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PlŠcido Domingo

by Cristina Necula

The term ďforce of natureĒ often applies to those human beings who encompass at once faith, passion, inexhaustible energy, and complete dedication to their mission in life. Their impact on the world is lasting, carrying with it the capacity to change peopleís lives and create history.

To say that PlŠcido Domingo is simply a force of nature, however, is to present an inadequate description of the celebrated tenor. From singer to conductor to artistic director, this veritable Renaissance man has devoted his entire life to creating unforgettable artistic moments, to popularizing opera, and ensuring its future by serving in all aspects of the business. His generosity and caring has guided the footsteps of countless singers in their quest of an operatic career.

PlŠcido Domingo is a name synonymous with opera, known internationally even in venues completely removed from the world of classical music. His legacy of recordings, videos, and books, his competition (Operalia) and continuous support of young singers, as well as his implementation of programs as an artistic director, carry within them an undiluted enthusiasm and love. It is a love of music, and of people, of performers and public alike. PlŠcido Domingo is not just a force of natureóhe is a force of humanity.

You are a phenomenon in the opera world, one man embodying three different careers: the singer, the conductor and the administrator. You began your remarkable journey as the singer. At what point did the conductor emerge?

Since I was a child, I had a great love for the theater. My parents had their own Zarzuela [Spanish operetta] company. The conductor in me was born very early, out of those times in my parentsí company. We didnít have a very big orchestra. I would play the piano, and gradually, I got the feel for all the instruments. I was also preparing the chorus and started to conduct some of the Zarzuelas.

Then, during my years at the conservatory in Mexico, studying piano, harmony, and all the required classes, I started to love conducting more and more. I was able to take some classes with Igor Markevich, the great Russian conductor. I was only auditing because it was quite expensive, and the classes were only for conducting students, while I was studying piano. But I sat in, listening and learning along with a very dear friend: Eduardo Mata, who died a few years ago in a plane accident. He was the conductor of the Dallas Symphony, a great musician. He was studying conducting. We were very good friends and we even composed together.

I was enchanted by those lessons with Markevich. I still remember what he was working on, and in my first concert in 1987, I actually conducted those same pieces. I particularly remember Tchaikovskyís 4th Symphony; it was ingrained in me in those early days at the conservatory.

Throughout the years, my conducting has grown with experience. I conducted my first operas in the Seventies at the New York City Opera: La Traviata, and Tosca. In the beginning, I didnít have many occasions to conduct; it was about two performances in a year. Now, on a good average, I do about three or four productions a year. Thatís about 30-35 performances. I would like to do more, but I cannot, until I will stop singing.

Recently, Iíve done three operas for the first time: Don Giovanni in Washington [D.C.], Damnation de Faust in Los Angeles, and Manon Lescaut in Washington [D.C.]. Itís a pleasure to see that everyday I am getting better, and I feel the tremendous difference when I have an orchestra in my hands for a longer time.

Would you say that singers have a friend in you when you are in the pit?

I think so. I automatically understood the needs of the singers, but it was just as important for me to learn the needs of the orchestra. Now itís just a question of balancing the two.

In 1992, you were music director of the Seville Worldís Fair. Is that where your third careeróin arts administrationówas born?

In a way, you could say I gained more experience there. I had been kind of involved with Los Angeles since 1986, when the L.A. Opera got started. I was singing and conducting there, but I was also advisor to Peter Hemmings, the general manager. I had been on the board when Peter Hemmings was selected. I advised him on repertoire and singers.

Then, in 1996, I started as artistic director in Washington. Now, Iím about to finish my eighth season there, and in L.A., Iím concluding my fourth season. Iím thrilled that this third career has developed this way. Itís a lot of work, but it makes me happy.

How do you handle it all?

I have so much passion for what I am doing, that it hardly feels like work. If you have passion, if you love something, you can easily dedicate all your time and energy to it, and you have no doubt that itís exactly what you should do.

As a general director of both companies, I know now that you are not really a general director, if you are sitting at your desk all day. Itís so important to stay on top of what is happening, to travel, to find out what other companies have to offer, to maintain all the connections to the other opera houses. I need to see for myself what is the best artistically in the world today.

Yes, my main specialty is artistic, but I also had to learn to handle the issue of raising money. I have to say, I am very lucky to have great teams in both theaters. The staff is really dedicated and we work closely together. Fortunately, we also think in the same way and agree on our ideas.

Do you have any guiding principles as artistic director?

Yes. [The] first one is to maintain harmony in the company. Itís important that the staff believe in you and work in collaboration with you. Psychologically, that is the key. Second is to be able to listen and establish a good communication with the heads of all departments. Itís easier to solve the problems together, if the communication is good. Third, and this is perhaps crucial, is to maintain a balance of repertoire, of the artists, combining big names and not-so-famous names with young unknown singers.

I have been very fortunate in that respect to have my competition, Operalia, as a source of new talent. It has created so many careers, because Iíve been able to hire many of those young artists in both theaters. The public likes to have the opportunity to discover these young artists at the start of their careers.

Perhaps a more difficult aspect is thinking about productionsówhat should be a new production or a co-production. Because of the economy today, itís wiser if you try to spend the least money possible. You have certain productions which come out artistically very beautifullyóbut you have to be careful that you donít go out of the budget. Itís tough. Sometimes, itís almost impossible, because you might have an artist and a creative team in the middle of rehearsals, and all of a sudden, they might need more things, so what do you do? You cannot drop a production in the middle; you cannot betray the high quality you want to present to the public.

Then, of course, you have to be on very good terms with the board of directors and to understand their worries. You have to be aware of the fact that they have many important things to do, but they dedicate a lot of their time to the opera world. Some of them spend as much time on the opera company as they do on their own businesses! So, as a director you need to present the board with things that really make sense to them [as to] what you are going to bring as a new production and why.

And last, but not least, comes the issue of raising the money that the company needs. So, there are very different aspects to an artistic directorís job. Every aspect offers its share of enjoyment and problems. Between the two companies now, I am practically responsible for 18 operas, that means between 175-180 performances a year, and growing.

So, you just learned the ropes of being an artistic director by doing it. Did you have any training?

No. I was just interested in all aspects of my profession. Everyday, I learned more about marketing, about everything. You know, itís unbelievable: Opera is a world where people give you money and they trust you, but they are giving money for something that is not a sure investment. OK, itís a cultural investmentóone of the most important onesóbecause you are giving to your city a valuable cultural gift. But if you ask people to invest their money in a film or a Broadway musical, they are more willing to give, because they have a bigger possibility to make money, since those two artistic venues are so popular. But in opera, those who donate money have my deepest respect. They give it because they love opera and not to make money.

Speaking of Broadway, making money depends on how big the appeal is to the audience. Many opera companies have instituted various campaigns for expanding audiences. What are your plans?

Well, we have actually started our campaign from the inside of the company, by preparing a new generation of successful people in their mid-30s as future board members. They are something like our junior board members. We are familiarizing them with the needs and workings of the companies, so that they make it their responsibility as the next generation [of] board members to really take care of those needs. I think that by doing that, we donít allow any gap to form between the generations; we maintain a continuity of people willing to devote their time to an opera company. To me, that is an important step in ensuring that the future of opera is in good hands.

As for expanding the audience, that is not something that can happen instantly. Obviously, like other companies, we do special performances for students and children, in both theaters. In Washington, we also have something called ďLook-In,Ē a one-hour program presenting the highlights of an opera to children and their educators. Itís not just about the music; the children see everything, because the stage hands show them how to move scenery or how to create special effects, like in the storm scenes from The Barber of Seville, and Rigoletto. The children learn how that is done through lighting and sounds of percussion or other instruments. Itís a great learning experience for themÖ

The answer to this audience expansion problemóand I never tire to say thisóis that itís a matter of education. If musical education would be mandatory in schools, if children would learn about opera from an early age, many of them will be open to it and want to know more. They will grow up appreciating opera.

How can you develop a love of opera if all you hear around you with your school friends is pop music, or rap, or hard rock? Many parents are probably playing pop or rock at home. Children go to school with their Walkman or Discman playing pop and rap all the time. They download this music off the Internet. In short, all the possibilities they have to develop their love for music involve only these types of music. If they have a school concert, you rarely hear anybody singing opera. Even if some children would want that, they are afraid others would make fun of them for liking classical music.

Iím working very much on getting the idea through to teach children in schools the best melodies of opera or of the symphonic repertoire. They could learn them easily without thinking that itís classical music, and without being intimidated. Then they would just know these melodies. You know, everyone learns the ďBarneyĒ song from an early age: ďI love you, you love meÖĒ so then why canít they learn some of the most beautiful melodies of great musical geniuses, like Mozart, or Brahms, or Puccini, or Verdi, or Wagner? Some of these melodies are really simple, too. If children are able to hum the Barney song, how hard can it be to hum the melody of ďLa donna Ť mobile?Ē

Itís so sad, and you canít really blame the parents for not taking their children to the opera, if they grew up with rock íní roll themselves. Itís just a matter of education. Itís a matter of breaking this chain and beginning to develop familiarity with opera in the next generations as early as possible. I think the day when that will be accomplished will be the day when the opera world doesnít have to worry about its future.

Globalization and high-speed access to people and information have made the world smaller and more manageable. At the same time, peopleís perception of time has changed: things are expected to happen instantly. Sometimes that trend reflects in the opera world. The audience demands new stars. Spectacular careers begin overnight, only to flop because of starting too fast, too soon. How do you think that todayís fast pace affects the arts, especially such a time-hungry art like opera singing?

Thatís a tough matter. The speed today is precisely what makes the world better, and what can also create problems. But, you know, some singers of my age and older always thought: ďWe know better!Ē Thatís not true. Every generation is different. You just have to grow with the generations and the changes they bring.

I grow with my sons, to be contemporary to them. I mean, I try to understand everything they are dealing with. Now I am trying also to be contemporary to my grandchildren and understand their generation. Nevertheless, things change and you have to be smart to adapt without hurting yourself.

In the past, you used to have a bad performance in a theater, and maybe people knew it in that city. Today, everything is known. If itís not live, then itís known five or ten hours later; it spreads all around through the Internet. So, this news amplifies the effect it has on your career.

Yes, everybody has a faster life and we have to get used to it. However, I agree with you: Everything needs its own time to mature. So, for singers, it would be good if they could avoid going along with this speed. They should not be in a hurry. Of course, they should make the best out of the Internet to spread information about themselves, and find out information, but their mentality should remain on a slower speed until the voice is ready. There are many more theaters, so the possibilities are bigger, and there are a lot of temptations. But you almost have to become two people: a modern person in your use of the Internet and business aspects, and a more old-fashioned person in your vocal development as an opera singer.

Obviously, everyone knows this is a very difficult career, because you go and you study, they give you your diplomaóbut is that a guarantee that you are going to make it? No. In all the other careers, if you study, and get a diploma, the percentage of getting a job is very big. But for singers, it is a mystery. It has to do with personality, the life and personal conditions they have. All the aspects have to come togetheróthe musicality, circumstances, fate, everything!

So, you can have your house full of diplomas but it doesnít mean that you are going to have a career. Itís a certain group that makes it, and thatís just a fact of nature. Itís as if we were athletes, and we think we can all run the 100 meters in the Olympics. Itís a very select group of people that really get there. So, it can be disappointing, if those are your expectations. But thatís the reason why you have to be very truthful. When I hear singers, Iím always truthful.

What do you look for in a singer during auditions?

Iím not looking for anything. I just want to be surprised. It just comes like a snap of the fingers. You hear a voice, and all of a sudden, you say: ďWow! I didnít expect this!Ē For instance, tomorrow we are having the auditions for the new group of young singers in Washington. There might be great surprises there. The important thing is to select a group of people that you will be responsible for. Their responsibility is to really dedicate their time.

Singers donít have it easy in the U.S.. Many are working hard jobs as waiters; some have other extra jobs on the side. Maybe they have to take a train and travel two-and-a-half hours for a voice lesson. So, we make it a special point to pamper these young artists in our program. They will have all the possibilities to study, to sing, to cover parts in the opera, and not to worry financially. They have the chance to attend every rehearsal and take part in everything that is going on. We are prepared to take care of them, so of course we have to be very demanding in our selection.

What makes a bad impression on you in an audition?

I usually donít like to judge by the very first visual impression, because otherwise you would be already discriminating. Instrumentalists audition behind a curtain so they donít have to worry about looks or visual presentation. I donít like to be influenced by that.

Of course, you find all kinds of people in these auditions: people who are very concentrated, people who already seem vain, shy people... You just have to hear the basics, which is the voice. Then you listen for the technique, the musicality, and after that, you start to see the whole person.

There are those unique moments when you see a person walk on stage and from the second they open their mouth, you say: ďThis is going to be a star.Ē You know it. Sometimes, the opposite is true: you realize from the start that the person has no potential. Then there are other voices which you doubt, and you say: ďThis one would work, if the singer has enough perseverance.Ē You have to take into account everything. But, I have to say that in the United States, singers are very well-prepared. Good voices may come from all around in the world, but I think the level of preparation is highest here.

As director of the Washington Young Artists Program, do you work with singers one-on-one?

Yes. And when you are working with a singer, you really have to work. Itís not enough just to say: ďOK, sing, and I hear you.Ē If you go for a lesson, either privately or with a whole group, you cannot leave things on a superficial level. Sometimes, I will work on one phrase for a long time: on technique, interpretation, language, everything. If I let somebody sing the whole aria without saying anything, then why am I working with them? I prefer that at least, at the end of that session, they really have learned something, even if it is just five lines, but then I feel I have made an impact.

I like to work one-on-one when I donít know the voices well yet and I want to see their reactions, their feelings. Some people are more sensitive than others; it is important to find the right way to say things to them, so that they remain open to learn. When I know the voices, then I work with all of them together.

Other than that, do you teach?


Do you think you will?

No. I will always advise. But, you know, if you are actively singing, you cannot perform every three or four days and give lessons. It takes a lot of your energy and vocal strength. Of course, for me, discovering new talent is one of the greatest satisfactions, especially when that person is able to grow after you have helped them.

Does experience count in selecting singers for the Washington Young Artists Program?

My idea is that we should have two different kinds of young artists in the program: those who are almost ready for a career, and those who are just beginning but have superb material. So, logically, the ones who are almost ready are going to stay a shorter time than the others. Basically, we are talking about two years. But you already know from the start that some of them are going to be there for three years. Others might be ready after one year.

What about a possible Los Angeles Young Artist Program?

We are discussing it now. We are very close to establishing one, but I cannot yet say when.

Tell me about your competition, Operalia. How did it start?

A group of friends said they would like to organize a competition with my name. So, we started in Paris and decided that instead of being in the same place every year, we would go to different places in the world. Itís been like that for 11 years now. The next one, in August 2004, will take place in Los Angeles.

We try to select the city based on the interest they have, and also on my possibilities for being there. The competition is a great opportunity for singers to be noticed, and for me it is a resource of talent and a possibility to help talented singers.

You know there is much discussion about the higher tuning of orchestras, and its effect on singers. Can you, as artistic director, prevent the tuning of the orchestra in your company from going too high?

Well, if a singerís health depends on it, we can try, but there really is not much we can do. Of course, we have it harder today. Compared to the times when the orchestras were tuned at 432 [cycles per second] or even 426, to go about the usual 440 today, itís a big contrast. I donít think that is right. It has to do with the way the instruments are built today. You know, there are many specialists who do a lot of operasóespecially Mozartówith the original instruments, and the sounds are obviously different. I heard a performance of Idomeneo in Glyndebourne, conducted by Simon Rattle, and the quality of the sound was so different! I love it! Itís so warm; itís beautiful!

I donít know what the solution is. I think the tuning is sometimes going to an extreme, especially in places like Vienna, or Berlin; itís quite a difference between where you start a performance and where you finish, and they already start quite high. Conductors look for a brilliant sound and new instruments are built, but human beings are not built differently or tuned higher! We have remained the same, with only these two vocal cords, throughout history!

As you know, the recording industry is in pretty bad shape; record label executives fear the classical department is heading towards extinction. How important was recording for your career? What would this extinction mean to the world of opera in general?

It was very important for me. I was very lucky. I really feel for some of the coming generations of singers, that they cannot record as much as I did. Itís really a big danger, and Iím surprised that the recording companies didnít see the danger coming as soon as the Internet started. Everybody has access to it; so all my music is on the Internetóand everybody can hear it without any profit for the companies or any profit for me. Thatís true for all singers. It is a big tragedy.

I really hope that the circle will close at some point, and there will be a new era for the best young singers coming out; that they will be able to be known through their recordings, as well. Perhaps the new generations will have to learn how to manipulate the Internet to their own advantage. But I donít see how you could stop piracy. Maybe piracy is the price you pay for being more popular and accessible through the Internet.

Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

I could still see myself singing, but that might be about the limit, at least for opera. I will devote myself more than ever to conducting, and to my work as director of an opera house, or two, like now. I donít know how things will develop, but I would really love to continue doing what I am doing.

As an idol and mentor to so many, what do you tell singers who come to you for advice?

The only thing is to try to be humble. This is a privilege for us. We do what we do in order to make people happy. We do it so that when people come to the theater, they can forget about their problems, and concentrate on this magic moment, which is singing live on the stage. Singers should remember that not only is this a privilege, but also we have great geniuses to serve: the composers. So, try to give very much every time you sing!

Of course, this is a career and a business like any other; some people rise higher and have better careers, others donít. But your happiness depends on your perspective. If singing is making you unhappy because you are not at the top, and you cannot be satisfied with a smaller career or simply with just singing, then you have to think of doing something else.

There is a place for everyone in the opera world, and if you truly love opera, you can do something for it, even if you are not on stage. You can be just as important behind the scenes. In fact, all the people that work in opera housesóthe staffóhave my great admiration because, in most cases, they are not making great salaries, but their love for opera is tremendous. On many occasions, they donít work from 9 to 5. They work late into the evening with total dedication.

In any case, whatever profession you decide to do, I think it is simply a matter of truth and passion. First of all, be truthful with yourself about your qualities and your limits. And second, follow your passion, because no matter how difficult it is, your passion will help you, and it will not even seem like work. I have been following my passion all my life. If I were born once more, I would do it again, from the very beginning.

Cristina Necula is the director of Alumni Affairs at Purchase College, SUNY. Also a free-lance writer, singer, and songwriter, she has performed in concerts and recitals in Austria, Italy, and Romania, and was featured in the French-Austrian miniseries Princesse Marie. In New York City, she has sung at Carnegie Hall and Merkin Hall, and toured the United States with the National Theater of the Performing Arts. Her articles have been published in Opera News and the German magazine Das Opernglas. Cristina has released her first album of her own music, lyrics and arrangements: One Millennium Before Sunrise.
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