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Rehearsing Multiple Roles

Placido Domingo's notoriety can only serve L.A. Opera well, but can he balance the sweeping demands of his career?

November 04, 1998|MARK SWED

The story of the opening night of L.A. Opera's first production will be told, and elaborated upon, as long as opera here lives. For more than a hundred years, Los Angeles had been an operatic Wild West, noted for attracting operatic naifs and charlatans in equal measure. We were best served by itinerants like the touring New York City Opera.

Finally the Music Center did form a company, and it opened its first season in 1986 with Verdi's "Otello." But on that opening night, as the music roiled to mimic a violent storm, as the ship's crew called out in terror and the choristers on shore watched the wave-tossed vessel in operatic horror, the curtain stuck. It was just for a couple of seconds, but time seemed to stop as the symbolism of it sank in.

After its hesitation, though, the curtain rose, and an exultant Otello stepped out to sing his triumphant "Esultate." The chorus burst into its startling victory chorus. L.A. got opera. Chills went up our spines.

That Otello was Placido Domingo. His tenor rang clear, certain. His pose was cinematically heroic. He inspired then exactly the confidence we needed.

And now we will be turning to Domingo again to get us past stuck curtains, although under completely different circumstances. It was announced Monday that Peter Hemmings, who built the company not just from scratch but from the negatives of all the failures before him, will retire as general manager, and Domingo will become artistic director.

Domingo's loyalty to L.A. Opera has been admirable. He has returned year after year to perform with the company and give it just the stellar luster it needed. Serving first as artistic consultant, then artistic advisor, he used his amazing Rolodex to attract singers not otherwise inclined to travel so far from the European centers of opera. An indefatigable talent scout, he brought stunning new voices, such as tenor Jose Cura, here first.

Domingo has not been unrewarded for his services, but both parties have profited. He used L.A. Opera as a platform to perfect his conducting skills, and the company made him principal guest conductor. He has also made L.A. Opera a family affair. His wife, Marta, a former singer, will direct "La Traviata" later this season.

But as the man assigned to transport L.A. Opera, which has known only one era, into a new one, Domingo seems better prepared to raise some kinds of stuck curtains than others.

As it was on that opening night 12 years ago, his presence is very reassuring. The value of celebrity cannot be underestimated in this star-struck town.

But Domingo's celebrity comes at a price. He is famous because he is a great performer--an intelligent, passionate, committed singer of opera and also a media darling who has a flair for popular culture, given his Three Tenors membership and his appearances with pop singers. He loves it all, and he does it all. He is almost laughably overextended.

Domingo can hardly be expected to stop being Domingo in order to head L.A. Opera, and we wouldn't want him to. His singing career should be winding down by now, but he defies his 57 years and, despite a bit of inevitable fraying at the edges, his voice remains remarkably strong and vital. That keeps him in the limelight and keeps his celebrity fresh.

But there are limits to how much even Domingo can do--singing, conducting and administering. Two years ago he added to his resume the artistic directorship of Washington Opera, a company pretty much on par with L.A. Opera. Each produces eight operas a season. Washington's budget is around $25 million; L.A.'s is $19.5 million.

Each City Is Promised Its Own Identity

Domingo has, by all reports, had a bracing effect on the nation's capital. He doesn't spend much time there--an executive director runs the operation of the company--but he has proved a spectacular fund-raiser, and the company's current season is a strong one, with big works like "Tristan und Isolde" and "Boris Godunov"; a rarity, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's "Sly" with Jose Carreras; and an American opera, Robert Ward's "The Crucible."

Domingo will continue to run Washington Opera while he heads L.A. Opera. He says that he will keep the two companies distinct. Certainly some of the singers will appear in both cities: Every audience wants the top stars. But the operas and the directors, Domingo said the other day over the phone from Washington, will not, for the most part, be the same. Each city, he insisted, has its own personality, and the companies must reflect them.

Yet Domingo also has his own personality, and we wouldn't want an artistic director without one. He is known to have an inquiring mind--I've even seen him peering down from the box seats at esoteric operas by Georges Enescu and Philip Glass in Vienna and New York. But can he cater to individual needs of both Washington and Los Angeles and still be true to himself? We already have the same clothing stores and bookstores in practically every city. Will L.A. Opera become just another Domingo franchise?

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