The following article is reprinted by permission of the Washington National Opera from The Domingo Era: 1996-2011, a tribute in printed text and pictures by the company to its general director Plácido Domingo on the eve of his departure after 15 years of devoted service. The book was distributed on May 7 at the Capital's annual Opera Ball.
Every year, opera-mad Vienna mounts the prototype of these parties (and many like them the world over) at—where else?—the Vienna State Opera. In Washington, D.C., where politics is the name of the name, it is a moveable feast, staged with great flourish at a different embassy each year. The 2011 edition, hosted by Ambassador Zhang and Madame Chen on May 7 at the Chancery of the Embassy of the People's Republic of China, promised to be a historic occasion as well as a glittering. The word from those who attended was that it surpassed expectations.
Divo, maestro, mentor, and for the past 15 years, guiding spirit of Washington National Opera: This year's Opera Ball honors the greatest global goodwill ambassador the art form of opera has ever known. Opera Ball Chair and WNO board member Susan E. Lehrman is keenly attuned to Maestro Domingo's talent for friendships without borders. "Our goal with The Opera Ball is to create awareness of opera as a diplomatic tool," she says. "Opera helps us find bonds with cultures everywhere. It's a wonderful gift. Plácido has often told me that his heart is in Washington. Imagine having the world's greatest opera singer choose to establish his legacy here in this city."
A Royal Prelude: Setting the Stage
In retrospect, it seems merely prophetic that Plácido should have made his entrance onto Washington's opera scene on a bona fide state occasion. On November 15, 1986, the company offered the world premiere of Goya, Gian Carlo Menotti's florid fantasy on the life of the great Spanish painter. Queen Sofia of Spain attended, along with 1,200 other international dignitaries and opera lovers. By all accounts, Domingo performed with the blazing sound and integrity that have now been his trademark for an unparalleled 40-plus years.
Had his first appearance in Washington been his last, the occasion would no doubt have gone down as one of the most brilliant feathers in the company's collective cap. But of course the story could not end there. Washington was hungry for more, and in 1988 Domingo returned as a guest artist in the role of Cavaradossi in Tosca, consolidating ties not only with the general public but also with Washington's music-loving movers and shakers, who soon began to fantasize about creating a permanent, hands-on role for Domingo in the capital.
Many singers in the history of opera have gone on to administrative careers—Domingo's senior colleague Beverly Sills was a shining example—but not in the flourishing midsummer of a major international stage career. Nor in truth could Washington's modest regional company have been considered much of a plum at the time. Undaunted, hopeful Washingtonians opened a private dialogue with Domingo, and in 1996, he returned, this time as Artistic Director, determined to pilot the institution to international stature as Washington National Opera.
A Dream Comes True
It was Selwa "Lucky" Roosevelt, President Ronald Reagan's chief of protocol, who first approached Domingo on the board's behalf about leading The Washington Opera. In her official capacity, Roosevelt had accompanied Queen Sofia to the premiere of Goya and had dined with Domingo after the show. Over the next several seasons, a friendship blossomed not only with Domingo but also with his wife, Marta, ever his closest confidante as well as an opera director in her own right. Where Domingo sang, Roosevelt followed.
Sometime in 1994, she discreetly popped the question. "It took about six months from the time I asked if we might approach him until he saw his way clear," Roosevelt says. "At the party on opening night at the Metropolitan Opera that year, with Plácido in Il Tabarro, he called me aside and said, 'I want to talk to you. I've made up my mind. I'd like to do it, but I'd be looking for a much bigger budget.' Right away, I decided to do something special in the way of a gala. We would charge a lot and take in a lot."
At the same time, Roosevelt joined forces with Domingo to found The Domingo Circle, the association of lead supporters of Domingo's expanded vision for opera in the nation's capital.
"Our first gala took us a year to prepare and raised $3 million, an unheard of amount at the time," Roosevelt says. "But we could never have attempted what we did without Plácido to build it around. Plácido just generates that kind of excitement."
For all his celebrity, Domingo never presumed. Bob Craft, a longtime trustee and former WNO president, recalls his astonishment when the board first broached the question of personal appearances. "We asked him early on if he would sing an opera in Washington every year," Craft says, "and his answer was, 'Only as long as you want me to.'"
Inaugurating his tenure as Artistic Director in 1996, Domingo delivered his first of many diplomatic masterstrokes. The opera that night was Il Guarany, by Carlos Gomes of Brazil. In the wake of its triumphant premiere at the Teatro alla Scala, in Milan, Il Guarany swept Europe, and no less an authority than Giuseppe Verdi declared Gomes "a true musical genius." A long-forgotten smash hit by an American composer, on a Native American subject (the Guarany were an indigenous Brazilian tribe up in arms against the Portuguese), with a meaty title role for the superstar head of the company—what could have been more apt, more exotic, or more thrilling?
Over the years, Domingo has favored Washington with 98 evenings singing in 15 opera productions, plus 83 evenings conducting 19 operas and a variety of concerts, not to mention his appearances before Pope Benedict XVI at Nationals Park, George W. Bush at the White House with Young Artists of the company, and an untallied number of other events.
Domingo's New Deal
"Make no little plans," said Daniel Hudson Burnham, the great American architect and urban planner. "They have no magic to stir men's blood."
As architect of a major-league opera company for Washington, Domingo set out very much in Burnham's spirit. The institution Domingo signed on with as Artistic Director in 1996 was known as The Washington Opera. In June 2000, Congress designated the company as America's "national" opera company. But it was not until February 2004, during Domingo's first season as General Director, that the new name—Washington National Opera—was adopted, as nothing less than the pledge of a new mission.
A commitment to performances of the highest artistic standard was always but one plank of Plácido's platform. Broadening the horizons of existing audiences, opening the doors wide to new audiences—these were others. Of equal importance was the matter of grooming young talent for the ever-mounting challenges of an operatic career.
In the Domingo era, a respectable regional American company claimed its place among the first rank of international houses, and its $11 million budget tripled. "It's not only his singing, but his brand, his credibility," says Ken Feinberg, current president of the WNO board, noting the multiplier effect Domingo's presence exerted on arts institutions throughout the capital. "A rising tide lifts all boats." To Feinberg's satisfaction, challenging fare like Billy Budd or Jenůfa or Sophie's Choice hasheld its own at the box office better than many a doubter would have expected.
Domingo's audience trusts his choices, as Michelle Krisel, Domingo's right hand for 14 of his 15 years at WNO, can confirm. "The public came to see not just him on the stage or in the orchestra pit, but to experience his vision. His ideas and presence similarly inspired people to join the board, become supporters, join the staff."
Raising the Bar
In the wake of Il Guarany, Domingo continued to lead the company into ever more adventurous regions of the repertoire, and to make a place at the table for that perennial stepchild: the American opera composer, in the persons of Douglas Moore, Conrad Susa, Robert Ward, Samuel Barber, Carlisle Floyd, William Bolcom, André Previn and more.
The philanthropist Barbara Teichert of Bryn Mawr, PA is among those keen to go exploring off the beaten track, especially when Domingo is guiding the way. "If Plácido's doing it, I'm on board," Teichert says. Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, with Domingo as Hermann, the brooding gambler,or Handel's Tamerlano, with Domingo in the baroque role of the captive Ottoman emperor Bajazet—are just two of the projects that have captured her imagination and her underwriting largesse. "I believe so much in what the company is doing. They work so hard for dramatic coherence. When you do operas that aren't mainstream, you have to be that much clearer, or audiences won't grasp what's happening."
Drawing on his unmatched network of international friends and associates, Domingo has made a home in Washington for the reigning divas and divos of our time. In the last 15 years, the Opera has seen the local debuts of stars on the rise like Juan Diego Flórez of Peru, Erwin Schrott of Uruguay, and Anna Netrebko of Russia, now the biggest names in the business. And as an artist who thrives on challenge, he supports others who feel the need to stretch. The Washington native Denyce Graves, celebrated as temptresses like Carmen and Dalila, seems a natural for the calculating courtesan Giulietta in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, but when Domingo offered her the part, she shocked him by requesting the trouser part of Hoffmann's buddy Nicklausse instead.
"'You?!' said Plácido," Graves recalls with an expression that conjures up his incredulity. But he granted her wish, and she repaid him with a vibrant performance. "I felt free! Like myself!" Graves says. "Nicklausse is so much fun! It was the most liberated I've felt onstage in my life."
The enterprising Renée Fleming has never underestimated Domingo's combined artistry and work ethic, but her WNO debut under his baton in 2008 as the scandalous Donizetti tigress Lucrezia Borgia, gave her a whole new perspective. "No matter how much it looks like I'm expanding my activities, it's just the tip of the iceberg compared to Plácido," Fleming says. "Once, when I was on tour and the schedule was simply packed too tight, I thought I'd make up a T-shirt reading 'I Am Not Plácido Domingo!' To think of him taking on the role of General Director, and to fill it with such grace—it's simply incredible. Preparing Lucrezia Borgia, it was so moving to me to see how much the orchestra responds to him, what a wonderful collaboration he has with all the musicians. You wouldn't necessarily expect that when it's a singer conducting. But then, he's such a great musician. And who better to understand the needs of a singer?"
The veteran German conductor Heinz Fricke, who served as the company's music director through virtually the entire Domingo era, conveys the same respect, aglow with affection:
"The almost 20 years we've worked together have been the happiest time of my life," says Fricke, who in his youth worked with such greats as Richard Strauss. "The orchestra musicians in Washington were never conceited. They show real human understanding. It was Plácido who brought that out in them. He built them up and showed the way. He didn't just lend the company his name; he really worked to make things better. He lends a hand any way he can. It's very rare to find someone like that."
The Next Generation
As the opera world's talent-scout-in-chief (and founder of the influential star search Operalia), Domingo was instrumental in starting the highly regarded Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, with the support from the Cafritz Foundation. "He's such an extraordinary human being—great singer, great mind, great heart, and great mentor," says Jane Lipton Cafritz, current chairman of the WNO board of trustees. "We both believed so strongly that the company needed to invest in the development of young talent. Now almost a decade into the program, we're starting to see the artists we've invested in perform on major stages like the Met and La Scala."
Take the Baltimore-born baritone Trevor Scheunemann, who started his career balancing work in the WNO chorus with local church jobs. After five or six seasons, he graduated to bit parts. Domingo, who was on the receiving end of Scheunemann's one-liners, took note. And when WNO commissioned Marvin Hamlisch to write a party piece for the company's 50th anniversary celebration, Scheunemann was tapped for a workshop, fully expecting his part to be taken by a name artist on the big night.
When Domingo attended a run-through for staff, he offered him a spot in the Washington National Opera Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program that very day. And that wasn't all. When the gala premiere of the Hamlisch piece rolled around, Scheunemann found himself right up there sharing the spotlight with Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth and Domingo himself. The title, aptly enough, was The Audition. Now Scheunemann's calendar is crowded with dates at the Met and major companies in Europe.
"Once, in a master class, Maestro Domingo talked about how it is that he's been able to sing for so many years," Scheunemann says. "His point was how important it is for young singers to know when they need to rest, so that when opportunities come, you really shine. He takes less rests than most of us, but he knows what he needs. I try to take that to heart."
As a complement to the Young Artist Program, Domingo also established and funded, at his personal expense, an intern and apprentice program for opera administrators. Over 100 graduates have gone on to positions as the next generation of leaders at opera houses, theaters, and arts organizations internationally.
Of course, Domingo's eye is on developing new audiences too. WNO simulcasts have been a staple of the Domingo era since Porgy and Bess in 2005. Thousands have flocked to the National Mall and Nationals Park for these transmissions, which have also been carried to 31 universities across 22 states. Under Domingo's guidance,the company has also established the program Generation O, offering steeply discounted tickets to budding opera lovers 18 to 35. At 15,000 members strong, Generation O stands out as one of the most successful ventures of its kind.
If I Rest, I Rust
Inevitably, some have criticized Domingo for spreading himself too thin, as if his continuing presence as a player at the highest levels were not the very basis of his leadership.
"He's not the kind of General Director who is here every day, and he would be the first to tell you that," says Christina Scheppelmann, Director of Artistic Operations since 2001. "But that had to be expected. Sometimes it happens that he misses a first night. If he just can't make it, he'll always come for an orchestra or technical rehearsal, or the dress rehearsal. But he jumps through hoops to be here. It's beyond human effort. It's happened that he has flown in from Los Angeles for a cast party and flown back the same night."
It is by no means a matter of simply putting in appearances. His dedication is as evident in the back office as it is on the stage. Anyone who has worked with him closely knows his mantra: "If I rest, I rust."
Admittedly, the global recession of the past years has taken its toll on the company, as it has on companies everywhere. A pragmatist as well as a visionary, Domingo has faced the hard choices, accepting economic cutbacks without compromising on artistic quality.
Michael Mael, WNO's Chief Operating Officer, is happy to report that the company has balanced the books for the last three years. "Many people assume that Plácido's interest is exclusively on the artistic side, but he has great facility on the business side. I send him cash-flow reports every week and financial information in preparation for every board meeting. He not only reads the documents but takes the time to digest and understand them. Plácido is totally supportive in the decisions we've had to make. But one point he always makes is that we should never accept austerity measures as the new norm."
All in the Family
As anyone who has worked at WNO during the Domingo era can attest, Domingo the General Director is anything but a remote autocrat. "When Plácido signed the contract," Chris Hunter, chairman of the board of trustees at that time, says, "the very moment it was a done deal, one of the first things he asked me to do was to put together a list of employees with photographs by the names, so that when he came in, he would know everyone he was working with. He's an extraordinarily caring man, and that translates into his artistic life."
The director Francesca Zambello, who has worked with Domingo at many companies, speaks above all of his generosity. "It comes through in so many ways," she says. "For me as a director, he's a wonderful sounding board, a real mentor, with that deep understanding of the big picture. In rehearsal, what makes him unique, artist to artist, is his incredible ability to connect to the emotional process. He's very quick, very free. He gives you a lot to work with right away. And he loves to discover a new piece, even one he's not in. When we created Porgy and Bess, he came to so many rehearsals. Usually he sits off to your left, giving you inspiration just by being there. When he's in a show, he's always backstage before the performance, greeting people, creating a wonderful camaraderie. Isn't that what you want as a director? For the lead performer not just to lead the show but the whole company?"
A longtime Washington-area resident and frequent soloist with WNO, the mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop sang her first Verdi Requiem under Domingo's baton. "He walks into rehearsal and everything changes. Tenors get fifty percent louder. People suck in their stomachs. At the human level, it's just wonderful to have him here. Walking through the hallways, I've never lost the 'tee-hee' factor that Plácido's here! My lord, he's a living legend."
Ever the consummate professional, Domingo is also blessed with a Midas touch that makes every relationship personal. Ask Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Upon her appointment to the high court, she regretted only that there would be no time to rehearse as a supernumerary at the opera.
Happily, accommodations were made. Ginsburg and fellow Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy appeared on the WNO stage in Die Fledermaus, as "Supremes," guests at Prince Orlofsky's ball.
"Domingo was one of the entertainers. It was a very bad production, but I'd never had that experience of being quite so close to such a glorious voice," Ginsburg says. "It was almost like an electric shock going through me."
Though they live very different lives, the Justice and the Tenorissimo remain in touch. "One of my fondest moments was when I turned 70," Ginsburg says. "One of the other judges had a videotape made of Domingo as Parsifal in his dressing room at the Met, singing 'Happy Birthday.'"
A telling emblem of the chord Domingo strikes is his portrait in the porter's lodge at the stage door of the Kennedy Center Opera House. Wall space is at a premium here, and every photograph that hangs—framed and autographed—belongs to someone special. Domingo's occupies the #1 spot.
"This picture will always remain in this position," says Jim Coller, who has stood watch there at the door for 18 years. "I always enjoy Plácido's performance nights. The ladies, with the bouquets and the chocolate boxes, arrive in their furs and diamonds two or three hours before his call. When he arrives, he'll greet each one, often with a kiss on the cheek. They adore the man. "
Could Coller pick out one Domingo evening that was the most unforgettable of all? "Whether he's singing or conducting, every evening is as glittering as every other. There's no distinction."
For Lucky Roosevelt, who has shared so many moments with Domingo as an artist and a friend, the one that perhaps captures him best was private. "I'll never forget the time I brought my mother to a dress rehearsal. She was a very old lady, in a wheelchair. At the intermission, I asked Plácido when I could bring her to say hello in his dressing room, and he said, 'No, no! I'll come up to her.' It meant so much to her. He has such lovely manners, very Spanish. It's instinctive. He has nobleza. That doesn't mean you were born noble. It means you have a noble heart."