By Mary Milliken LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As the World Cup nears, soccer fanatics will inevitably jink the conversation toward the beautiful game. That includes Placido Domingo, who explains why at 73 he can still get down on one knee to declare his love to the soprano. "I was a goalkeeper and I know how to throw myself onto the floor," said the Spanish opera singer. Even if his sporting past has served him well in his career, the tenor-turned-baritone never expected to be where he is today, still singing on stages all over the world. Because of that unexpected longevity, he finds himself doing double duty as leading man and general director for the LA Opera, where he wraps up its 28th season this weekend as the love-struck monk Athanael in Massenet's "Thais," the 139th role of his career. Around 18 years ago, Domingo took over the direction of the Washington National Opera, and then more than a decade ago became director of the young Los Angeles company. "I really thought I would be singing for a very short time," he told Reuters in an interview this week at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where he first performed in 1967. "That's the reason I started thinking of being a director of a theater. The voice is there, so I keep singing." After making a full recovery from a pulmonary embolism last year, Domingo credits his continuing career to a passion for what he does and just plain luck that his voice is healthy. "Many people younger than me don't sing anymore, and I am still singing," Domingo said. "I don't know for how long. Maybe for two weeks. In any case, my plans are for three years, at least." FREER, LOOSER TAKE ON OPERA Domingo's choice to go with the fledgling LA Opera in the mid-1980s now looks like a smart one. One of his roles back then was to cultivate relationships with Hollywood's creative community and bring film directors in to ply their trade in opera. LA Opera today acts as an anchor tenant in the artistic and urban renaissance of downtown Los Angeles along with the Los Angeles Philharmonic next door at Walt Disney Concert Hall. "The entire reason the company is the fourth largest in the United States is directly attributable to his artistry, and I think more broadly to the audience's trust in his taste of singers, conductors, productions," said Christopher Koelsch, LA Opera's president and chief executive officer. Because L.A. opera-goers' local company is relatively young, they don't necessarily have preconceived notions of how a classic opera like Verdi's "La Traviata" should be produced. "They want it to feel much more cutting-edge, a little bit looser, a little bit freer," said Koelsch. "We are respectful of the tradition but not burdened by it." Domingo, for instance, will open LA Opera's next season in September in the role of the father, Giorgio Germont, in "La Traviata," set in the Roaring Twenties with Art Deco sets and directed by his wife, Marta. "We have to do exciting things for new people," said Domingo. 40 YEARS A FINALS FAN Across the street, the LA Phil under the young Venezuelan superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel has won widespread acclaim for a trilogy of Mozart operas, with stages built by renowned architects and costumes by fashion designers. But Domingo and Koelsch dismiss any notion of an operatic turf war in downtown L.A. "I wish we would like to do things together sometimes and I think there is the possibility," said Domingo, who is friends with Dudamel. "We are ready and willing." After his final performance here Saturday, Domingo goes to Europe before making his way to Brazil for the World Cup. He will arrive in time for the quarter-finals and is betting his beloved Spain, the world champions, will be in contention. Domingo's performances will include a big concert in Rio de Janeiro two days before the final. There is little doubt where he'll be on July 13 - Rio's Maracana Stadium. "I have been at the finals since 1974," he said. (Editing by Eric Kelsey and Prudence Crowther)
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