By Hillel Aron
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By Jill Stewart
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The most famous top executive of any arts organization in the world is certainly the superstar tenor who also serves as general director of the Los Angeles Opera — but on any given day, where in the world is Plácido Domingo?
“I don’t know, he’s everywhere, he could be anywhere,” Stephen D. Rountree, president of the Music Center and chief operating officer for L.A. Opera, tells me in his Music Center office at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, now L.A.’s de facto opera house. “He was just in Acapulco with his family for the holidays.”
“I think currently on the East Coast,” Gary Murphy, the opera company’s communications chief, adds with a little more confidence. “He maintains residences in L.A. and Washington, D.C. [where he is also general director of the Washington National Opera], in New York City and elsewhere. Right now, he is in rehearsals at the Met for Simon Boccanegra and Stiffelio.”
None of that mattered much until last month, when the opera’s globe-trotting and often remote superstar was given a $14 million last-minute bailout from Los Angeles County, amid indications that the opera company has overreached with its recent dramatic, high-profile and altogether costly Ring Cycle and coming Ring Festival.
Domingo, who is in L.A. for weeks at a time when he is conducting and singing, calls most of the artistic shots at L.A. Opera, sorting out whatever is debatable with the company’s esteemed musical director, James Conlon.
In their tenures, Domingo and Conlon have made L.A. Opera one of the top opera companies in the world by many measures. The company attracts world-class talent for new productions. It often uses operas in repertoire to showcase budding stars, many of whom have won Domingo’s own international competition. The duo’s two long-standing pet projects — Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and the Recovered Voices series, featuring music stifled by Nazi Germany — are the kinds of exceptionally ambitious projects, broad in scope and resource-intensive, that none but the world’s top companies would dare attempt.
But along the way to this artistic Valhalla, L.A. Opera has busted the credit line at its bank, requiring the $14 million bond-issue lifeline from the county to pacify the company’s primary creditor and permit the shows to go on through at least 2012.
Rountree, a Music Center fixture, who absorbed the top financial spot in his duties at L.A. Opera when the company began to feel a squeeze last year, speaks of lending and spending and financial instruments with a fluidity and frankness uncommon among top arts-organization financial executives. He talks in terms of “low-gap” and “high-gap” operas — those that lose a little money, and those that lose a great deal of money (almost no opera makes money, though some recitals do).
That’s the issue underlying L.A. Opera’s current financial woes — the balance of repertoire between the high-gap, rarefied productions Domingo loves and the low-gap warhorses that can see the opera through lean times.
“He’s onboard with us — he’s got religion,” Rountree says of Domingo’s state of mind after the bond issue. He adds that the 2010-2011 season, to be announced in late January, will reflect the new financial reality.
Has Domingo “got religion”?
He may have, but in a statement to L.A. Weekly, he also touted his chancy programming legacy. Asked if he has overreached by producing too many high-gap productions and too few low-gap warhorses, Domingo exhibits the unrepentant bravado of Don Giovanni:
“Not at all,” Domingo says from New York. “We have always done interesting things here; that’s part of our identity.
“Of course, there is always a place for the popular operas that bring in big crowds — I love those operas, too, but we always strive to make those productions special, for example, by putting together an absolutely peerless cast for our recent The Barber of Seville. It is critical to strike that balance between traditional and nontraditional repertoire, and to have a variety of theatrically distinctive presentations. Without that, an opera company quickly becomes uninteresting and pointless.
“These days, we must be especially pragmatic as we look at budgets for future seasons, but I know we can be both fiscally realistic and artistically relevant.”
Rountree originated the county bond issue, which was sold to Bank of America for $14 million. The money is to be repaid to the county by L.A. Opera over the next three years (at a markup of 4.8 percent).
“I saw how the Disney Hall was financed when it was built, through this same kind of bond,” Rountree explains. “We’re doing this with the same kind of instrument, but what’s new here is that this is the first time a bond has been issued for programming rather than a building or construction project.”