When future generations try to assess the artistic legacy of Plácido Domingo they will be faced‹as audiences are today‹with an embarrassment of riches. Domingo is a tenor who has spent decades performing at the highest international level, singing more than 119 different roles, documented by hundreds of recordings as well as videos and films. He is also a conductor engaged by the world's most important symphony orchestras and opera theaters, and an artistic director who has guided The Washington Opera and the Los Angeles Opera.
But perhaps Domingo's most important contribution will turn out to be his dedication, guidance, and support of young artists, as exemplified by The Washington Opera's Young Artist Program of the Americas and his own international vocal competition, Operalia. "I believe that it's very important to support and nurture young singers," Domingo says. "We take only people that I believe have a real talent. I won't take anyone that I don't firmly believe could become someone important. Of course," he adds, "everyone develops in a different way. There is the possibility for a career for every singer you discover. The more a singer learns, the more the singer develops‹and you are surprised sometimes. I tell them, 'No one can sleep here.'"
Indeed, for some of the 12 singers and two coaches currently in The Washington Opera's Young Artist Program, the intensity of Domingo's dedication to music, and his passion for constantly discovering new layers to familiar roles is one of the most inspiring aspects of the program.
"Just the work ethic Mr. Domingo has‹it blows your mind," says soprano Barbara Quintiliani, who was invited to participate in the program after Domingo heard her in the 2001 Operalia competition. Quintiliani discovered opera as a teenager when a friend's mother took her to see Carmen at the Virginia Opera. "Growing up, my musical influences were Joan Baez and the Grateful Dead," she explains, "but that Carmen just transported me. I said to my friend's mother, 'That's it! I'm going to do that when I grow up.'" And, in fact, Quintiliani will be singing Elettra in some performances of Mozart's Idomeneo opposite Domingo at The Washington Opera this November.
The young soprano says her decision to come to Washington, having already participated in another young artist program, can be summed up in two words: "Plácido Domingo. In other programs we had administrators who had been musicians at one time, but to have someone of his quality be a resource for a young singer, it's just mind-boggling."
Domingo himself explains that whereas other competitions give prizes and prestige to singers, there is little or no follow through. "I think it is important that when a singer is a winner, or a finalist‹or even, sometimes a singer who is only in the first round of Operalia and I find they have an interesting voice‹to follow them, to help them. Help their career, to advise them."
One way Domingo does that is through his very hands-on approach to the Young Artist Program. "I am as connected with the program as I can be. I talk to the singers one by one, decide which parts they should be preparing, which parts they will cover for The Washington Opera, which parts they will be singing during the season. So I am completely, directly involved.
"I think when I am talking to the singers and coaches I can pass on my total enthusiasm and passion for what I am doing, day to day. When I hear them sing, I immediately find what they can do better. I explain the feeling they need to express and we work with the coaches. When I stop singing," Domingo adds, "this is something that I will do much more."
It is exactly that constant exploration and digging into the words and music of the role that Quintiliani finds so extremely valuable as she prepares Elettra. "They're coaching me to within an inch of my life and it's wonderful," she says. "It's great because it doesn't end with, 'Are you singing the right notes?' They're constantly challenging us to make art out of it, to take it to the next level. They make you ask questions like, 'Why is Elettra singing those words?' 'Listen to the music, why did Mozart write it like that?' 'What's really going on?'
"When Domingo is doing something onstage, he's always with his score, he's always learning something new, always looking for something deeper. I can't believe it. You'd think someone at his level would just sit back and fly in a jet all over the place, but he's not like that. It's very humbling for us in the program. His artistry, his commitment to being whatever character he's working on‹it's amazing. I can't really put into words how much we can benefit by all this."
The Washington Opera's Young Artist Program combines a variety of opportunities for performing, with intensive vocal and dramatic coaching, piano lessons, and foreign language instruction. In addition, the program includes work in nutrition; relaxation techniques, such as yoga; and solid preparation for managing a career. There are also master classes with many of the internationally known singers, directors, and conductors who appear with The Washington Opera during the season.
Another part of the program is its community and educational outreach. For instance, plans are underway for a fully staged performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni in April, with orchestra, in which all the roles will be performed by members of the Young Artist Program. "It will be a free performance for first-time operagoers," says Michelle Krisel, director of the program. "We want to reach people who have never been to the opera, young professionals and college students. We're in the process of raising the money now."
Due to recent downturns in the stock market, major subsidies for the Young Artist Program have been adversely affected and the company is trying to raise funding to cover the losses. "I really hope we can continue," says Domingo. "There is so much support from the company for the program to continue."
"Our job is to create a new generation of singers that are great communicators and a generation of an audience that loves opera," says Krisel. "Communication is the whole point. And, of course, the supreme example of that is Plácido Domingo, the greatest communicator with the greatest passion and fire for everything he does and shares."