As the sun went down Sunday evening, two of the biggest stars in the classical music world shone bright to an adoring audience of fans who gathered to bask in their radiance. Plácido Domingo and Gustavo Dudamel have been next-door neighbors on Grand Avenue for more than a year, but on Sunday they shared the stage for the first time.
No music was made (except a glimmer of … Paul Anka) and the lingua franca was English, not their native Spanish. The maestros, who have an age difference of 40 years but who share the ability to charm even the most cynical audiences, participated in a Los Angeles Times Roundtable conversation at the Music Center during which they spoke about their careers, shared anecdotes from their private lives and even promised a more formal stage collaboration in Los Angeles.
A good portion of the conversation focused on the musicians’ Latino heritage.
Dudamel, who hails from Venezuela and came up through that country’s El Sistema music-education program, began his second season as the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Thursday and is conducting a series of concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall through the middle of the month. Domingo, the general director of the Los Angeles Opera, was born in Spain and spent much of his youth in Mexico. He is performing the role of Pablo Neruda in the Spanish-language “Il Postino” and has been conducting “The Marriage of Figaro” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Sunday’s conversation, moderated by Times music critic Mark Swed, addressed the efforts that both institutions are making to attract Latino audiences that have not traditionally come to classical music performances.
Domingo said that developing new audiences is a long and sometimes difficult process and added that the lack of music education in many U.S. schools is damaging to the cultural health of the country. L.A. Opera manages a number of community and educational outreach programs, and runs a young artist program that bears the tenor’s name.
During his directorship in L.A., Dudamel has worked regularly with students in the philharmonic’s youth orchestra programs, which are aimed at disadvantaged students. The project is modeled on El Sistema, which gives instruments and music lessons to children free of charge. On Sunday, he enthused about the cultural diversity of his adopted hometown. “I love to drive in L.A. because you go from a Japanese part to Chinese to Thai, and then you see a Mexican community,” he said.
The prospect of a Domingo-Dudamel collaboration in Los Angeles has been talked about ever since the conductor began his tenure at the L.A. Phil. On Sunday, the musicians said they would work together “in both houses,” referring to Disney Hall and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
“This is a deal,” said Dudamel, as they shook hands and embraced.
Domingo took the opportunity of the conversation to discuss L.A. Opera’s financial problems. The company has been stretched thin in recent months due to a financial crunch that required a $14-million emergency loan in late 2009.
“The crisis, I hope, is almost over,” said Domingo. “Hopefully we can go back to the number of productions we were doing three years ago.” For the current season, L.A. Opera is mounting six full productions compared with 10 in 2007.
As advocates of new music in their respective institutions, both men said they see L.A. as a unique place where adventurous programming is welcomed by local audiences willing to be challenged by the unfamiliar. “Here we have the possibility of creating a new tradition,” said Dudamel. The conductor recalled that he was impressed when he first visited the city by the sizable attendance of the philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series, which is devoted solely to new music and contemporary composers.
Domingo said institutions have an obligation to tap new creative voices. “We are in the 21st century. We have to recognize the talent of today,” he said.
Sunday’s summit drew an estimated crowd of about 700 people to the Marc and Eva Stern Grand Hall on the second floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Attendees signed up for tickets online for the free, hour-long event. They were also encouraged to submit questions via The Times’ Culture Monster blog and Facebook page.
One question sent by a 9-year-old student asked if either musician ever got tired of practicing. Dudamel said that his parents never pushed him to practice the violin at a young age and that the desire to learn music was natural for him. “Parents sometimes push and then they destroy a life,” he said.
During the conversation, Domingo and Dudamel talked about some of the artistic challenges they face on a daily basis, including the need to memorize vast amounts of music on short notice. Each expressed awe at the other’s depth of musical knowedge.
“Every day is more difficult because I am busier than ever,” said Domingo, who has sung an estimated 135 roles in his nearly 50-year career. The 69-year-old tenor explained that he tries to devote two hours of musical study each night before he goes to bed.
Dudamel, who at 29 has been conducting since he was a young teenager, said that he once had to memorize the score to Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in a day. “I don’t have any secret for that. You have to study all the time,” he said.
The musicians also talked about the increasingly blurred boundary between classical and pop music. Domingo, who has collaborated with numerous pop artists over the years, said that he “will never sing music that I don’t like” and admitted that he doesn’t care much for rap. The tenor recalled that one of his jobs as a struggling young singer was to perform the Anka song “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” as part of a vocal ensemble. He then sang the signature line from the pop chestnut, much to the delight of the audience.
Dudamel listed several Latin pop artists that he enjoys, adding that “I’m not always listening to Beethoven.”
Both men continue to spend much of the year away from L.A., as, Swed said, “citizens of the world.” Dudamel holds top leadership posts with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden. Domingo continues to perform regularly at the world’s top opera houses.
Domingo said he would be spending more time in L.A.. For his part, Dudamel said that he has come to see L.A. as his primary base, saying, “I think here is home.”