On September 27, 1999, operatic tenor Placido Domingo makes his 18th opening-night appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House, breaking an “unbreakable” record previously held by the great Enrico Caruso.
Caruso, of course, was the biggest star the world of opera had ever seen. Following his New York debut with the Metropolitan Opera in 1903, he made opening-night appearances at the Met in 16 of the next 17 years. With his death in 1921, Caruso’s streak stopped at 17—a mark that no other singer even remotely approached for the next 60 years. The Italian bass-baritone Ezio Pinza was the closest challenger to Caruso before Placido Domingo came along, but even Pinza failed to reach double digits, topping out at nine opening nights with the Met over the course of his 22-year career. Even Domingo never thought that Caruso’s record would be broken, much less that he would be the one to break it. “But when I was in my 11th or 12th opening night,” he recalled during an interview before his record-setting performance, “somebody asked me, ‘Do you realize how close you are to the number of times Caruso opened the Met season?’ What can I tell you? I started to think maybe I can do it.”
As a contemporary of the great Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo never enjoyed undisputed status as the greatest tenor of his time. But his far superior stamina and his broader repertoire made him the go-to choice for opening nights at the Met, of which Pavarotti sang only seven. Domingo sang his first opening with the Met in 1971, in Verdi’s Don Carlo, and over the years he sang opening-night parts as diverse as the title role in Verdi’s Otello and Sigmund in Wagner’s Die Walkurie. When he sang at his record-setting 18th opening night on this day in 1999, Domingo did so, appropriately enough, as Canio in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci—a role most closely associated the man whose record he surpassed, Enrico Caruso.