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Viva Domingo!
Comments () | Published March 1, 2009

Domingo’s principal value as chief of an opera company, aside from his artistic judgment, is that virtually no one in music, theater, or philanthropy would refuse a phone call from him. An agreement to sing, direct, design, conduct, or contribute might not be forthcoming, but his is a personal request that few heads of musical groups can match.

“He brings national and international interest in the organization from the press, performers, directors, designers,” says Michael Kaiser, who as president of the Kennedy Center is a WNO landlord. And when it comes to fundraising, Kaiser says, Domingo “has a claim on the attention and Rolodex of many people around the country.”

Several sources say Domingo is soliciting friends and supporters abroad to secure additional backing for WNO. The sources add that they know no details, such as names of prospective benefactors, because Domingo keeps such personal outreach closely held.

Economic turmoil makes contributions harder to come by. WNO executive director Weinstein says that through the end of 2008 the company was “doing really well,” with “very little softness on the donation side.” But like other arts managers, he’s holding his breath. Will there be a slump? “We anticipate it but have not yet seen it,” he says.

Weinstein came from the Pittsburgh Opera, where he wiped out a deficit, ran a balanced-budget operation for ten years, and quadrupled the endowment from $4 million to $16 million. That made him attractive, initially to Pohanka, then to the board and Domingo. Soon after arriving at WNO, Weinstein eliminated nine administrative positions, about 10 percent of the company’s workforce.

WNO’s permanent endowment is $38.8 million, and Weinstein says “a lot” of the fund “was not in equities when the market crashed.” The WNO board recently hiked from $25,000 to $50,000 the annual amount that all except a few members are expected to contribute or raise.

In fiscal 1997, WNO’s expenses were $18 million, and earned revenue, principally ticket sales, was $10.9 million, according to figures provided by the opera. A decade later, WNO reported operating expenses of $34 million and earned revenue of $12.9 million. The shortfall is made up primarily by corporate and personal contributions. There were government grants of $562,500 and $1.4 million in interest on the opera’s endowment.

A problem for WNO is the relatively small number of seats in the Kennedy Center Opera House and the lack of an alternative venue. The Opera House has 2,200 seats, in comparison with 3,600 at the Met, 3,500 at the Chicago Lyric, 3,200 at the LA Opera, and 3,100 at the San Francisco Opera.

“The potential for growth is small,” says Opera America’s Scorca. WNO’s Weinstein seconds that, adding “if you have a commitment to affordable seating.” In the season that begins in September, WNO will offer some main-floor seats for as little as $25 a seat as well as a six-month payment plan for full-season subscriptions.

Just 300 more seats would help, Domingo says. He regrets that the recent Opera House renovation did not add seats; in the broad promenades in the Kennedy Center, he notes, you could build a roadway with “two-lane traffic.” WNO’s annual multimillion-dollar rent at the Kennedy Center, which the company will not disclose, is one of its biggest expenses. Domingo thinks the company should get a break from the federal/private partnership that runs the venue.

“I think they should make a consideration to really help the opera,” says Domingo, during whose tenure the Washington Opera became the “national opera” by an act of Congress and was rechristened. At minimum, Domingo says, people should not assume WNO gets a free ride at the Kennedy Center.

A regular part of party chat in Washington and Los Angeles arts circles is how extraordinary—heroic or insane, depending on who’s talking—Domingo’s commitments are. He not only holds the two general directorships but maintains a separate schedule of opera appearances and oversees his global singing competition, Operalia, as well as WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program.

The day before Domingo sat down for an interview, he had been in costume fittings and rehearsals at the Met in New York for nine hours. He allowed himself to admit that “this is tiring,” then pondered how his life could change: “I don’t know why I don’t do more concerts and less opera. The concerts are very comfortable. You just go there. You have a conductor. You have a rehearsal. And you get a lot more money.” But as if jerking himself from a wayward reverie, he admits what has been obvious to operagoers: “I live on the stage . . . and it’s difficult to leave.”

Domingo is resident in his Watergate apartment for a total of only three months or so annually, but associates swear he can lavish attention on his Washington enterprise from anywhere in the world during workdays that appear to fill a clock with more than 24 hours. As Domingo is fond of saying—and splashing on his Web site, Placidodomingo.com—“If I rest I rust.”

What has not rusted much is Domingo’s still-vibrant voice, the basis of his fame and fortune. Does the voice ring as gloriously as it did 20 years ago? No, but at the age of 68 he is still singing—and with consistent beauty.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 03/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles