It's nearing midnight when Placido Domingo takes the stage in a ballroom on the top floor of a residence hall at UCLA. Guests, mingling over $500-a-plate salmon, have been bused here from Royce Hall, where Domingo and the top winners of Operalia, his eighth annual international contest for opera singers under 30, have just performed a program of arias, duets and a sextet.
Showing no signs of fatigue on this mid-December night, despite a cold that has been dogging him for the better part of his workweek, Domingo introduces each of the six young singers. Such is the headiness of the evening that one dainty soprano will later swoon in the anteroom, prompting calls of "Is there a doctor in the house?" from the stage.
Domingo is the Energizer Bunny of opera. Into the early morning hours, long after many a well-heeled well-wisher has retrieved her fur, he will still be there promoting his proteges. This despite the fact that he must conduct a matinee performance of Los Angeles Opera's "La Boheme" in less than 12 hours--a "Boheme," it should be noted, with no fewer than four Operalia veterans: Aquiles Machado, Inva Mula, Eric Owens and Malcolm MacKenzie.
Even before he founded Operalia, Domingo--recently installed artistic director of L.A. Opera, international singing star, conductor, one-third of the Three Tenors, artistic director of Washington Opera--made the cultivation of emerging artists a personal cause, watching for young talent, recommending singers to his colleagues, including them in projects where he could.
So it comes as little surprise that one of his first efforts here will be the creation here of a new opera training program. First announced in September, his plans are backed by a pledge of up to $1 million a year from philanthropist and Los Angeles Opera board member Alberto Vilar.
Not that L.A. Opera has been wholly without a program for emerging singers. The company has had a Resident Artists Program for most of its 15-year history and has nurtured many fine singers. Indeed, a number of current and past resident artists appear in the revival of Peter Hall's production of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" now at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Former resident artist Richard Bernstein, for example, sings Figaro, and former resident artist John Atkins is one of two singers performing the role of Count Almaviva.
"What has been established at this company is something slightly different from what is going to be happening," says Domingo, several days before the Operalia gala, sitting in his office in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The room has a new look to go with its new inhabitant: Instead of chilly off-white, the walls have been freshly painted a warm spice brown--the color chosen by opera director Marta (Mrs. Placido) Domingo--and a vase of boldly hued flowers adorns the desk.
"The resident singers," he continues, "were a group of young, talented singers who were used by the company to do small parts, covering parts and then, if they develop, to do bigger parts. What I want now is to do something a lot more elaborate."
The new program will consist of an intensive course of formal music, language and dramatic study. Trainees may also understudy and possibly perform roles with the company and will participate in outreach programs. The program will serve as a kind of transition between university and professional life. Graduates might, for example, go on to become resident artists.
"Every day you see singers better prepared; they are better musicians, better prepared as actors, and this is very important," says Domingo. "I am full of hope that this is going to create a lot more singers of great quality."
The development of American singers has long had its twists and turns. Usually singers complete college and possibly graduate school, only to find the next step in an opera career is a little hard to figure out.
Many seek their big break by entering competitions. Among these, the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions is the most established in America. Created in the mid-1950s, it takes place in 17 regions in the U.S., as well as in Canada and Australia. It not only helps the Met identify new talent, but also serves as a prestigious credit on a young singer's resume.
Domingo's Operalia hasn't been around nearly as long, but it's fast becoming the competition of choice, in no small part because of the tenor's imprimatur--and his follow-through.
"Other competitions just give the prize and that's it," he explains. "But here they do a concert, and then immediately I use them for something. And the judges [in Operalia's case, many are opera administrators] also get interested in them too."