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January 14, 2010

Placido Domingo's multi-tasking comes under increased scrutiny

Placido DomingoThe music world's most celebrated workaholic, Placido Domingo, is coming under increased scrutiny -- and increased fire -- for what is perceived as a stretched-way-too-thin schedule.

It's not so much his habit of singing in one opera and conducting another on alternate days that has people more concerned; he's been doing that sort of thing for years. It's the fact that the two companies, Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera, where he is general director are experiencing tough going financially.

Those who have questioned Domingo's bi-coastal managerial career all along are no doubt wallowing in I-told-you-so smugness; those who have fervently believed in the superstar tenor's ability to do all things at all times for all customers may be feeling a bit less secure.

In a Thursday New York Times story by Dan Wakin, Domingo sounds

just a tad defensive ("If they are worried because I am too spread, let them tell me, and I will leave"), and representatives of the two opera companies sound basically supportive (WNO board chair: "It is unfair to blame any individual for the financial problems existing in an opera company in the United States"). Given that Domingo's contracts in D.C. and L.A. expire in 2011, it will be interesting to see if he extends either.

Things might be very different had the tenor's voice gone into severe decline, but, for a guy who turns 69 next Thursday, he has an awful lot of vocal capital left. No wonder he's still at it (occasionally switching gears for the baritone title role in "Simon Boccanegra" these days -- he sings it at at the Met this winter, in between conducting "Stiffelio" there).

But opera companies are obviously huge monsters requiring constant care and feeding. This may be the worst time for any company to find its leader gallivanting about the globe to perform, teleconferencing or texting in his spare minutes as he goes. It's not unheard of for opera stars to go into management, but not while still singing, conducting and managing a second company. The novelty of it all, and the enormous personal appeal of Domingo, has made this an amazing story right from the start. It gets more interesting every day, especially with the financial squeezes affecting Domingo's two administrative domains.  

My colleague Anne Midgette at the Post weighed in on the matter Wednesday with a strong point of view. Don't miss the equally strong comments made by readers -- they sure do reflect what a passionate thing opera is. (When I questioned Domingo's effectiveness in my blog post in early December, there seemed to be a little more support for him expressed in the comments I received than in most of those I noticed on Anne's article. Not sure if that means anything, but I just thought I'd mention it.)

Personally, I have a hard time buying into the notion that Domingo is a total disaster as a general director for either company. At the same time, I sure can't see him as faultless. As usual, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle, a place where a fitting solution to the problems in both organizations may also be found.

UPDATE: Per the comment below, you may want to check out a fresh story on the L.A. side of the Domingo equation.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:24 AM | | Comments (10)


Hi Tim,

Would it be terrible of you also to mention the people in LA who have been working this story for a month? My own piece in the LA Weekly on LA Opera's $14 Million Imbroglio also posted yesterday--and has been in the works since December.

Thanks much anyway for the further scrutiny. Now that we've used civic funding to bailout our opera programming, new issues have presented themselves here. We'll watch them attentively as I hope you do too.

The more the merrier. It's a story that will surely keep on giving. Thanks for bringing your work to my attention. TIM

Not fair! Not fair!
Not Fair!
Most American Opera companies are struggling. The economy is bad, endowments
have shrunk, donations and contributions are down.  Since Mr. Domingo is
not responsible for the woes of all American opera companies, then it must be
the economy that is affecting Washington and Los Angeles companies... without
Mr. Domingo's presence that translates in wider community support, these
companies would far worse off.

Placido is a very profound, caring and loving person. He is disciplined and he gives endless energy and thought to everything he does and is a part of.


I still think that although he has given a LOT to the world of opera and shouldnt just be dismissed or cast aside, that the decent thing for him to do would have been to step down from these positions once he realized his singing days were NOT over. Him saying indignantly that he is "not overstretched" just doesn't ring true.

As someone that has worked with Maestro Domingo as a singer when he has been on stage and in the pit, I can assure you that these attacks are not of a personal nature. Maestro understands the business and understands that people in and fans of both companies are understandably worried. Maestro Domingo is a caring and compassionate musician, I have been to parties with Maestro Domingo where he has stood in place for almost an hour taking pictures with the WNO children's chorus and their families. When he comes into rehearsals or performances he says hello to everyone from the star soloists to the chorus wardrobe people. He cares greatly, that is not what is at issue here.

It is tough given the downturn to know for sure if the current state of LAO & WNO is to blame on Mo. Domingo. Is it that the current economic crisis exposing underlying issues that have always been but when money was more flush these structural cracks were just well hidden? who knows.

Given that I have performed with WNO at least twice a year since 03' and with the former BOC I can say that a lot of the issues that people are seemingly blaming on Mo. Domingo are industry wide. personally I am in awe of Mo. Domingo as an artist and as of all he is able to accomplish. I would be spread too thin in the same shoes and things would be getting lost. However for most of the 60's and 70's H.V.Karajan ran every major orchestra in Europe. Running more then one orchestra or opera company is not new and Mo. Domingo seemingly does a good job.

personally I would place more blame on the Boards & trustees that don't do their job in maintaining the financial integrity of an organization holding the managements accountable & and the lack of creativity in the fund raising world. these groups act as enablers to Mo. Domingo and other leaders in his situation and have aloud this madness to go on to long. Opera needed to change its business model after 9/11 and it didn't. Sure fund raising did rebound somewhat with the economy in the middle part of the 00's it did not rerun to the pre 9/11 levels. then came Katrina and on her heels the housing bubble pop and the rescission. When Katrina hit Americans in droves started giving to non-arts charities and it really has been down hill sine then. No country on earth gives as much money to charity as the American people it is our greatest asset as a people, we care, it just seems we care less about culture nowadays.

I don't know what the answers are, there are many links between many of the problems in the arts. It is not as simple as blaming Domingo, or the current economic situation or piss poor management, or the lack of business skills in managements across the country. I can say that as long as the art form continues to cry poor in negations over a .75 cent an hour raise for the chorus and dancers but continues to pay $24K for a soloist to just learn a role with no guarantee to performing it (not including a performance fee) or the occasional one night gala performance for $75K or continue paying directors a full fee for 2 days of work out of a 36 day rehearsal process, it will continue to die. Sorry for the rant. Peace!

Thanks for the rant. It is important to hear as many voices as possible in this difficult matter. And, as I've said before on this blog, I can't accept the idea that one person is responsible for all ills, especially when it's the guy who's also responsible for a lot of the growth and quality that has gone onstage at both companies. Funny how some people only seem to remember the disappointing productions at WNO, as if any company -- hello! anybody remember the Met? -- presented only fabulous operas year in and year out, with only superlative singers, directors, designers and conductors. But don't let me start a rant of my own. Anyway, it might be wise, and might signal his commitment to lead, if Domingo were to make time for a major evaluation, perhaps in the time-tested retreat style, with the staff/board/donor representatives of both companies and have a real, no-holds-barred airing of all issues. TIM

No operatic role will be associated with Domingo when he's gone. He seems to be a "one-night-stand" type of singer, not returning to any of them to give them depth the way, for example Nucci has with his roles.
Maybe his celebrity helped the LA opera, but LA needs someone to build a sustainable opera, the way Klemperer did with the orchestra. Those were the days.

Hmmmm. I rather think that Otello might be long associated with him, to name one. TS

My wife and I have been ticketholders at the Met and at the WNO(since we moved to Maryland); Domingo is a giant.He has drawn more of the "ordinary people" into the lure of opera than any other performer of his time. The orchestra, of course, is very important, but the singing is most important. Long live Domingo and let the witches leave opera alone and start reviewing something other than opera!!

It is not important to be remembered for cerrtain roles, but to be remembered for a total career and personality. Mr. Domingo will be remembered for that, and everything he has given not only the operatic, but the whole music world. Let's hope he will continue that for many years to come.

Amen. Thanks for the comment. TIM

Will all of Domingo's critics be happy once the Washington Opera is again just an obscure regional house that employs second rate singers that nobody has ever heard of? Yes, Domingo's companies are in financial straights, but this is an economic crisis after all. Why should all the blame go to him? I hope everyone remembers how much money Domingo has brought in for these two houses over the years and how many top quality singers that he's brought in (including, foremost in my opinion, himself). Why should we think that anybody else (without his contacts and experience) would do a better job in these financially difficult days?

Thanks for your very persuasive points. Let me add one more. In all of the talk about how Domingo should be more of a hands-on, day-to-day general director if WNO is to have a great vision and better quality, some people seem to forget that companies with 24/7 leaders have been known to produce performances that don't please every critic or regular opera-goer, performances with a mix of stellar and not-so-stellar singers, performances with incisive and not-so-incisive stage directors. I've heard an awful lot of high-quality stuff in DC in my decade here, and I cannot dismiss it all because of the less successful ventures, or because the company has not raised enough money, or because Domingo isn't in the office every week. My guess is that he needs to be more flexible, and needs to accept the presence and actions of a CEO-type. The most questionable thing about the recent problems at WNO is the demotion, in effect, of Mark Weinstein from that very post. From my admittedly distant perch, he seems to me to have brought exactly what was needed there. And having such a person should not threaten the obvious assets that Domingo offers, but only enhance them. TIM

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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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