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Domingo at the WNO

In today's Washington Post: What's missing at this company? Is it American opera? Or is it just a director who's actually running things? Here's a link to my analysis of some of the problems of Plácido Domingo at the Washington National Opera.

By Anne Midgette  |  January 13, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , opera  
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YES. Agree with every word.

Posted by: ianw2 | January 13, 2010 8:14 AM | Report abuse

So much more could be done by WNO - smaller, chamber operas in the Terrace Theater, return to the Eisenhower Theater for less popular (but more innovative, modern, American productions), more concert versions, etc.

But PD and the Board only see opera in the BIG house, BIG names, same old same "favorites". Alas, the new, innovative, American, etc side of the art does not appear to sell as many tickets in Washington.

With the Catholic U. Summer Opera folding, the Baltimore Opera gone, etc., the local future does not seem bright. All the more reason to have a new team at the head of WNO. PD did great service, but is spread wayyyy too thin across the country and around the world.

Posted by: BethesdaFan | January 13, 2010 9:09 AM | Report abuse

Brava, Anne, so well said. "he's not actually there," sums it up perfectly.

>>"He's conducting "Stiffelio," or singing "Simone Boccanegra," ... instead.

Yes, and he does both poorly.

The man has an ego like none other. His artistic skills have passed him years ago, and yet because of his absolute arrogance he refuses to give them up and focus on saving the companies he "runs." Because of it, they suffer. They go into major debt, they are forced to take "bailouts" from taxpayers who could care less about opera, etc etc. All because of Domingo. Why the board puts up with this guy I'll never know. Kick him to the curb and find someone who actually knows how to run a company, or at the very least, someone who will be there every day. Or even less than that---someone who cares.

Posted by: geddaisgod | January 13, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

Yep, pretty much.

Posted by: robertcostic | January 13, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Excellent analysis. I agree with every word. Domingo is no longer earning his keep and, from many comments, it may be that he has never earned his keep. In any case, at present he is more a character to feature in "Fawlty Towers" than a music director. Is there no Lotfi Mansouri out there who could take over? The WNO should have a good case to cancel his contract and get someone competent on board, who'll stay in town and mind the store.

One thought: the folks who run Strathmore do seem to know what they are doing. Could one maybe give the WNO away to them? Contract with them to run the WNO? As "BethesdaFan" correctly points out, there is so much more that a competent opera company could do. But the WNO people are basically stuck in a General Motors mentality.

Posted by: gauthier310 | January 13, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

I agree with almost everything that Petronius88 said.

Placido Domingo has virtually single-handedly killed opera creativity in the Nation’s Capital – excluding composer Scott Wheeler and librettist Romulus Linney’s “Democracy,” which was ghettoized to Lisner Auditorium for a performance or two; and the bizarre and largely off-putting secondary and minor “creativity” of non-resident artist Francesca Zambello‘s “Ring”. (No, on second thought, Mr Domingo was directly assisted in killing opera creativity in the Nation’s Capital by his press-aide Michelle Pendoley who repeatedly misrepresented in the Washington Post what the company promised the U.S. Congress a decade ago, and who actually called Anne Midgette a “cynic” when Ms. Midgette would not toe the publicist machine party line in all matters.)

It would have been very easy for the former Washington National Opera to have programmed two evenings of concert opera performances of a work such as Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra” or John Harbison “The Great Gatsby” (each would have been an important company premiere), or to have staged Gluck’s three-soloist “Orfeo and Euridice” as recommended by cicciofrancolando (with contemporary choreography by Washington Ballet leader Septime Webre).

However, Septime Webre is only a local creative artist and there is no role in “Orfeo and Euridice” for Mr Domingo and hence no fee for him!! (One shudders to imagine Mr Domingo conducting a concert opera performance of Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra” or John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby.”)

And, in any case, it’s the role for American conductors such as Alan Gilbert, JoAnn Falletta, or Michael Morgan to conduct company premieres of American operas at the Washington National Opera, isn’t it?

Posted by: snaketime1 | January 13, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Sadly, the replacement of American opera champion Edward Purrington at the Washington Opera by German and European opera administrator Christina C. Scheppelmann, just as the company was beginning to transform itself into the Washington National Opera, will need to be carefully investigated by an arts writer or investigative journalist when the history of the Fall of the First Washington National Opera is written.

Finally, I blame Anne Midgette, her predecessor Tim Page, and the mute editorial board of the Washington Post for their roles in the fall of the First Washington National Opera. Together, they failed to criticize the Washington National Opera – like the John F. Kennedy Center Honors – at important points over the past decade.

Ms. Midgette recently claimed that the most important aspect of opera was singing alone – and not music drama – thus encouraging the Washington National Opera to believe that it could substitute 14 performances of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” for four or five performances of the American opera which the company promised the U.S. Congress it would do annually. Ms. Midgette’s focus on beautiful singing alone – and not opera as music drama – also encouraged the Washington National Opera to announce the bizarre and self-serving Placido Domingo Celebrity Series in lieu of two concert opera performances of an American classical work, such as one by Samuel Barber or John Harbison. (Guess who will be getting an additional high fee for conducting the concert with Bryn Terfel – yep, Placido Domingo!)

The handful of world-class opera companies today does not include the former Washington National Opera!

Posted by: snaketime1 | January 13, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Snaketime1, I'm finally going to bite and ask what exactly you mean by DC opera lobbying Congress for its National designation based on some promise to produce American work.

For a start, if the opera's lobbyists have that much power, someone get them to the NEA. If a company handed a programming decision over to Congress, I would've thought something would turn up on google. Surely some columnist, somewhere, would've found that curious enough to comment on in a country where government generally stays far away from the arts.

Also, the actual bill that changed the name of the company to include the National doesn't make any reference to promises of repertoire. The bill, HR4542 [106th], is actually very short and can be read in its entirety online.

Now I'm a relative newbie to DC and certainly wasn't here in 2000 when the bill became law, but I would very much like to see some evidence of this supposed promise between DC Opera and Congress (!) to produce one American opera annually as a condition of receiving the National designation. It may have been discussed informally as a reason for the National designation, but I can't find any support to your claim that the two were inter-dependent.

It's not that I don't support the general gist of your comments- I would LOVE to see some American and 20th century work given more prominence- but I do think its time that we see some proof about how DC Opera may be neglecting a promise to Congress.

Posted by: ianw2 | January 13, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse


The enabling legislative record to S. 2667 reads, in part:

Mr. WARNER. Mr. President, I am pleased to introduce legislation today with Senator KENNEDY, Senator SARBANES, Senator JEFFORDS, and Senator ROBB to designate the Washington Opera as the National Opera.

The Washington Opera has been an innovative leader in bringing to the metropolitan Washington area exceptional performances since 1956. The company has enjoyed tremendous success in the community over the years. Since 1980, the company has grown from 16 performances of four operas to 80 performances of eight operas for the 2000 season.

Mr. President, the purpose of this legislation is to recognize in our nation's capital an opera of national significance. Let me be clear to my colleagues that this legislation does not extend any Federal responsibilities or obligation for funding to the Washington Opera. It would not become part of any Federal activity. Today, the Washington Opera enjoys a contractual relationship with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for use of its facilities. It is not affiliated with the Kennedy Center in any way other than being named as the resident opera company. This is an honorary designation, but there is no financial support for the opera from the Kennedy Center.


Mr. President, with this national recognition comes the obligation for the Washington Opera to undertake additional programs to serve a larger national audience, expand community outreach for underprivileged youth, and other missions that embody a larger national presence. I am confident that the opera will enthusiastically accept this challenge.

I ask unanimous consent that the text of my legislation appear in the RECORD following my statement.



Also, see Washington National Opera Magazine, Autumn 2004, for statement by Placido Domingo on performing one American classical opera every season.

Posted by: snaketime1 | January 13, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

A dissenting view --

While the pre-Domingo Washington Opera had interesting repertoire, the overall quality of the productions and performances has been much better, in my view, under Domingo (the orchestra is also certainly better than it was, but that is due to Heinz Fricke, who predated Domingo slightly).

First, notwithstanding a few dissenting views out there, I think most would agree that Domingo is one of the great singers and artists of our era, and DC audiences have gotten to hear him sing both mainstream (Pagliacci, Parsifal), as well as offbeat (Il Guarny, Le Cid) repertoire.

Second, he has regularly brought in big name and/or high calibre singers the likes of which we had not heard here previously (at least in opera), including Raimondi, Vargas, Borodina, Racette, Fleming, Netrebko.

Third, he has brought in American operas (mostly contemporary) regularly, in generally excellent productions (including Vanessa with Te Kanawa, View from the Bridge with its original cast, Streetcar, with Previn conducting).

Finally, while there are always hit and misses with opera productions, some of WNO's recent offerings, including Jenufa, Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, have been as good as anything I have seen anywhere, including the Met.

Perhaps Domingo tried to do too much without devoting enought time to it, but all opera companies, including the Met, are facing downturns. And there were lots of empty seats for Janacek, Britten and the contemporary operas mentioned above.

As far as this season, we have fewer operas, but pretty much with A-level casts.
Doesn't sound too shabby to me. Think I'll subscribe.


Posted by: geranuk | January 13, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

One further dissent --

I don't see that the people who run Strathmore are doing such a great job. Most of the concerts there are either the Baltimore Symphony or WPAS. The concerts that Strathmore itself promotes which I've attended (including Ann Sofie Von Otter last season) have had very sparse audiences, which leads me to think the Strathmore folks haven't done a very good job of promoting them.


Posted by: geranuk | January 13, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Thanks snaketime1- but I still don't agree that the DC Opera is obliged to present annually an American opera. The bill itself makes no mention of it, and even in those remarks, there is significant 'wiggle room' of meaning. The details could be argued back and forth all day. The operas has expanded its outreach programs with Takoma Park, for example, and even the Opera in the Outfield program. That is certainly contributing to American operatic life, if not the commission of new works/development of an American repertoire.

Posted by: ianw2 | January 13, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

I don’t see the wiggle room. The U.S. Senators’ language is actually as clear as daylight:

“larger national audience … missions that embody a larger national presence … bring to the nation a forum to highlight our musical heritage … bring .. American opera to the stage”

Placido Domingo accepted this charge - and the associated national honor - as an obligation to present one American opera every season.

More than the local Takoma Park studio and Opera in the Ballpark projects were clearly expected.

Posted by: snaketime1 | January 13, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Midgette,
Without Mr. Domingo our city would possibly not have a Washington Opera season at all. By comparison, Baltimore has a conservatory to supply and feed the opera, but no star power to draw support.
Bravo to the multi-talented Domingo. I thank him for spending time in DC.

Posted by: melodyblake | January 13, 2010 7:46 PM | Report abuse

Actually Melody, Domingo is here so rarely nowadays I dare say his presence has very little impact on the balance sheet. This is half the problem, that he was hired to bring some glamour to the fundraising which just hasn't happened. Certainly wasn't for his administrative prowess.

Posted by: ianw2 | January 13, 2010 9:08 PM | Report abuse

Melody, you make an interesting point about music conservatories. I would add that most “national” companies – such as those in London, Paris, Berlin, Munich, Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Milan, Rome, Madrid, Zurich, Prague, and Warsaw – do not base themselves on “star power” as much as do the elite U.S. companies. These nations' audiences learn from their mature artistic cultures that opera is music drama, as well as just beautiful singing.

Opera is a younger and less mature art form in the U.S., despite some educational efforts by the Metropolitan Opera and other companies. (And Western opera is a still younger and less mature art form in the now exceptionally rich cities of Tokyo, Japan, and Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, China, and Singapore, where national companies are being nurtured in a slow, careful, and sustainable manner, and complemented by music and arts conservatories.)

Ianw2 –

From the Fall 2004 WNO Magazine:

“As Life Chairman, I am proud to see Washington National Opera truly fulfilling its role as the opera company of the nation.” -- Mrs. Eugene B. Casey (page 4)

“In keeping with the company’s and Placido Domingo’s commitment to presenting an American opera every season and cultivating the next generation of artists, Washington National Opera will present the world premiere of Scott Wheeler’s ‘Democracy: An American Comedy’”… (page 9)

Posted by: snaketime1 | January 14, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Also read...

Posted by: prokaryote | January 14, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Nice to see how the Times has followed your lead. I think you are wrong, however, in that what PD may lack in administrative presence is certainly surpassed by the recognition and management he has brought to the WNO. The quality of performances since coming to the WNO has been far superior to those in the past. The problem now is production cost and audience appeal. Your suggestion of utilizing what is in storage to trim costs is a good one and should be considered. The hard choice is star power versus the up and coming. I for one was pleasantly surprised by Sondra Radvanovsky's performance of Lucrezia Borgia over that of the much loved Renee Fleming. Maybe more risks are needed to achieve cost saving.

Posted by: donahuer | January 14, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse


I have to agree with ianw2 that you have not shown that the language in the bill dictates that WNO is committed to putting at least one American opera on stage each year. Your quote says "THE NATIONAL OPERA WILL BRING CONTAINED [sic – read CONTINUED] PERFORMANCES OF AMERICAN OPERA TO THE STAGE". Nothing about "annual" or "yearly" in that statement. And as geranuk points out, several American operas have been brought to the stage, albeit not yearly.

The quote from WNO Magazine would not be legally binding. More likely, it is the result of a misunderstanding of the writer of the article (quite common) or perhaps a reference to an additional commitment by Domingo. I just don't see any contractual obligation to perform at least one American opera every year. (Though it would be nice if you were right.)

Posted by: prokaryote | January 14, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

I think that the WNO enabling legislation was crafted in such a way as to preclude Congress from being seen as dictating artistic content or directing artistic (creative) production.

I do not have time now to consult the enabling legislation that set up the U.S. National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities; but Congress clearly, with the Endowments, did not want to be seen directing artistic production in the U.S. The perceived direction of artistic content by the U.S. government had been a basis for criticism of the WPA cultural programs of the Great Depression era, as I imagine you and most persons reading here know.

I believe that the same concerns govern the language of the enabling legislation for the renaming of the Washington National Opera. Perhaps that is why the Senators spoke in terms of a “forum to explore national musical heritage” and a “repertoire of American operas,” as opposed to the creation of American operas.

However, the important thing here is that the language surrounding the bill itself is just as important in legislative history and interpretation as is the shorter bill itself; and it would seem clear to me, under reasonable person standards, that the Congressional enabling legislation for the WNO name change, and the concurrent and later statements by the company as to its construed mission, indicate that Congress was stating a clear expectation, and that the newly named WNO – in accepting the national honor of the name change – was accepting the “challenge” spoken about in the enabling legislation. The company has not meet that clear expectation – again under reasonable person standards.

Posted by: snaketime1 | January 14, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

snaketime1, you're assuming that a court would consider an opera fan a reasonable person.

don't forget to tip your waitress, folks.

Posted by: ianw2 | January 14, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

"The company has not meet that clear expectation – again under reasonable person standards."

But a reasonable person standard still requires proof of a legal obligation. A public expectation, implied or not, is insufficient. This is why you often hear this phrase: "Put it in writing."

Posted by: prokaryote | January 14, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

However, a legislative expectation is sufficient. That is why it did not have to be in writing. Context is all.

Posted by: snaketime1 | January 14, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

I think Mr. Domingo's tenure is mixed - he certainly hasn't lived up to managerial expectations and responsibilities, but has significantly raised the artistry of WNO performances. His performance as Siegmund was extraordinary, as was his Parsifal. The idea that he has killed creativity is ludicrous. Although I'm not sure what is going on in the American Ring, they have been top notch and wonderful performances and, Oh! let's see, exactly how much of the Ring has been performed in DC in the last 40 years? Don't like it? - that's ok, but equating WNO's Ring concept to incompetence or malfeasance is a little much.

I'm impressed with the devotion expressed here to "American Opera". Personally, I couldn't possibly care less. Well staged, well performed - doesn't matter; everything I've seen (including Democracy) is well removed from connecting with most of the audience. Mind you, folks without a taste for American Opera are not ignorant and only interested in yet another production of Turandot or Aida. It's not either/or. I'm not sure about renewing my subscription this year because of the weak season. There's plenty of high caliber repertory not performed by the WNO that would bring in the local audience. For example, the concert performance of Daphne here a couple of years ago was independently organized by Renee Fleming and was packed.

Aside from Snaketime, there doesn't seem to be a huge clamor for frequent performances of American opera. Maybe it's a good time for WNO to reclaim its original name of The Washington Opera and get out from under any perceived statutory encumbrance of staging American opera.

Posted by: jwieber | January 16, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

I ultimately agree with Midgette: Domingo has done many great things for the company, but there is a lack of a sole stable vision. It will be very interesting to see what happens when Feinberg is out of the equation. However, I would point out that performances like Gotterdämmerung this past season prove that the company can still create artistic gems.

However, snaketime1's comment earlier, to be frank, annoyed me. "Finally, I blame Anne Midgette, her predecessor Tim Page, and the mute editorial board of the Washington Post for their roles in the fall of the First Washington National Opera. Together, they failed to criticize the Washington National Opera – like the John F. Kennedy Center Honors – at important points over the past decade."

Midgette, as is her job, has both praised and criticized the Washington National Opera. None of the points in this article are particularly new ones- they've been expressed as concerns in a number of reviews. I feel that you should perhaps look into the history of the WNO deeper... the artistic quality and musical quality of productions have improved significantly under Domingo. The question is whether that improvement can be maintained- You are the only one who seems to think that the WNO should go back in time.

Also, this also operates on the assumption that artistic decisions at the WNO are determined by one reviewer. Though this may be different at the WNO, I can with certainty that at the companies I've worked at reviews hold very little sway in artistic decisions. In fact, reviewers are almost universally despised. You might as well blame the commentators when the home team loses the football game.

Posted by: dagneyandleo | January 17, 2010 1:10 AM | Report abuse

“Oh! let's see, exactly how much of the Ring has been performed in DC in the last 40 years?”

-- jwieber

Two complete sold-out cycles of the “Ring” were performed in the John F. Kennedy Center Opera House in May and June of 1989 by the visiting Deutsche Oper Berlin. (The largely abstract sets were modeled, in part, after the interior design of the Washington regional Metro system.)

I stand by all of my earlier comments, although I wish that I had initially noted that Mr Page did, in fact, publically raise the issue of Marta Domingo’s qualifications to repeatedly direct the WNO.

I am saddened that prokaryote, in his final thought above, assumes a deconstructivist mantle and seeks to justify the WNO’s and Placido Domingo’s abrogations of strong commitments to Congress and the American people to stage one American opera every season.

Also, I think that jwieber raises an appropriate idea -- that the Washington National Opera should change its name back to the Washington Opera.

The old Washington Opera – before the pretentions to be the Washington National Opera – staged the following nine American operas over 1996 to 2006:

The Ballad of Baby Doe, Moore;
The Dangerous Liaisons, Susa;
The Crucible, Ward;
Susannah, Floyd;
The Consul, Menotti;
Of Mice and Men, Floyd;
Vanessa, Barber;
A Streetcar Named Desire, Previn; and
Porgy and Bess, Gershwin.

I don’t recall whether the former Washington Opera won awards from Opera America or the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities for its strong and vocal commitment to American opera. If not, perhaps it should have.

Finally, the MET Opera will be airing, internationally, an archival broadcast of Barber’s Vanessa this Saturday at 1 PM. Last year, it aired John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, and next season will air John Adams’s Nixon in China.

Posted by: snaketime1 | January 19, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Yes ... I inadvertantly left a tenth American opera -- Scott Wheeler's "Democracy: An American Comedy" -- off the above list.

The WNO once upon a time hit ten for ten.
You can tell your children, or nieces and nephews.

Posted by: snaketime1 | January 19, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

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