Placido Domingo wraps up tenure with National Opera

Placido Domingo, as usual, is in full multitask mode as he wraps up his 15-year tenure as general director of Washington National Opera.

The famed Spanish tenor has seven more performances to sing as Oreste in the company's first-ever production of Gluck's "Iphigenie en Tauride," which opened last Friday. He'll also switch gears to conduct five performances of Donizetti's "Don Pasquale," which opens this Friday.

At 70, Domingo could be pursuing an enviable, pampered life of leisure, but that's a thoroughly alien concept to him. Besides, he gives every indication of thriving on packed schedules like the one he has this month in Washington.

"I do enjoy it tremendously," Domingo said on a recent evening, nestled into a reclining chair backstage at the Kennedy Center between rehearsals for both operas. "I can feel the vitality of the whole company."

And vice versa.

"He stimulates people," said Christina Scheppelmann, WNO's director of artistic operations. "You can never look him straight in the eye and say, 'Oh, I'm so tired.' He's never tired."

If Domingo ever tired of anything, it might be the carping he has received over the years from some quarters about his running of two major American opera companies. In addition to the WNO — he steps down June 30 and the company will be merged into the Kennedy Center — he has been general director of Los Angeles Opera since 2003 and recently renewed his contract there through 2013.

"Everybody's entitled to think what they like," Domingo said. "I respect their opinions. But I know I have done my duty here. And I know I am doing my duty in Los Angeles."

Scheppelmann seconds that.

"Placido has raised the bar," she said. "The man is one of the greatest artists in the world. It would be naïve to expect that person to be sitting here in an office every day."

Domingo may not have had a day-to-day presence in D.C., but his presence has been felt nonetheless. His ability to coax such major stars as Renee Fleming and Juan Diego Florez to perform with the company was just one example of his influence.

"He's totally the opposite of the stereotypical diva," Scheppelmann said. "And the company has a good reputation among artists as a good place to work. That may seem trivial, but it is not so supportive in all places."

James Morris, the veteran, Baltimore-born bass-baritone, vouched for that welcoming atmosphere.

"It's been very nice," said Morris, who will make his WNO debut singing the title role in WNO's "Don Pasquale." "I feel fortunate to squeeze in here at the end of Placido's tenure. He's been a very visual presence with the company; everywhere you look there are posters of Placido."

As the Domingo era at the WNO draws to a close, the general director has a few things left on his wish list.

"The No. 1 disappointment for me and for the company was not being able to finish [the production of Wagner's] 'Ring,'" he said.

The company produced the first three works in the epic cycle, but could only afford to present the finale, "Gotterdammerung," in concert form in 2009.

"I also regret that I had to stop three years ago one my credos, which was to do an American opera every year," Domingo said.

Domingo had hoped, as well, to present two early 20th century masterworks, Alban Berg's "Wozzeck" and "Lulu," along with some world premieres.

"There are always things in your mind that, for whatever reason, don't happen," he said. "In every place, you say, 'if we only had this, if we only had done that.' But we had great artists, great conductors, great stage directors here. I can't be anything but proud of all the things we have accomplished together."

The WNO has experienced its share of financial troubles.

"We did eight, even nine operas in a season a few years ago," Domingo said. "Then it was seven, then six, and now five. I do believe with the Kennedy Center merger, they may, little by little, be able to take off again."

Although Domingo said "it is the right time" to be leaving the WNO, he has been discussing future singing and conducting engagements with the company. "On the 30th of June, it will not mean that I never set foot here again," he added.

Meanwhile, he is going full-throttle in the home stretch of his term. He is pleased to be introducing the Gluck work to WNO audiences.

"The music is superb, so intense," Domingo said. "Gluck wrote a version for high baritone and a version for tenor; I am doing a combination of both versions. The character of Oreste, like Idomeneo [in Mozart's opera of that name], suffers the whole way until the very end of the opera, so the relief at the end is unbelievable. I love to suffer on the stage. In real life, not at all," he added with a laugh.

As for "Pasquale," Domingo spoke of the challenges for a conductor. "There are difficult ensemble scenes," he said. "You have to be thinking always of the right tempo. If the phenomenal duet between Pasquale and Dr. Malatesta is too fast, it's bad; if you take it too slow, it's bad. And Donizetti's orchestration can be heavy. You have to be careful."

Being careful comes naturally to Domingo, which helps explain how he is still going so strong at 70, not only singing as a tenor, but exploring some baritone repertoire with exceptional results.

"I don't know which will come first, my vocal or physical limitations," he said. "I am afraid to sign [contracts to sing] four or five years from now, but they keep encouraging me, and I think, well, as long as I am not trying to sing Romeo at my age; that would be ridiculous."

Domingo's move into opera management 15 years ago suggested to some that he was easing his way off the stage. That was in his mind, too.

"When I accepted this job, I thought I was finished singing," he said, breaking into a smile. "It hasn't gone that way. I'm singing, I guess, because I can still do it. As long as I have this possibility in me, I refuse to retire before it is time — unless God tells me, 'That's it.' If I get that sign, I will be satisfied."

If you go

Washington National Opera presents "Don Pasquale," through May 27; and "Iphigenie en Tauride," through May 28, at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St N.W., Washington. Tickets $25 to $300. Call 202-295-2400 or go to

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