Domingo’s Washington National Opera curtain call

Tenor’s 15-year tenure at helm saw international prominence, acclaim

Scott Suchman/Special to The Washington Times Operatic tenor Placido Domingo brought his formidable star power to bear on Christophe Willibald Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Tauride” at the WNO.
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With his final performance Saturday night as artistic director of the Washington National Opera, tenor Placido Domingo ends a 15-year collaboration that transformed what was once a respectable provincial company into what he recently described as “one of the really important ones in the United States and the world.”

The WNO, anxious not to lose the allure - for audiences and benefactors alike - of its association with the world’s leading operatic star, has sought to play down the fact that he will no longer shape its seasonal repertoire, albeit often by phone and email as he jetted around the world on his commitments.

“I wouldn’t call it a departure,” says Michelle Pendoley, a company spokeswoman, trotting out a string of engagements Mr. Domingo will have with the company, starting with “Tosca” on Sept 10, which he will conduct.

But in reality, this week marked the end of the Domingo era at the WNO. The tenor’s contract expires in June, with neither the opera board nor the tenor himself interested in renewal for a third term. On July 1, the opera company will be subsumed by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in what is essentially a financial-rescue operation.

As for Mr. Domingo, even someone of his enormous energy and ability to (almost) be in two places at once has to start cutting back at 70. He is perhaps surprised that he can still sing new repertoire, and friends say he prefers to be on stage or on the conductor’s podium rather than dealing with administrative nuts and bolts. Indeed, he once confessed, “I’m not sure that I would have taken on these administrative responsibilities if I thought I’d still be singing today.” And that was in 2001.

When the WNO trustees said their formal goodbyes to Mr. Domingo at their annual dinner at Washington’s Salgrave Club in mid-April, they presented him with a first edition (1871) of the piano score of “Otello,” one of his greatest roles. But Mr. Domingo’s final role was not in one of the WNO’s operatic standbys. Instead, he brought his formidable star power to bear on Christophe Willibald Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Tauride,” the most recent addition to his 134 roles. Many people know of the composer’s “Orfeo,” and will recognize the aria “Che faro senza Euridice,” but Gluck’s masterpiece was the unjustly neglected “Iphigenie en Tauride.”

The Domingo years in Washington leave a split legacy - artistic distinction and rising financial problems with varied roots.

When Mr. Domingo took over as artistic director of what was then the Washington Opera in 1996, the company was waiting for a spark. What he brought to it was not only his own superb voice, but also his impeccable artistic judgment, and his “reach” and drawing power in the operatic world - his ability to attract top singers to Washington.

“He made our standards,” says outgoing WNO Chairwoman Jane Lipton Cafritz, one half of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, with which Mr. Domingo will retain a close connection. “He’s such a huge figure in opera, and he’s done incredible things for the Washington National Opera. He’d bring in these incredible Russian sopranos. In a way, he groomed the audience.”

The spate of recent tributes to Mr. Domingo’s decade-and-half Washington tenure credits him with adding American operas to the seasonal repertoire, including William Bolcom’s “A View from the Bridge” and Scott Wheeler’s “Democracy: An American Comedy,” which the WNO commissioned in 2005. But high quality comes at a price, and opera production costs rose steadily, even as audiences continued to show a marked preference for the standard repertory over innovative projects.

The 2008 global economic meltdown was bruising for the company - as it was for the arts everywhere. The crunch came in 2009, when the WNO announced that a funding shortage compelled it to halt acclaimed stage director Francesca Zambello’s ambitious “Americanized” take on Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” after producing three out of the four installments. (It still managed to produce two excellent concert performances of “Gotterdamerung,” the fourth “Cycle” work, in May and June of that year.)

After years of spiraling costs, the WNO has balanced its budget in the past two years by reducing staff and cutting back its programming. The company repertoire dropped from eight operas in the 2002-2003 season to five in 2011-2012. Then last year, the opera began talks in earnest with the Kennedy Center, its landlord, leading to what the Kennedy Center calls an “affiliation,” under which it will handle the business, fundraising and marketing for the opera company. In the run-up to a deal, the WNO paid off debts of $11.6 million, and still has an endowment of $36 million.

The arrangement has its critics within the opera’s circle of longtime supporters because of what they see as a loss of identity and independence. They argue that the “Annie Get Your Gun Meets Rigoletto” formula will lead to a decline in the quality of the opera. Still, the joint statement announcing the move set out the overriding argument in favor of the merger: the WNO’s “long-term financial security.”

There are unconfirmed reports that Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser and Mr. Domingo have worked out an agreement defining a special relationship between the tenor and the WNO. Meanwhile, the opera has finalized a new leadership team: On Wednesday, the company announced the appointment of Francesca Zambello as artistic adviser. Michael Mael, the WNO’s chief operating officer, becomes executive director. Christina Scheppelmann remains director of artistic operations, and Philippe Auguin is the music director.

Ms. Zambello is well known at the WNO from the “Ring Cycle” and other productions. But she was also a close collaborator with Mr. Kaiser when he ran the Covent Garden Opera House in London - a useful link in what could be difficult transition period ahead.

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