
His tone was different, she recalled. He sounded impatient.
"It sounds crazy to say, but it felt like he had invested so much time in this pursuit that he was annoyed with me," she said. "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."
She went to his apartment, where 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," she said. "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."
She said he followed her into the hallway, begged her to stay, then gestured downward and told her he had "two hours left," which she believed was a reference to a sexual performance drug.
Back at her car, she sat in shock "for a long time until I felt like I could drive," she said.
"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 has never again been hired to sing at the Los Angeles house or with Domingo.
"I've been hard on myself for a while," the singer said. "Having a coaching session with somebody who offers you coaching is not consenting to sex."
"Does he understand the risk he's putting me in?"
A dancer who worked with the superstar in several cities began recounting her experiences with him by stating, "My story is exceptionally common."
She 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? Does he understand what he's doing here?' But he didn't care."
"When you're working for the most powerful man in the opera, you try to play ball," she said, adding that she was careful to never insult him and tried to appeal to his ego.
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 suggested they walk to rehearsal but said he needed to first stop at his room.
"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."
An opera employee who worked closely with Domingo said she found him gentlemanly and respectful but confirmed that the dancer had complained of being harassed by the superstar for years. She said the dancer told her what happened in Domingo's hotel room, adding that her impression was that "even though he was persistent, he did take no for an answer."
After the hotel incident, the dancer said she didn't work with Domingo 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."
Perhaps for that reason, she said she feels conflicted about how to categorise Domingo's behaviour.
"What he did is wrong," the dancer 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."
"He kept calling and leaving messages. I got frightened."
Domingo's pursuits extended beyond the concert hall, according to one singer who said she encountered him in Italy during a backpacking trip.
In her 20s at the time, the singer was a master's student at The Juilliard School in 1992, spending the summer traveling in Europe with her sister.
While in Rome, they stayed at a budget hotel off the Campo de Fiori, where she sang in the shower one morning with the window open. The doorman from a nearby luxury hotel yelled up to ask who was singing, she said, telling her that Domingo was a guest in his hotel and had heard her.
"He said you have a beautiful voice and he wants to meet you," she said the doorman told her.
Domingo — who was in Rome that summer performing "Tosca" for a live broadcast around the world — sent a message asking her to meet him about 10 p.m. at another hotel.
She remembered walking into the hotel lobby and telling a clerk that she was meeting Placido Domingo. She was led up to the roof, where a private table was set up and Domingo emerged dressed in an elaborate costume-like robe and a billowy white shirt, with a beautiful, young brunette on his arm.
"The whole thing felt like something out of a movie," she said.
She said she told him she was a student at Juilliard and he insisted she come see him that fall at the Metropolitan Opera, located a block from her school on Manhattan's Upper West Side, so she could sing for him.
"He said he thought he could help me with my career," she said.
Back in New York, she went to one of Domingo's performances, then went backstage, where he remembered her and asked for her phone number, she said.
"At that point, I was enamoured with the whole situation and excited to meet this really famous person with an amazing voice," she said. "Then I started getting phone calls."
"He would talk in this childlike voice that was flirty," she recalled. "He wanted to come to my apartment — and that was weird."
"In Italy and at the Met, the hook was, 'I want to hear you sing. I can connect you with people.' Once he started calling, it was just, 'I want to see you. I want to meet you,'" she said.
She said she consulted a friend in the opera business who warned her to stay away from him.
"He was tenacious. He did not stop calling and calling and calling. The first couple of times, I put him off. Then it got ridiculous. He kept calling and leaving messages. I got frightened."
"His aggressiveness was too much to think he didn't have an ulterior motive," she said.
At one point, she asked a male classmate to answer her phone. Domingo never called again, she said.
"It was the death of the hero."
Another soprano said she felt she had reached the pinnacle of her career when the opportunity arose to work with Domingo at the Met in 2002. Domingo was her idol. His rich, spellbinding, soulful voice had inspired her to become an opera singer. Then in her 40s, her career goal had long been to work with him.
She remembers feeling elated when he praised her singing, taking her face in his hands after one performance and telling her, "You have moved me. Your performance moved me." He was artistic director at both the Washington and LA operas and told her, "I'm going to find work for you... I do many concerts. And I ask my favourite singers to join me."
One evening at intermission, she said, Domingo knocked on her dressing room door and they chatted about the performance before he moved to kiss her goodbye.
"I gave him my cheek and instead he turned my face and kissed my lips," the soprano said. "Suddenly there are wet lips on mine. It was a wet, slimy kiss." As he pulled back, she said, he asked: 'Do you understand?'"
"Yes," the soprano answered.
"Do you really understand?" she said Domingo asked again, caressing her cheek.
"'Yes, I absolutely understand.'" she said she answered.
"That's all I said. But for me, it was the death of the hero. That was the death of my dream," she said. Going forward, she said she gave him only her cheek to kiss and no longer looked him in the eye.
"He got a clear idea that I was not going to be cooperating. And he never pursued me again," she said. Despite earlier declarations of future employment, she said she was never again asked to work with Domingo.
Domingo's celebrity and fame are well-deserved, she said, and the opera world has benefited from his tremendous talent as a singer and performer.
"He's got a soul when he sings, and that soul is there in the midst of this abuse of power," she said.
Echoing several other accusers, she said she felt conflicted about damaging the legendary singer's reputation but wanted him to know his behaviour was wrong.
"It's not that I want him to be punished. I want him to be made aware. I want him to have the opportunity to know exactly the kind of damage — emotional, psychological, professional and otherwise — that he's responsible for," she said.