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December 9, 2009

Domingo's other opera company gets financial rescue from Los Angeles County

A week or so after Washington National Opera announced staff cuts and a reduction in productions next season to help keep the finances in order, the Los Angeles Opera, which also has superstar tenor Placido Domingo as general director, went with cup in hand to the local government. The Los Angeles County supervisors approved a $14 million loan loan Tuesday. The main reason for the bailout is said to be the cost of the LA Opera's "Ring" Cycle, which will be presented in the spring.

The LA Times reports: The loan "is needed now, literally next week," Stephen Rountree, chief executive of both the opera company and its landlord, the Music Center, told the Board of Supervisors at its Tuesday meeting. The company is $20 million in debt, Rountree said.

I imagine somebody at the boards of directors of companies on both coasts may be asking a few questions about Domingo's stewardship. After all, if I may paraphrase Lady Bracknell,

to run into financial trouble with one company may be regarded as a misfortune; to run into financial trouble at both looks like carelessness.

I was particularly struck by this line in the Times story: "The opera was being very ambitious artistically, pushing the edges," said Rountree, and its creative reach overtook its financial grasp.

Some folks were warning about that very thing in DC a long while ago. Strange that both organizations appear to have been heading down the same over-spending path, without anyone applying the brakes earlier.

At least it looks like WNO has stabilized, but that doesn't lessen the severity of the pullbacks at the company. Something of WNO's prestige and legacy will be lost with the reduced season. Something of DC's cultural status will take a slip, too (as was the case in Baltimore when Baltimore Opera collapsed). And the LA company may find it hard to shake the image of insecurity after this big slurp form the public trough.

I can't help but wonder if one problem at both places may be that folks have a hard time telling Domingo no, given that he's such a persuasive, hugely admired figure. At the same time, maybe a lot of folks just assume that he's a money magnet, that everything will be fine financially with him at the helm. Doesn't look that way in DC or LA. Something's not working right. Whatever the root cause, it's awfully discouraging to see two august institutions being shaken this way.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:58 AM | | Comments (9)


Well, yeah. I'm not sure what his role is exactly in both these companies (other than fundraising), but the overall decent thing to do would have been to withdraw as director once he realized he wasn't gonna stop singing/conducting/everything else as early as he had thought.

It's all Domingo's fault. By the same specious logic, the whole global financial crisis must be his fault too because he performs all over the world.

Carol Hope, I'm not sure what the tone of your post is, but that it's Domingo's fault that he "performs all over the world" instead of-- for one-- paying attention to his opera house employees is PRECIOUS GOOD logic to me.

I’d like to clarify a comment I made in an earlier post. I was responding to Mr. Smith’s remark about Domingo’s stewardship. He said, “to run into financial trouble with one company may be regarded as a misfortune; to run into financial trouble at both looks like carelessness.” Because I’m a newbie here, the posting of my comment was delayed for a short period of time. Therefore, it appeared as if I were responding to another poster. I apologize for causing the understandable confusion.

It is not fair to blame Placido Domingo for all the problems. The CEO should be held responsible for that. Besides, Placido's name alone brings in tons of donations for those opera houses. Despite performing all over the world, he spends a lot of time at both opera houses. You can blame him for being too soft and not knocking sense into some of the decision makers. LA Opera really should have put the Ring Cycle on hold but I assume Conlon is the one pushing hard for the Ring Cycke so he should be blamed for contributing to the problem rather than helping to prevent it.

Thanks for commenting. Although I would never blame a general director (or manager) for all problems at any company, there is a reason why they're called general directors (or managers). Whoever takes such a job wears a big target, fairly or not. Of course there should be administrators and board types who can bring reality checks as needed. An outsider looking at the situations in LA and DC (where a very competent CEO appears to have been pushed aside) might reasonably wonder if the companies have had the best possible internal system of checks and balances during the tenure of their shared general director. TIM

Blame James Conlon for the LA Opera financial problems. He seems determined to present as much Wagner as possible at a huge cost to LA Opera. At least WNO are staying afloat whereas the Ring Cycle appears to be the reason LA Opera is struggling. Postpone it until better times. How much can you pump into the Ring Cycle.

This quote from the LA Times. "The company had run short on cash, Rountree said, partly because "there was a failure to fully appreciate that they needed to put out $20 million of the $32 million for the 'Ring' Cycle two years in advance." You cannot put all the blame on Domingo for that.

Sorry Tim. I should have been more specific. I was responding to comments left by other people. You were merely reporting the news. I hope I did not offend you.

Not at all offended, just too quick on the draw. Thanks again for joining the conversation. TIM


You failed to mention that WNO canceled its own Ring production in a show of fiscal responsibilty. One has to assume that Maestro Domingo played some part in that decision. Additionally, the LA Times reported that the LA Opera production of the Ring, and related events, are expected to generate over $50 million in economic activity. This certainly provided an incentive for LA County to extend the emergency loan. Opera houses all over the country, including the Metropolitan, are feeling the financial squeeze - this isn't unique to LA and Washington.

Strange, though, that the WNO executive who was credited with advocating the 'Ring' postponement should be pushed aside now. I still think it's reasonable that some folks may raise eyebrows and questions over the double whammy of uneasiness in DC and LA. TS

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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