Can Placido Pull It Off? 

With a secretive Domingo convalescing, L.A. Opera faces a high-stakes Ring Festival

Thursday, Apr 1 2010

The details that famously laconic publicist Nancy Seltzer released regarding her superstar client were spare, confident and calculated to strongly suggest a robust future.

"It's like trying to get something out of the Church of England," longtime music and dance critic Donna Perlmutter says of trying to pry info from Seltzer.

All she ultimately released regarding the health of her best-known client — L.A. Opera's fabled general director, Plácido Domingo — after 10 tight-lipped days was that the opera world's most elegant and celebrated figure had had an inelegant cancerous polyp removed from his colon, and that he was discharged from Manhattan's Mount Sinai Hospital on Sunday, March 7, likely to return to performing in mid-April, at La Scala in Milan.

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What little that was verified was, as of late March, that Domingo was convalescing after his surgery at one of his homes somewhere in the world. And, of course, Seltzer added de rigueur, Domingo is all the while continuing his administrative duties as L.A. Opera's general manager, unfazed. True?

Domingo himself turned up in Los Angeles last week after a mere three weeks of convalescing at his Acapulco home, to catch rehearsals of L.A. Opera's final Ring production, Richard Wagner's Götterdämmerung. While here, he confessed to a small handful of obliging scribes that he was testing his voice "privately."

Even so, there were runes enough to read in Seltzer's presser and Domingo's sotto voce comments to keep opera lovers, voice coaches, lizard-lounge divas and laryngologists guessing as to what might happen next. One clue: The polyp, though cancerous, was small enough to remove laparoscopically. That was an enormous break for the singer, as laparoscopy is less invasive than conventional surgery, with far less stress to the muscles of the abdomen, and potentially availing the singer a better chance to recover the full extent of his air.

But while the prognosis is good, full voice recovery from even laparoscopy is not guaranteed. "Muscular construction is extremely important for human voice," Vladimir Chernov, UCLA professor of voice, says. Even given the minimally invasive procedure, Chernov cannot comment on the prognosis for Domingo's voice. "It's very individual," he says. "We need more research."

Only a handful of medical personnel at Mount Sinai Hospital high on Manhattan's East Side even knows precisely when Domingo had his surgery in February.

But in Los Angeles, where the resident opera company Domingo heads hopes to kick off on April 15 the largest citywide cultural festival since the 1984 Olympics — Ring Festival L.A., a 10-week, omnivenue extravaganza in conjunction with the presentation of L.A. Opera's first complete production of Richard Wagner's four-part Ring cycle — Domingo's convalescence amplifies the cultural, economical and even political stakes of the coming festival.

The building face of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion — a piece of Los Angeles County real estate now standing as collateral, securing a loan from Bank of America that, in part enabled L.A. Opera to produce the Ring Festival — features twinned supergraphics of Domingo to the left and Maestro James Conlon to the right.

But it is now obvious that Conlon is not the co-pilot but the man most in charge of the raucously turbulent flight that is L.A. Opera in spring 2010.

Conlon, who turned 60 in March, is so busy in rehearsals that he was barely cognizant of his own milestone birthday, which became an ordinary rehearsal day. In his March planner, his rehearsal time alternated between The Stigmatized, an opera by Franz Schreker that is part of Conlon's pet "Recovered Voices" project — featuring music censored by Nazi Germany — and Wagner's Götterdämmerung, "Twilight of the Gods," the final opera of the Ring cycle, which debuts Saturday and runs for five performances before the entirety of the cycle is performed three times in late May and June.

"I dream music. I have music for breakfast. I am thinking of music right now," Conlon says.

He remains intently focused on the musical direction of upcoming operas. The turbulence of L.A. Opera's economic distress and even the mixed reception to Achim Freyer's controversial sets for the Ring operas — which classical station KUSC Program Director Gail Eichenthal called "a gamble" — remain on his periphery.

Yet in pockets of the city's Jewish community, Angelenos are asking whether the idea of "celebrating" the music and life of Wagner, an undisputable anti-Semite, in a citywide festival, is appropriate.

"Can you separate the man and the music? No, you can't," Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, says.

The rabbi adds that he considered boycotting the festival but decided he didn't want to "fight within ourselves."

He says: "Some people considered her an innovative filmmaker, but I wouldn't expect any Jews to celebrate Leni Riefenstahl. Or blacks to queue for Birth of a Nation. ... I want Jews to know about Wagner. Most Jews don't know anything about Wagner."

But nobody has more actively questioned the morality of hosting a Ring Festival in Los Angeles than Carol Jean Delmar, the daughter of an opera singer who in 1930s Vienna performed Wagnerian roles, such as Beckmesser and Alberich, often thought as "Jewish caricature" roles. Delmar's parents fled Vienna after the Anschluss — the Nazi annexation of Austria. She writes on opera and is a persistent critic of the festival's focus on Wagner, criticizing not only L.A. Opera but also some groups it has partnered with, including those that are Jewish, to make the festival happen.

"The Wiesenthal Center is an example of a Jewish organization that caved in to political pressures, whereas the Skirball chose not to be involved," Delmar charges.

Her criticism may have cost her a blogging gig at the Huffington Post. The Web site initially told Delmar it would stop publishing her blog for making "possible misrepresentations" that Huffington Post editors would not identify, adding that the Ring situation "is a highly contentious issue with a great deal of acrimony between the parties involved, and we'd rather separate ourselves from it."

But Huffington Post spokesman Mario Ruiz later told L.A. Weekly, "We stopped publishing her because our blog editors felt her second post didn't add anything new to the discussion about what was happening at the L.A. Opera, and because of the contentious tone of her exchanges with us."

Delmar maintains a file in her Rancho Park home of her father's days as a singer in Vienna, his flight to Cuba and ultimately Los Angeles. On top of the file are two Austrian passports from 1939, with two-inch, red Js on the front of each, denoting the possessors as Jews, a harrowing testimony to life in Austria under Nazi control.

While Delmar feels that the concerns of many Jews who know Wagner's anti-Semitic history are being too easily swept under the rug to accommodate the festival, Ring Festival L.A. chairman Barry Sanders insists that the festival will bring to light both the music and the man. "I think those voices are mistaken, and they are often misleading. This program is not celebrating Wagner. We're celebrating a coming of age of the opera and the city," Sanders says. "He was a terrible man, he was an awful bigot ... he was a great composer. "People are raising questions. There would be no conversations about Wagner as an anti-Semite were it not for this festival."

Critic Perlmutter doesn't take seriously the opposition to the festival. "I mean, these people [opponents of the festival], they're like the Tea Partiers," she says with a laugh.

Delmar somberly retorts, "If there had been Tea Partiers, there might not have been a Holocaust."

Soon, L.A. Opera will stage Götterdämmerung and its first full Ring under dark clouds, with the people in the seats awaiting the return of Domingo to navigate the fiscal, physical and political tempests at hand.

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