News & Politics

Viva Domingo!

At 68, the world’s most famous tenor keeps on singing—and managing and conducting and coaching and fundraising and shuttling around the globe. His fans at the Washington National Opera hope he continues doing all that right here.

It’s a Saturday evening, time for mere mortals to kick back. But not Plácido Domingo. The world’s most famous tenor has just flown in from New York to work into the night with young singers from the Washington National Opera.

There’s some Mozart from a local soprano, a Ukrainian baritone, and an ensemble that includes a singer who is German-born but educated in Arkansas. There’s Donizetti from a Mexican-born tenor who has served with the US Army in Iraq. There’s some Gounod from another Mexican-born tenor who left law school and a job at Wal-Mart headquarters for a shot at a career like Domingo’s.

The object is far beyond getting tempos or the interpretation of a role correct. The bigger point is to see if, under Domingo’s tutelage, lightning will strike one of the budding artists. The scene in the Kennedy Center rehearsal hall feels like the passing of the torch from a legendary figure to a new generation.

As the Metropolitan Opera program put it earlier this season: “Plácido Domingo is a phenomenon.” And his exceptionalism looms larger for Washington than for any other city in the world—a world in which Domingo, at 68, is one of classical music’s most enduring stars.

As a director of the Washington National Opera since 1996 as well as a sometime performer and conductor with the company, Domingo is the most important musical force in town. His position is so significant that it unnerves the city’s cultural establishment to think about what could happen when Domingo’s contract runs out in 2011.

“I think everyone kind of hopes it will go on forever,” says Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt, secretary of the opera’s board and a pivotal figure in the private negotiations that brought Domingo to run the opera. That marked a new day for the arts here. “Everyone assumed that Washington was no longer a desert,” she says.

Domingo is more self-deprecating but concedes, “When I came, it was time to grow . . . time to develop. . . . And indeed we have grown.”

What worries Roosevelt and other opera enthusiasts is that over the 13 years of Domingo’s tenure, “we’ve all come to sort of take it for granted.”

Local classical-music lovers in general and opera devotees in particular have pinched themselves at the city’s luck in hooking Domingo and keeping him here for so long. They’d better now reach for their checkbooks. If there is a cautionary note to Domingo’s Washington tenure, it is that artistic advances have been accompanied by bigger budgets, with the opera struggling to stay in the black—and sometimes not succeeding.

“I was sure the budget would go up, and it has,” says Roosevelt, a prodigious opera fundraiser. Domingo concedes the point rather proudly even as he acknowledges straitened times for all the arts amid the international economic crisis.

WNO expenses and contributions have almost doubled since 1997, Domingo’s first full year as chief of the company. But earned revenue, principally from ticket sales, has been virtually flat, in part because attendance was already good and because the Opera House has fewer seats than venues in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, where Domingo is also general director of LA Opera. That means there is less room for WNO’s revenue to grow and more pressure on fundraising.

Domingo has proven to be a money magnet, but he’s not a miracle worker—especially in an economy that already has seen two US opera companies, including one in Baltimore, effectively close and even the mighty Metropolitan in New York tighten its belt. WNO announced in November the indefinite postponement of three cycles of Wagner’s four-part masterpiece, Der Ring des Nibelungen, originally scheduled for later this year, for which planning began seven years ago.

“Without any doubt, we need new blood,” Domingo says. As at almost every opera company, the most generous donors are older and their places need to be filled by younger contributors.

WNO ran up what the company calls an accumulated unrestricted deficit of $19.8 million through fiscal 2007 that still hangs over the company. Executive director Mark Weinstein, brought in a year ago to sort out the company’s finances, says WNO balanced its books last year and expects to in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Domingo counts that almost a miracle in this economic climate.

“The financial challenges are major,” says Kenneth Feinberg, a veteran Washington lawyer who is president of WNO’s board of trustees. “Can we meld Plácido’s vision with economic realities?”

Domingo says he was urging even before the global financial crisis that “if we want to go at this speed, we need $5 million more” annually. Given the downturn, he believes it would take an additional $8 million annually to “make it really comfy.”

Domingo, who has sung for popes, prays for an angel who will wipe out the red ink: “My really biggest, biggest, biggest dream is that one person that can really afford it will say, hey, here it is, for the deficit. . . . To pay the deficit it means the biggest vitamin injection that you can give to the company.” Wiping out an accumulated shortfall is “the most difficult thing,” Domingo says, because big-time donors would rather pay for a new production than cover losses from past seasons.

Says a company insider who praises Domingo while wondering about WNO’s ability to keep up financially, “It’s a real stretch.” But continuing the stretch may be key to keeping Domingo.

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.

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,—“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.

Anyone who has never heard Domingo sing can click on his Web site and be bowled over by his recording of “Granada” or one of the other Latin songs that pour forth. Or plan May 1 to catch a WNO-sponsored pops concert in Constitution Hall that is being billed as Domingo singing “from my Latin soul.”

Or sample the hundreds of recordings that feature Domingo. There are also dozens of DVDs of live performances as well as of the famous opera movies directed by Franco Zeffirelli—Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci (1982), La Traviata (1983), and Otello (1986).

Wikipedia lists 130 separate roles that Domingo has sung—likely the high-water mark for a tenor. All told, he says, he has about 150 musical roles in his repertoire. That number includes different roles in the same operas as his career has progressed, such as his three in Puccini’s Turandot—Altoum, Pang, and the tenor lead, Calaf, with the blockbuster aria “Nessun dorma.” It also includes Spanish-language operetta recordings and additional zarzuela roles he has sung on stage.

Some of Domingo’s work has been heard only in recordings, including his 2004 Tristan in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde—“a kind of apotheosis of his recording career,” Gramophone said. Domingo told the British magazine he worried that if he added the taxing role to his stage repertoire, “I would shorten my career.”

Domingo added his latest role last spring, first in Madrid and then in Washington, singing Bajazet in Handel’s Tamerlano, which premiered in 1724; it was one of Domingo’s rare dips into the florid Baroque world. Skipping about through the four or so centuries of opera leaves Domingo undaunted. In 2006, his interpretation of the title role was a highlight in the world premiere of Tan Dun’s quirky The First Emperor at the Met.

Later this year Domingo is scheduled to take on another new characterization, the baritone title role in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at the Staatsoper in Berlin. Repeats of the strenuous part are planned for La Scala and the Met, he says. Domingo began vocal training years ago in Mexico City as a baritone, but he was quickly redirected to the tenor repertoire.

When Domingo first talked in 2005 of portraying Boccanegra, he told the Observer in Britain that after that portrayal, “I will probably say, ‘Amen’ ”—but he now has singing commitments into at least 2011.

Domingo has set off little wildfires for more than a decade by seeming to announce that the end of his singing career was nigh. Now he says he does not know when he will sign off: “Every day when I wake up, I say, ‘Well, can I still sing this week? Can I still sing today?’ ”

Whatever the circumstances of his departure from the stage, Domingo says he will not give up music totally: “When God says . . . enough of singing,” two jobs will continue—conducting and developing young artists. Interlocking two fingers of each hand, Domingo says: “It’s so important for me to follow the chain of generations.”

Domingo’s concern about how long his performance voice will last played a role in his taking on the administrative positions in Washington and Los Angeles. He has said it was a natural turn for the son of performers who managed a zarzuela company in Mexico City, where the family moved in the 1940s from his native Madrid.

“I thought it was always in me,” Domingo says of running a company of musical performers. It means fewer opera appearances, “but that’s what I choose.”

WNO secretary Selwa Roosevelt, a go-between in the early talks with Domingo, recalls, “I became aware that at some point in his life he wanted to run a company.” She first met Domingo at a Washington dinner in 1986 when she was chief of protocol in the Reagan administration. She and the Domingos became friends.

Diplomacy certainly played a role in the negotiations. Roosevelt remembers telling Domingo of the Washington company’s interest: “They want to approach you but not if you’re going to say no.” Roosevelt says she then asked, “Can they approach you? And he said, ‘Yes.’ ”

Talks went back and forth. “He’s a very proud man and wants to do everything well,” says Roosevelt, whose Colonnade apartment has several shelves filled with scrapbooks of the Domingo years. Finally, at a dinner in New York after a Domingo performance at the Met, he whispered to Roosevelt: “I’ve decided to say yes.”

Roosevelt recalls the reaction in Washington: “A lot of people couldn’t believe it.” But given Domingo’s family background, it made sense. And from his earliest training, Domingo displayed a broad musical gift. Throughout his career, an intellectual approach to his art has put him in good stead among nonvocalist classical musicians, for whom the term “opera singer” is not always a compliment.

“He is not just a singer,” says Christina Scheppelmann, WNO’s director of artistic operations. “That distinguishes him from others.”

The quality of WNO performances has increased, if not always evenly, during Domingo’s tenure. So has the company’s dedication to mounting 20th- and 21st-century operas, especially by American composers. Contemporary operas are rarely as popular with operagoers as an Aida, La Bohème, or Carmen. But new works are important in reviving a largely 19th-century art form that attracts an aging demographic. It’s an effort, WNO said in an IRS filing, “to maintain opera as a living art form.”

The battle of the budget keeps impinging, though, including the postponement of WNO’s long-touted cycles of Wagner’s Ring, opera’s sine qua non. A fully staged Washington Ring is unlikely before 2013 at the earliest, says Domingo, who reluctantly agreed to the postponement. When Ring cycles for 2010 were announced for Los Angeles, Domingo said the cycle has become “almost a statement of identity for an opera company.” That’s no less true for Washington.

“We decided to get ahead of the curve so we won’t become one of the casualties of this business cycle,” says WNO executive director Weinstein, who notes that the productions entail large casts, vast scene changes, and, at a total running time of about 17 hours, the threat of orchestra overtime: “You can get yourself into a hole and not be able to protect yourself.”

The Ring postponement could mean that Washington may not get to hear Domingo again in a signature role of his later career, Siegmund in the second opera of the Wagner tetralogy, Die Walküre. When he sang the demanding part in a semistaged version in Barcelona last year, a review on the Web site Opera Today remarked on the “miraculous autumn” of the tenor’s career: “A 67-year-old Siegmund would make news anyway, but Domingo’s is simply a miracle for clarion tones, power, and tenderness.”

Just as Domingo can electrify an audience with one of his signature roles, a surge courses through a rehearsal when he walks into the Opera House or WNO’s studios in Takoma Park. And his exacting nature manifests itself regularly, sometimes in unexpected ways.

There was the final dress rehearsal of this season’s Carmen. As extras portraying the last act’s troop of bullfighters paraded onstage flourishing their capes, Domingo sprang into action. “No, no, no, wait a minute!” he called out. That’s not what bullfighters do with capes, said the native of Spain, who went onstage and gave an impromptu lesson in cape handling.

“He takes these things extraordinarily seriously,” says WNO artistic director Scheppelmann. Domingo is just as likely to share his encyclopedic knowledge of opera and vocal technique with younger artists, especially fellow tenors—“tricks,” Scheppelmann says, such as “don’t breathe here.” Domingo has, after all, performed a giant wedge of the tenor repertoire. It’s deliciously intimidating for singers in the WNO Young Artist Program.

“He knows everything,” says José Ortega, the tenor who left law school and Wal-Mart. “He has an incredible instinct.”

“If you mess around he knows it, but at the same time he has sympathy,” says Jesus Daniel Hernandez, the Army veteran.

Domingo’s energy is another example for young singers. Being tired, Scheppelmann says, is not an excuse for anyone in a company headed by Domingo and his Energizer-bunny approach to life.

Now all Domingo and WNO need to do is keep donors and subscribers equally revved up.

This article first appeared in the March 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.