ORANGE, France -- When Peter Gelb took over New York's legendary Metropolitan Opera in 2006, one of his jobs was to organise a farewell for Placido Domingo.
But 13 years later the indefatigable Spanish tenor is still "the king of opera," headlining France's oldest musical festival at Orange at the weekend.
"Since it was unimaginable that he could possibly be singing for much longer after an unmatched Met career that was soon to span four decades of starring roles," Gelb told AFP, "one of the responsibilities I was preparing for was Placido's farewell."
With many singers' voices withering by the time they hit their forties, the unfailingly modest 78-year-old has somehow managed to keep performing at the top level.
"Instead of retiring, Placido apparently discovered his own fountain of youth, reinventing himself as a baritone," Gelb said.
"This past season, we held ceremonies for Placido on several occasions in honour of his five decades of leading roles on the stage of the Met -- an accomplishment that is impossible to imagine ever being achieved again," Gelb added.
'Impossible to achieve again'
Indeed the singer, who was one of the Three Tenors alongside Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras, set a new record in May by singing his 151th role.
A month earlier, he had celebrated his 4,000th performance in a career that stretches back 60 years.
But Domingo knows he has to look after himself, cancelling interviews after rehearsals on Friday in the southern French town of Orange to preserve his voice having recently pulled out of appearing in "La Traviata" in Munich.
He was in Orange for a "Spanish Night" to celebrate zarzuela, the particularly Hispanic music theater genre which his parents -- both singers themselves -- did so much to preserve.
Backstage at the ancient Roman theatre, he joked and chatted with the dancers from the Antonio Gades company who were also taking part in the show.
But even for a man half his age, his schedule is punishing.
In July alone, as well as Orange, he will sing the title role in "Simon Boccanegra" at Baden-Baden in Germany, then star in Verdi's "Giovanna d'Arco" (Joan of Arc) at the Teatro Real in Madrid, before moving on to Prague for Operalia, the international opera competition he founded in 1993.
Domingo will finish the month in Verona's ancient theater singing "La Traviata."
"Even though he is near 80, as far as Placido is concerned, there is still no hard stop in sight," Gelb told AFP.
"We recently planned performances for him through the 2021/22 season. But that doesn't stop him for pressing for even more roles in the future.
"As Placido gently points out, the house is always fuller when he is performing on our stage... Indeed, it's a successful argument for letting Placido call the shots as far into the future as he wishes," he added.
Glorying in being called an "operaholic" in the United States, where he has spent most of his later career as director general of both the Washington and Los Angeles operas, Domingo has made more than 100 albums and picked up 14 Grammy awards.
"Besides his record longevity, Placido's place in opera history is secure as one of the greatest dramatic tenor voices of all time," Gelb said of the singer, who grew up in Mexico singing with his parents' zarzuela company, playing the piano as an accompanist to supplement his income.
Whenever he finally retires, Gelb said he will leave an enormous legacy.
"His signature role of Otello was considered to be greatest of the last part of the 20th century -- and certainly no tenor has yet approached his level in the 21st," Gelb said.
© Agence France-Presse