By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 5:14 AM
Placido Domingo - the tenor and conductor whose world renown has both elevated and impaired the Washington National Opera - will not renew his contract as the company's general director when it expires in June, he told the opera's board Monday. The announcement deprives the company of a marquee name at a time when it is struggling financially and considering a merger with the Kennedy Center to survive.
Domingo, 69, has given cachet to the company since he became its artistic director 14 years ago, but he has long been chronically overextended. For the past seven years, he has also run the Los Angeles Opera, and he regularly performs around the world. He has spent less and less time in Washington.
Given his cost to the WNO - his annual salary is about $600,000 - some at the company questioned whether his contract should be renewed. But the timing - one week after Domingo extended his contract in Los Angeles for two years - seems to have caught the company unprepared. He announced his decision in a morning conference call to the opera's board, speaking from Los Angeles, where he is starring in the new opera "Il Postino" and conducting Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro."
"As I come to the end of my tenure at Washington National Opera, I think it is time for the company to go in new directions, including studying the possibility of a merger with the Kennedy Center," Domingo wrote in a letter to the board. "And you can rest assured that I will do everything I can to help during this, my last year as General Director."
Domingo assumed that post in 2003, giving him nominal total control over the company's operations. He had been artistic director since 1996, overseeing the choice of singers and productions.
"He's been part of this company for a long time. He's very much beloved. I think people haven't actually digested this information yet, or what it could mean for the company," said JoAnn LaBrecque-French, the WNO's director of marketing and communications.
Domingo's goal was to make the WNO an internationally regarded company. At the beginning of his tenure, he lifted the opera to a new level, bringing in more international stars and big-name productions - including Jose Carreras in Wolf-Ferrari's "Sly," Mirella Freni singing opposite Domingo in "Fedora," and Renee Fleming in "Lucrezia Borgia." And his commitment to American opera meant that the WNO presented the second or third productions of a number of important works: Maw's "Sophie's Choice," Bolcom's "A View From the Bridge," Previn's "A Streetcar Named Desire."
But his recent years were marked with disappointments. The company's full production of Wagner's four-part "Ring" cycle had to be canceled for budgetary reasons after three of the operas had been staged (the San Francisco Opera will show all four of them in June). And rechristening the company in 2004 from the Washington Opera to the Washington National Opera was more hopeful than effective. Although Domingo sought to champion new American works, the company resorted to repertory chestnuts in the past two seasons.
The WNO has borrowed heavily against its endowment to stay afloat. The past few seasons have seen a steady decrease in the number of performances. The opera owes considerable back rent to the Kennedy Center. Some board members, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could talk freely, expressed relief at Domingo's decision.
Although it was assumed that Domingo's presence would be a draw for funders, for years there has been little tangible evidence of that. The company's largest donors remain the same. The company is effectively run by four senior administrators working together.
"Over the years, he's really put a group together," said Christina Scheppelmann, the director of artistic operations, "a group that he trusts to run what has to be run." Scheppelmann, who is popular with the board, sees no major change in the immediate future. Opera works far in advance. The 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons are largely planned.
Domingo promised to honor all of his commitments to the WNO, including returning next season to conduct, and said he hoped that the WNO would invite him back to sing or to conduct.
"Marta and I are honored to have found so many friends in Washington," he said, referring to his wife, "and we both hope this friendship will last forever."
To see photos and video of Placido Domingo at various stages of his career and performing, go to washingtonpost.com/style.