As for what comes after his contract expires in two years, Domingo begins by playing the role of employee: “First of all, let’s see if they want me.” Then negotiator: “I don’t know—assuming they want me, I have to decide what I’m doing.” He candidly adds a caveat: “One thing, honestly, I won’t take—if we cannot go higher, if we have to go down. I’m sorry.”
By 2011, Domingo will be 70 years old and will have been WNO chief for 15 years: “That’s a long time, you know.”
Domingo did not have to come to Washington. More than any other figure in classical music, Domingo, 50 years after his first professional opera performance, can write his own ticket.
Last year he was named the best tenor of all time by BBC Music Magazine, beating out Enrico Caruso and Luciano Pavarotti. Domingo has won a dozen Grammy awards, including three Latin Grammys, testifying to his crossover appeal.
As one of the popular Three Tenors, he regularly pulled down $1.5 million for a night’s singing. He was reportedly on wish lists when two operatic powerhouses, the Met in New York and La Scala in Milan, were looking for new top administrators. And how many other artists or arts people in Washington have enough popular appeal that they have been featured on The Simpsons and in a Rolex ad?
“Plácido is a personality,” says John Pohanka, an auto-sales executive and WNO chair. “He’s brought a new dimension to the opera and to the arts scene. He’s such a visible, highly respected person.”
Domingo is the only active singer to lead a major opera company, much less two. “There is certainly no one comparable,” says Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, a national service group for opera companies.
The 53-year-old opera company’s history is divided by many people into Before Domingo and With Domingo. The latter began with his appointment as artistic director in 1996 and promotion in 2003 to general director.
“From total opera obscurity and mediocrity, the company has sort of been propelled to a place of interest and promise in the world of opera,” says London-based author and arts administrator Helena Matheopoulos, who has chronicled Domingo’s career. “By his tremendous musical vision . . . I think he has totally transformed Washington opera.”
To top it off, Domingo is by all accounts a great guy, as likely to remember the name of a stage-door guard as of one of WNO’s generous benefactors. Domingo himself is a generous WNO benefactor as well as its highest-paid employee—$450,000 a year plus performance fees, which added $122,246 in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2007. Domingo and his wife, Marta, are listed as members of the opera’s Leadership Society, a group whose gifts over the years total $1 million or more.
Are there detractors? Sure, primarily on a few of the persnickety classical-music blogs that have mushroomed in recent years. But it’s opera, often as much a gothic web of intrigue offstage as on. Artistically, complaints focus on Domingo’s conducting, which is sometimes critiqued as less inspired than his singing. To judge that point, catch the final WNO performance of the season, a Turandot on June 4, which Domingo plans to conduct.
The latest classical-music reviewer at the Washington Post, Anne Midgette, a transplant from the New York Times, likes to growl about WNO. When a slimmed-down 2009–2010 season was announced in January, she wrote that it is not just in financially challenging times “that WNO gives the impression of simply offering a bunch of operas rather than some kind of unified program.”
Domingo called the coming season “a perfect balance” in a statement released while he was in China for an appearance with some WNO Young Artists. The season brings a mix of mainstage productions from the Italian, German, and American repertoire as well as WNO’s first performance of the French 19th-century rarity Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas. The schedule also includes two concert performances of Götterdämmerung, the cataclysmic conclusion to Wagner’s Ring.
Critics’ complaints pale against Domingo’s half century of musical accomplishment and the reflected glory that Washington shares. Domingo is a brand owned by his management company, Maringo, a corporation based in Los Angeles. As general director of the LA Opera, he earned $450,000 in salary and $100,000 in performance fees in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2006, according to an IRS filing. Domingo’s LA contract also expires in 2011.
In late January, the LA Opera imposed stringent financial cuts, including the dismissal of 17 percent of its administrative staff and pay cuts for remaining nonunion employees. Domingo told the Los Angeles Times that the company faced a “crisis situation” and that he has deferred his salary for the last year. The LA Opera will cut its performances from 64 in the current season to 48 in 2009–10 and had already postponed the world premiere of an opera in Spanish by Mexican composer Daniel Catán based on the 1994 movie Il Postino. Domingo was to have starred—another new role.
WNO tries to avoid direct comparison with the LA Opera, on financial as well as artistic issues, but a WNO spokesperson says Domingo “is consistently generous” and “has indeed deferred portions of his salary to benefit WNO.”
The Domingo branding is unmistakable: His likeness is on many WNO publications and advertising. The reception area in the company’s headquarters in a Watergate office building recently was dominated by a tailor’s dummy garbed in Domingo’s shimmering red and gold costume from last spring’s production of Handel’s Tamerlano.