Plácido Domingo’s juggling act


When people ask Plácido Domingo how he maintains his relentless pace -- jetting around the world, performing in countless roles, conducting, singing at special events, raising funds and running opera companies on both coasts -- he’s fond of reciting a personal maxim.

“When I rest,” he tells them, “I rust.”

Colleagues and associates agree that the superstar Spanish tenor, at age 69, still is blessed with iron-clad reserves of stamina. Barry Sanders, a longtime L.A. Opera board member, recalls watching Domingo perform in “Parsifal” in Germany mere hours after he sang at the closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

“What he does is super-human,” Sanders said. “I hear from his manager that he closes his eyes and can almost sleep standing up.

“I will accept, because I’ve seen it in action, that this man is different in his constitution.”

Nonetheless, in recent weeks, questions have been raised in East Coast newspaper articles as to whether Domingo’s whirlwind schedule and plethora of professional commitments may be over-taxing him as well as affecting the artistic and financial performance of the Los Angeles Opera and the Washington National Opera, the companies he oversees.

The newspaper articles appeared in the middle of last month, when Domingo was conducting New York’s Metropolitan Opera in a performance of Verdi’s “Stiffelio” and four days later sang at the Met in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra.” Both stories implied that he was neglecting his duties in California and Washington.

During a recent stopover in Los Angeles, Domingo calmly but categorically rejected those claims.

“Nothing has changed since I started my contracts, both with Washington and then with Los Angeles,” he said. “I have worked very hard for the company. Really, I’m very proud that both companies, they have really grown. And the only problem that we have right now is the fact that we are generally, globally, in a crisis.”

Addressing the idea that he is overextended, Domingo said he arranged his schedule to conduct and perform at the Met last month because both the Washington and L.A. operas were dark during that period.

“My artistic career hasn’t stopped, and I’m very grateful,” he said. “I mean, already 10 years ago I thought I was going to stop singing. However, in Washington, when they finish both contracts in June 2011, there will be 15 years that I will be in Washington and there will be 12 here. So it’s a good time.”

The questions surrounding the tenor’s multitasking capacities are not new. When Domingo was named L.A. Opera’s artistic director a dozen years ago, Leonard I. Green, then the company’s board president and chief executive, said he had held “extensive” discussions with the singer about his ability to juggle jobs on opposite coasts and balance them with his performing obligations.

Later, when Domingo became general director of the companies, there was additional speculation within the opera world about how he could handle such a demanding, apparently unprecedented dual appointment.

That speculation gradually subsided over the course of Domingo’s tenure as both companies saw their budgets grow and they broadened their artistic ambitions.

The recent reposing of familiar questions appears to have stung opera company officials at a particularly challenging time. Washington National has been coping with a wave of staff layoffs, salary freezes and furloughs.

L.A. Opera recently had to secure a $14-million emergency bank loan, guaranteed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, to cover a temporary cash-flow shortfall until several large donation pledges roll in over the next months.

As with just about every other U.S. opera company in this time of recession,the organizations will significantly scale back their number of productions next season. L.A. Opera will offer 42 performances of six productions in 2010-11, down from its peak of 75 performances of 10 operas in 2006-07.

Officials of both opera companies said that Domingo is accessible to them at all times, by phone and e-mail if not face to face, and that he is thoroughly involved in all artistic aspects of their companies as well as many administrative ones.

Although Domingo leads their organizations artistically, they emphasized, he is only one, albeit crucial, part of a complex management structure being forced to cope with extraordinary economic circumstances. It would be simplistic, they suggested, to lay their companies’ current financial difficulties at his feet.

“I think the economy is not what it was. And I think it’s very misplaced to direct it at Plácido,” said Jane Lipton Cafritz, chairman of the board of trustees of Washington National Opera.

In separate interviews, Sanders and L.A. Opera Chairman and Chief Executive Marc Stern both said that in addition to his artistic leadership and his appearances onstage and in the pit of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Domingo’s enormous value to the company derives from his ability to raise funds, attract star performers through his network of friends and contacts, and lend his international brand-name recognition to the company’s marketing and promotional endeavors.

In addition, Stern said, Domingo and his wife, Marta, have personally contributed more than $1 million to L.A. Opera.

“We believe he’s being used in his highest and best use,” Sanders said. “He is our icon, he’s the face of this company. What company wouldn’t die, including the Met, to have him as the face of the company?”

Stern said Domingo attends nearly every board meeting and communicates regularly with music director James Conlon; Christopher Koelsch, vice president of artistic planning; and Stephen D. Rountree, the company’s chief operating officer. But the company’s management is structured in a way that doesn’t require him to be physically present “every minute” to be effective, Stern said.

“He doesn’t have to be sitting at a desk for him to do what he needs to do for us,” Stern said.

Sanders offered a pragmatic view of the various demands on Domingo’s time. “Frankly, if we don’t place a marker on his time, somebody else will,” Sanders said. “Because he likes it. The man is going to do what he wants to do.”

For the foreseeable future, that appears to be the case. On April 15, Ring Festival LA officially kicks off in support of L.A. Opera’s $32-million production of Wagner’s complete four-opera “Ring” cycle, one of Domingo’s most cherished projects. On April 16, Domingo is scheduled to star in the first of several performances of “Simon Boccanegra” at La Scala in Milan.