Even with Placido Domingo, Washington National Opera scales back season

DIVIDED ATTENTIONS: Besides leading the Washington National Opera, Plácido Domingo has a hand in the Los Angeles Opera. Plus, he conducts and performs elsewhere.
DIVIDED ATTENTIONS: Besides leading the Washington National Opera, Plácido Domingo has a hand in the Los Angeles Opera. Plus, he conducts and performs elsewhere. (Andrea Bruce/washington Post)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Washington National Opera's season announcement Tuesday made one thing clear: Recession is tough. The company's 2010-11 season makes the best of an ongoing financial crisis that reduced it to just five operas. And those operas, it seems, don't even represent the artistic vision of the WNO's director, Plácido Domingo.

"My big dream was always to have American opera," Domingo said. Due to the economy, an annual operating budget that plunged by more than $5 million, and the fact that American operas don't sell as many tickets as "Madama Butterfly," that wasn't possible.

But why not? Why can't a general director with the fame, charm and ability of Domingo roll up his sleeves and work to realize his vision, rather than distancing himself from the results? The answer: because he isn't actually there, running the company. He's conducting "Stiffelio," or singing "Simone Boccanegra," or trying to keep up with his other company, the Los Angeles Opera (with equally dicey results) instead.

The recession has made this a tough time for opera houses around the country. Corporate giving is down; board members are no longer all willing or able to keep up their required donations ($50,000 is said to be the minimum annual donation for the 70-odd board members of the Washington National Opera). But recession has a way of gathering low-hanging fruit. At the Washington National Opera, it is simply exposing the cracks caused by deeper structural problems.

The WNO has grown tremendously in the past 10 or 12 years, under Domingo's tenure. It is now the fifth-largest company in the United States; it presents the requisite international stars (Renee Fleming, Juan Diego Flórez); and, before last year's cutbacks, its budget had grown to around $33 million a year. The question has always been whether that growth is sustainable.

One oft-cited justification for Domingo's presence is that he is supposed to be a magnet for funds. Well-heeled fans of his artistry and star quality have been happy to join his boards or write him checks to help him realize what he wants to do.

It isn't always clear, though, what Domingo does want to do. More, bigger and better have been watchwords of his administration, but those ideas haven't crystallized into any overarching artistic vision. There's an idea that the company wants to support American opera, but different officials within the WNO give different answers about whether American opera is actually a mandate. Domingo is very big on Wagner's "Ring," but financial constraints prevented the company (which has borrowed several million dollars against its endowment) from completing its cycle with "Götterdämmerung."

One thing that he certainly has not done is establish a functioning administration at the WNO. The company had lacked a day-to-day leader for years when it brought in an executive director, Mark Weinstein, in 2008 to help it regain a solid financial footing. Weinstein's attempts to put the company's business affairs in order lasted less than two years; in December, he was effectively demoted. This left the WNO back under the leadership of a team of employees and board members, the latter serving in an unusually hands-on capacity. And they have term limits: For instance, Kenneth R. Feinberg, the opera's president, will have to step down in June at the end of his second term.

There are also questions about whether Domingo is still a financial draw. WNO officials are no doubt relieved that they canceled the "Ring" when they look at the Los Angeles Opera, which went ahead with its own "Ring" plans and in December had to get an emergency $14 million bailout from Los Angeles County. WNO is reportedly having a hard time hanging on to its own board members. Its budget has plummeted from $32 million to $26.2 million, and some of that, allegedly, has been made up by heroic giving -- special appeals to individual donors.

Domingo has done many things for opera. What he hasn't done, as an administrator, is provide a viable vision for the future of the art form, or shown that he has any particular ability to lead an organization. If he does step down at the end of his contract -- which is up for renewal in 2010-11 -- he will leave behind an organization without leadership, structure or direction.

To navigate recession, it takes someone ready to take charge and offer alternative visions of ways to come through the crisis with energy and strength. WNO's 2010-11 season certainly has its strong points, but it's unclear what it adds up to beyond a collection of performances. No wonder. That kind of vision requires hands-on, day-to-day involvement, and that's the one thing Plácido Domingo is unable to furnish.

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