We should have seen it coming: Last week, Plácido Domingo announced he is leaving for L.A. next June, trading “Hollywood for ugly people” for Hollywood. The opera superstar of Three Tenors fame (though he’s now a baritone) had long had his hands full as the often-absentee director of the Washington National Opera, splitting his managerial duties in D.C. with performances and conducting gigs elsewhere. When he took on a second directorship, of the Los Angeles Opera in 2001, it was only a matter of time before he would have to choose between the two. And given Domingo’s penchant for schmoozing with the likes of Nicole Kidman, as he did at the Metropolitan’s Opera’s 125th anniversary ball last year, it really wasn’t much of a choice.
As the jilted party in this love triangle, D.C. will be left asking, What did Domingo leave us with? He undeniably raised the profile of the WNO, and opera generally in the nation’s capital. Just the addition of the “National” moniker in 2000 to what was previously known as the Washington Opera reflected its inflated ambitions, which Domingo largely fulfilled with his name alone.
Yet as the Washington Post reported in January, the improved standing of the WNO hasn’t translated into financial stability. Its $33 million budget last season is down to $26 million this year, and it cut its current season to just five operas. Its much anticipated plans to perform Wagner’s Ring cycle have been put on hold, perhaps indefinitely.
Even if he spent more time hobnobbing with the stars, Domingo’s ability to attract fat checks from donors seemed to justify his $600,000 salary at WNO (he made $700,000 at the Los Angeles Opera in 2008, but deferred his salary last year when the opera laid off 17 percent of its staff). Yet with declining revenues, some on the WNO board may have made the cost-benefit calculation that Domingo’s departure isn’t entirely a bad thing.
The WNO has announced additional lineup changes with French conductor Philippe Auguin, who makes his debut as the opera’s music director today in a production of Strauss’s Salome at the Kennedy Center. [Correction: as readers below have pointed out, the original version of this post incorrectly named Auguin as Domingo’s replacement as general director, not music director.] Yet with time running out on Domingo, the WNO will soon be left without a big name draw on which opera companies are increasingly dependent to ride out the recession. Who knows—-given Domingo’s extended absences, it may take a while for D.C.’s opera world to notice he’s no longer in town.