Any arts institution reflects its leader, but it had better reflect local culture too, as the tenor Plácido Domingo, the general director of both the Washington National Opera and the Los Angeles Opera, is well aware. "By nature these are not twin companies," Mr. Domingo said in December at the Metropolitan Opera, where he is celebrating his 40th season as a tenor at the top of the roster. "Each city has its own personality."
Nigel Redden, the director of the Lincoln Center Festival and general director of the Spoleto Festival USA, in Charleston, S.C., faces a similar reality. "New York is an ongoing festival all the time," Mr. Redden said recently. "So you can ask, `Why do a festival at all?' In Charleston the festival has a stand-alone quality." This year's editions of the two festivals have not a single item in common.
Serving two masters is not easy.
Consider the curious case of Mr. Domingo and Wagner's "Ring des Nibelungen." For most impresarios a single production of this four-evening marathon is the crowning achievement of a career. Apart from generations of Wagners at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, only a handful climb the mountain a second time. Yet here is Mr. Domingo, overseeing two independent assaults on the "Ring" simultaneously.
In September 2000 Mr. Domingo announced a multimedia "Star Wars" "Ring" for Los Angeles, designed by Industrial Light and Magic, a division of Lucasfilm. The cycle was to have begun in 2003. The projected cost: an astronomical $75 million to $80 million, $33 million to $40 million for special effects alone. (The figure originally mentioned by Mr. Domingo — widely understood to be the total — was $30 million.) With 9/11 the fantasy vanished into thin air.
In 2006 the Washington company embarked on the "Ring" with the director Francesca Zambello, intending to proceed one installment per season. The production, Ms. Zambello said, was inspired by "American history, mythology, iconography and landscape." The San Francisco Opera signed on as co-producer.
Expedient as it might have seemed for Mr. Domingo to share that "Ring" with his own company in Los Angeles, he opted to start fresh there with the German painter and theater artist Achim Freyer, at a price tag of $32 million. Advance images project an aura of satirical fantasy in flamboyant hues sure to appeal to dream merchants and aesthetes. Apart from Mr. Domingo's signature portrayal of Siegmund in "Die Walküre," the casts overlap very little. And the companies' music directors — James Conlon in Los Angeles, Heinz Fricke in Washington — are conductors of quite different sensibilities.
Both productions remain works in progress. This season the Los Angeles Opera will present "Das Rheingold" (opening Feb. 21) and "Die Walküre" (April 4); and the Washington National, "Siegfried" (May 2). The Los Angeles "Ring" is scheduled for completion next season.
Washington, bowing to economic necessity, will settle for concert performances of "Götterdämmerung" next season, postponing completion of Ms. Zambello's vision perhaps until 2013, the bicentennial of Wagner's birth. So San Francisco, which has announced complete cycles of the American "Ring" for the summer of 2011, will beat Washington to the finish line.
David Gockley, who became general director of the San Francisco Opera in 2006 after leaving the Houston Grand Opera, finds a kind of poetic justice here.
"Francesca and I had discussed the concept for Houston years ago," he said recently from San Francisco, "but the money wasn't there. She asked me during my last year or so in Houston if I minded her taking it to Washington. I said: `Hell, no. Go for it.' Then I got to San Francisco and found that the company's great Nikolaus Lehnhoff `Ring,' which I would have revived in a heartbeat, had been scrapped by my predecessor, Pamela Rosenberg."
Here was his chance to realize a dream, at bargain rates.
Mr. Domingo is bargain conscious too. "I think it will be difficult to find a company that makes seasons like ours with less," he said, reeling off ballpark figures: in Washington, 50 performances of 7 shows for $30 to $35 million, in Los Angeles 70 performances of 10 shows for about $50 million. "The `Ring' will cost extra," he added. He noted that in the fall, box office in Washington ran 10 percent ahead of projections. "I wish we had 2,700 seats at the Kennedy Center instead of 2,200." Los Angeles has nearly 3,100.
For the sake of the Freyer "Ring" in 2009-10, the Los Angeles company has postponed the premiere of Daniel Catán's new opera "Il Postino" ("The Postman"), a vehicle for Mr. Domingo and Rolando Villazón, to 2010-11. Other than the "Ring," the season includes light bel canto ("L'Elisir d'Amore" and "The Barber of Seville"); Handel's "Tamerlano," with Mr. Domingo in a rare excursion into the Baroque; and Franz Schreker's "Gezeichneten" ("Those Who Bear the Mark").
"Die Gezeichneten" — billed as the first staging of a Schreker opera in the Western hemisphere — is the next entry in the company's series Recovered Voices, dedicated to composers suppressed by the Nazis, an initiative spearheaded by Mr. Conlon. "I support this project completely," Mr. Domingo said in December. "I hope the audience will support it."
It could prove an increasingly hard sell. In January, Los Angeles laid off 17 staff members and cut salaries 6 to 8 percent. Performances will be reduced from 64 this season to 48.
So perhaps "Tamerlano" is a harbinger of further change. The production, by Chas Rader-Shieber, originated in Washington. And while Mr. Domingo has never ruled out transfers of productions from one of his companies to the other, they have been rare, for well-considered reasons.
"In Los Angeles, being close to Hollywood, I can take more risks," he said. Gambles generally thought to have paid off included Vincent Paterson's production of Massenet's "Manon," starring Anna Netrebko in an ingenious tribute to screen sirens of yesteryear, and Mr. Freyer's staging of Berlioz's unclassifiable concert piece "La Damnation de Faust" as a phosphorescent carnival of the apocalypse. More questionable ventures included Deborah Drattell's "Nicholas and Alexandra" (in which Mr. Domingo played Rasputin) and Howard Shore's remake of "The Fly" (which Mr. Domingo conducted).
"In Washington," Mr. Domingo said, "people come and go with the party in power. Supreme Court justices come to the opera. Ambassadors and senators come. Over all it's a more conservative public, and I have to be careful what I present. But in the capital of the United States, I think it's a must to have an American opera every season."
By the same token he liked giving his Washington "Ring" Ms. Zambello's American spin. And the new setting caused her in turn to rethink her production.
"In Houston we were thinking of oil, the destruction of the environment, oil as an equivalent for gold," she said recently. "Washington, as the seat of global power, gives you a different overview. Both are relevant to the `Ring.' "
The environmental awareness of Northern California, Ms. Zambello finds, gives her American "Ring" an inflection that is meaningful in yet a different way. In Los Angeles, the capital of the American dream, it might have taken on a different, though equally suggestive, coloration.
What matters everywhere is a sense of place.
For Mr. Redden, as for Mr. Domingo, local resonance is paramount. True, Mr. Redden presents attractions imported from all corners of the globe, at Lincoln Center as well at the Spoleto Festival. Yet in both New York and Charleston, the imperative remains to be as site-specific as possible.
"At Lincoln Center we have to create series of events that can stand out in the context of everything else in New York," Mr. Redden said. "That can mean big, like the Kirov `Ring.' Or it can mean unusual, like `The Secret History of the Mongols' or the complete plays of Samuel Beckett, some of which are seen very rarely, or, in ballet, the Frederick Ashton celebration. Ashton is seen in New York, but not that much."
"In Charleston," he said, "it's the city and the city's history that create the context."
Charleston, Mr. Redden likes to point out, was the site of the first known operatic performance in the American colonies, in 1735, inaugurating a lively culture of music, drama and dance that flourished into the second half of the 19th century. An architectural gem like the historic Dock Street Theater preserves the atmosphere of that time. Understandably, the festival has become a destination.
"We haven't had any North Dakotans yet," Mr. Redden said, "but this past year, our audience came from 47 states and maybe a dozen foreign countries. My role isn't only choosing works that are wonderful but finding people who will participate by seeing them."
What does it take to run two festivals? "A lot of good stuff in both places," Mr. Redden said. "And for me what it takes is for the programs to be complementary, in that they're not worlds apart." He cited Bernd Alois Zimmermann's fiendishly complex opera "Die Soldaten," which the Lincoln Center Festival presented to acclaim at the Park Avenue Armory last summer.
"We couldn't have done that in Charleston, because we didn't have the space," he said. (Cost would have been a consideration too.) "But I was thinking about large, open spaces, because we were renovating a big black-box theater in Charleston." There Mr. Redden staged "Amistad," Anthony Davis's opera about the capture of a slave ship by the United States in 1839, subject matter sure to resonate in the heart of the old South.
Occasionally a Spoleto attraction travels to Lincoln Center: Basil Twist's puppet production of Respighi's Sleeping Beauty opera "La Bella Dormente nel Bosco," for instance. But like most Spoleto originals "Amistad" would have been virtually impossible to resurrect elsewhere.
"To get an audience from around the country we have to do things that are unusual or do things in a way you won't see at the company next door," Mr. Redden said. "This year we're doing Charpentier's `Louise,' which isn't done often. It has some beautiful music, like the aria `Depuis le jour,' which people know. But it's a piece that's exciting for a cast and director to do. It's a festival piece. It has to be wrestled with. This isn't `It's Tuesday, let's do another `Traviata.' "
As a man with two big opera houses to fill, Mr. Domingo is not one to spurn "La Traviata" or any other opera with evergreen box office appeal. "Two things sell," he said. "Names and titles." He continued: "But with the more unusual operas we often have hundreds or even thousands of seats unsold at the start of the run. Then the reviews come out, and at the end there are simply no tickets — only returns. I wish we could hang out the `Sold Out' sign at the beginning of the season. My big dream for both coasts is for people to know us and to trust us."