Sunday 21 October 2007

Plácido Domingo on stage directors, atonal music, opera stars and how to manage an opera house

My translation below of excerpts of an interview with Plácido Domingo in the latest edition of the German magazine Opernwelt (Albrecht Thiemann interviews) (I find some of his points quite interesting and have enlightened these)

On the future of opera

Plácido Domingo: First of all, I do not believe that opera as an art form is endangered. Most often, such statements come from people who advocate radical operatic productions and a need for each opera to "identify with our times". But what does the search for truth mean in this context?
We have over the last forty years invested a lot of time, energy, research and money to reconstruct the operatic sound to match what the composers of the Baroque era, the Viennese classics, etc. had in the ear had when they wrote their works. Suddenly countless musicians experiment with historical instruments. This has undoubtedly enriched our hearing of these works. And that raises the question for me: Why do we now insist that our ears perceive the music the same way as the composers who wrote it, while with our eyes and our intellect, the exact opposite is organized on stage?

Does anyone seriously believe that Verdi imagined Rigooletto at a monkey planet or that Mozart would have been delighted to see his operas as the zeitgeist of the 21st Century? And have those responsible for radically new interpretation of the established masterpieces ever thought, that perhaps they are the ones jeopardizing the future of opera?

These millions [used on semi-innovative opera productions] should instead be used to get something really new. In short, new works for both the eye, ear and intellect. To avoid misunderstandings: I have nothing against innovative staging approaches to masterpieces of the operatic literature, as long as they are tastefully executed and with talent behind. In Los Angeles, for example, William Friedkin set the prelude in "Ariadne auf Naxos" in the Malibu villa of a filmmaker. It was a great idea with which the audience could relate immediately... So what makes one "upgrade" acceptable and another not? It is the way a production is formed and how it is implemented. Whether talent and empathy is obvious and whether it becomes clear why it it is set in another era.

On atonal music

Plácido Domingo: In terms of atonal music, I have done my duty: Ginastera, Abril and to a certain extent, Tan Dun. When I sing atonal music, it should have a distinctive sound. Atonality for the sake of atonality sake does not interest me. I say this being quite aware that opera revolves around singing and the beauty of the human voice. Around the world people go to the opera to hear beautiful voices. Of course, I realize that the transformations of music during the last hundred years is needed to make new, unprecedented expressions and to test effect orms, not least in the field of musical theater. But the voice a deeply romantic instrument. Therefore, I often wonder whether it would not be better, to leave the atonal segments to the orchestra and give the voice more tonal music to express human feelings and dramatic situations. Yes, I believe in atonal vocal music, but I do not think that atonality is a "must" to create a significant new work.

On the difference between the Opera in Washington and Los Angeles

Plácido Domingo: The audiences in Washington and in Los Angeles, for example, cannot be lumped together. It is my conviction, that we make opera to entertain and enlighten. Also, I must consider the fact that in Washington, many people in one way or another are related to politics, while in Los Angeles you rather feel the presence of the movie industry and big business. Because every four to eight years, the government changes in Washington, there is a high turnover. Many people leave the city, while others come here. Especially when the power passes from the Democrats to the Republicans or vice versa. These findings influence my artistic planning, of course. An example: At the Washington National Opera, I have an American opera on the repertoire every season....For I believe that the capital of the United States should deal with American culture. That applies especially to new works. The true value of a piece of new music can, in many cases, be measured only after the hype around the "world premiere" settles down. It is also like this in Europe.

At the Los Angeles Opera....I have tried to get personalities from the film industry to work with opera. I have asked directors known from the film and music industry to direct classic operatic repertoire on stage: William Friedkin, Maximilian Schell, Marte Keller, Gary Marshall, Vincent Patersen, Julie Taymor. I have also commissioned a new opera - by a composer who usually works for the film industry.
Incidentally, my faith in film directors was developed long before my connection with the Los Angeles opera. For example, I was the one, who persuaded John Schlesinger to stage "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" at Covent Garden and "Un ballo in maschera" in Salzburg.

On funding

Plácido Domingo: Opera in Europe has for decades been funded by public means only. But the world is changing and there is now also countries where we can no longer readily rely on the flow of public money to opera. Even valid contracts mean little when the promised funding is just not there.
In the United States, opera has always been privately funded. The crucial point is that the artistic independence is maintained regardless of where the money comes from.

On contemporary European and American operas

Plácido Domingo: "Moses and Aron" has been staged several times in the US, among other places at the Metropolitan Opera. But unfortunately, the performances were poorly attended. Zimmermann's "Soldaten" was staged at the New York City Opera, but here the interest was so low that a revival of the production was cancelled. That does not mean that Americans have anything against contemporary music from Europe. The works of Benjamin Britten, Dmitri Shostakovich and Hans Werner Henze have been well received here. Some works just come across the Atlantic better than others. That composers like William Bolcom, Tobias Picker and Scott Wheeler are more or less unknown in Europe is an example of this. Could the neglect of contemporary operas from America perhaps relate to some kind of chauvinism? If this is true, it would be very foolish. If you wonder about the weak presence of works such as Zimmerman's "Soldaten" at American opera houses, I may just as well ask why a Bolcom opera like "A View from the Bridge," a success both at the Chicago Lyric Opera as well as the Metropolitan Opera and to be shown in the 2007/08 season at the Washington National Opera, have never been performed in Europe?

On American vs. European stage directors

Plácido Domingo: There are several American directors having great success in Europe: Francesca Zambello, David Alden, Robert Wilson, Peter Sellars – to mention only a few. On the other hand, American opera houses also have engaged several European stage directors. Achim Freyer, for example, made a fantastic «La Damnation de Faust» in Los Angeles. And he will stage a new Ring Cycle there as well.

On the importance of opera stars vs. the ensemble

Plácido Domingo: Of course, the ensemble is of paramount importance, I agree. But it is also a fact that every major opera house has a "wish list" of about 15 singers whom they´d prefer to hire. The ideal combination is one of established stars and young singers. This mixture holds a double advantage: The stars help the box office sales; the houses help the stars of tomorrow.

Rudolf Bing once said something very beautiful and true about this subject: "I loathe dealing with stars. But I need them. "

On chosing repertoire

Plácido Domingo:
As a head of an opera house, you have to be very conscious of your audience. I should not forget that I don´t manage a Festival, but two houses with many subscribers. In Washington, as well as in Los Angeles, most visitors are locals, not tourists. And I cannot close my eyes to most of the wishes and needs of this core audience. In a house where Verdi's "Vespri siciliani" and Strauss' "Frau ohne Schatten" has never been played, I must first play such pieces before I introduce Berg's "Wozzeck," Hindemith's "Cardillac" or Luigi Nono's "Intolleranza".... Therefore, I cannot make radical choices. The problem with many radical productions - termed "Euro-trash" is that the viewers are robbed of imagination. An example [of the opposite]: Wieland Wagner´s staging of the works of his grandfather were revolutionary in their poverty, and yet they had a magical world created only by light. It was possible to be a spectator listening to wonderful sounds quite alone, while the eye associated many different things with the action on stage. At festivals such as Salzburg and Bayreuth, where year after year the works of a single composer (Mozart, Wagner) is at the center and the audience are mainly tourists, you have other opportunities to show "radical" stagings/performances.

On looks vs. voice in opera careers

Plácido Domingo: Ultimately, the best ones make it. Has it not always been so? Just give me one singer of historic rank, who did not in the true sense of the word have "extraordinary" vocal quality. Does the look matter? Not necessarily. But, of course, it helps the credibility, if you are visually suitable to a role on stage.

How have you managed to keep your voice fresh for almost five decades ?

Plácido Domingo: The answer is: with discipline and self-knowledge.

On stadium/arena concerts

Plácido Domingo: I have performed some 3,300 nights in 124 different roles on the operatic stage. These performances were always very satisfying for me, because in the opera you follow a role from beginning to end: A criminals, sometimes an emperor, priest or hero, painter or saint, a biblical figure, clown, duke, king or general. It's great, to embody so many different people. I have done about 100 Arena concerts in order to access a different audience: You sing every four or five minutes, a new aria or duet, a musical number, a song or something from an operetta or Zarzuela. Melodies, which most people know and love. What is wrong about dealing with various forms of expression of the music to an audience?

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