Final curtain: Domingo to depart Washington National Opera

WNO General Director abruptly announces exit at end of current contract.

Washington – The Washington National Opera (WNO) has abruptly confirmed the imminent departure of General Director Plácido Domingo, effective June 30, 2011 when his most recent contract with the company expires. Maestro Domingo, who has served the WNO in various capacities since arriving on the scene in 1996, informed the company’s Board of Trustees during yesterday’s scheduled meeting.

“For the last fourteen seasons, I have had the great pleasure of leading the Washington National Opera,” noted Mr. Domingo in a written statement. “It has been a long and fruitful collaboration, and although I will continue to help the company artistically in any way possible, the current season — my fifteenth season with Washington National Opera — will be my last as General Director.”

Placido Domingo. (Cr. Greg Gorman.)

Departing WNO General Director Plácido Domingo.
(Photo cr. Greg Gorman.)

In a formal response, WNO’s President, Kenneth R. Feinberg, said “We appreciate all that Plácido Domingo has done for our great company. He will be missed, but all good things must come to an end. Plácido’s association with WNO was essential to the company’s artistic development and helped it to gain recognition nationally and internationally.”

Anthony Kearns – a founding member of the Irish Tenors – observed that “Placido Domingo has been a wonderful ambassador for Washington opera and opera the world over. He is still a major force on the opera stage and, with the schedule he is keeping, one can understand his decision to step down from the Washington Opera. I can only wish the very best to the very best.” (Mr. Kearns will be in Arlington this weekend to perform at a benefit concert.)

Mr. Domingo’s departure comes at a troubled time for the WNO. After having revived the prestige of the company by bringing in world-class singers and a few major productions, and after having supported WNO’s development of a complete “American Ring” production — now on indefinite hiatus — Mr. Domingo’s leadership has come under question in recent seasons.

His fundraising prowess ultimately hasn’t proved sufficient to overcome the company’s $11 million debt overhang. And he himself has not been much of a stage presence in Washington for the past two or three seasons, even as the number of operas the company has been able to mount has continued to plummet rather than grow. With his many international commitments, his longstanding major presence at the New York Metropolitan Opera, and his parallel General Directorship of the Los Angeles Opera on the other side of the continent, it’s become increasingly clear that something eventually had to give.

Even as Maestro Domingo departs, WNO’s fiscal problems remain. The company has been in talks with the Kennedy Center regarding a merger, similar to that undertaken some time back by the National Symphony Orchestra. That setup has greatly benefited the orchestra. It might very well do the same for WNO which badly needs increased national exposure and a broader repertoire—something beyond the steady if seat-filling diet of Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini that has dominated recent seasons.

Some longtime WNO donors and supporters are said to bitterly oppose this move, however, which they feel would eliminate the company’s long-cherished independence. No doubt as a result of this, WNO remains tight-lipped about any current negotiations underway with the Kennedy Center.

Yet, whether due to the current economy, a lack of major new-donors, a lack of imagination, or all three, it’s clear the necessary funding is no longer there nor is it likely to show up tomorrow. Something must be done, and soon, to rescue the company and put it on a clearer, more predictable financial footing. Otherwise, Maestro Domingo’s final season with the organization could very well be WNO’s swan song as well.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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