December 2004

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Scene4 Plácido Domingo
Scene4 Plácido Domingo A Personal Commitment to Young Artists
A Personal 
To Young Artists
by Karren Alenier

Plácido Domingo, a world-renowned and acclaimed, multi-talented artist, has been thinking about helping young artists involved in opera for many years. Domingo said, in an interview I had with him on November 20, 2004, the seed was planted in 1962 when he and his bride soprano Marta Ornelas moved to Tel Aviv, Israel, where the Opera Company of Israel (now known as Hebrew National Opera) hired them. For three seasons, they worked hard at minimal wages, but Domingo said the program was particularly helpful to him as young singer in his twenties.


Thus in 2002 under the financial sponsorship of the Cafritz Foundation, Plácido Domingo established the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program at the Washington Opera, now known as Washington National Opera. In its first year, the Program worked exclusively with singers but now it also includes coach-accompanists, directors, and conductors. Although other opera companies reach out to help young artists, Domingo conjectures that there is no other program like this one.

For one year, with the possibility of extending for an additional year, the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program addresses the financial, nutritional, physical fitness, and artistic development concerns of its participants. This means each participant receives a monthly stipend of $1,900 so he or she does not have to work odd jobs while studying under WNO sponsorship. Those selected also receive a one-time travel and housing allowance of $1500. Being free to concentrate on artistic development is something that Domingo feels strongly about. This program support also means a nutritionist consults monthly with the young artists and an on-staff yoga teacher guides them in the practice of beneficial stretching and strengthening exercises as well as important deep breathing techniques. 

 With all the basic needs of the young artists covered, the artistic development, under the guidance of WNO staff and world-renowned stars, can proceed without interruption. Jessica Swink, a soprano who entered the program in 2002 and was invited for a second year, said she learned the craft of an opera singer. "What they do is rip you down to remove the unprofessional habits so they can build you back up as a proven professional."    


The list of luminaries who give master classes to Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists includes such singers as Roberta Peters, Evelyn Lear, and Thomas Stewart. Cutting-edge artist Baz Luhrmann who directed the 2002 Broadway hit production of Puccini's La Boehme and the wildly popular film Moulin Rouge also lends his experience to Domingo's program. Domingo not only gets his accomplished friends to speak to the young artists, but he also seeks out certain individuals whom he feels would bring special benefits. Where possible, artists associated with current WNO production might also give master classes. However, the core teaching is led by WNO's faculty. Swink particularly mentioned the help she got from Principal Coach Ken Weiss and vocal coach Giovanni Reggioli. Both Weiss and Reggioli have experience in other young artist programs.

A prominent sponsor of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program is First Lady Laura Bush who not only lends her name but also attends public performances by the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists. Additionally, she invites the young artists to perform at the White House.


How do young artists make themselves competitive for this program? Domingo said, after the application is made, "one simply auditions. I hear them personally." Jessica Swink who was a semi-finalist in the 2001 Operalia competition said Domingo heard her sing at Operalia and invited her then to his WNO young artist program. Since 1993 when this international competition began, Operalia has enjoyed Plácido Domingo's sponsorship and although he does not serve as a judge, he attends the proceedings. As for selection in the WNO young artist program, although all the singers selected for the Young Artist program are exceptionally outstanding singers, Domingo emphasized that not all the artists selected for the Domingo-Cafritz program are at the same level of accomplishment and experience. To be competitive, Swink commented that applicants must learn five famous arias thoroughly and get good private coaching.


Domingo ties his WNO young artist program to the development of new audience for opera. For example, in the 2003-2004 WNO season, young artists performed in Rossini's La Cenerentola for a special family-oriented performance. On the WNO main stage schedule, La Cenerentola , a featured production that starred internationally known Sonia Ganassi, also debuted Korean soprano Hoo-Ryoung Hwang, a graduate of the 2002-2003 Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. When Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists (including those still working in this program) are selected for WNO productions, either as featured performers or understudies, they are paid American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) rates.

A world-renowned, multifaceted artist: as a singer, Plácido Domingo's repertoire encompasses an unmatched 120 different roles; as an administrator, he is the General Director of Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera; and as a conductor, he has led operas at the Metropolitan Opera, London's Covent Garden, Vienna State Opera, and Los Angeles Opera, and concerts with such orchestras as the Chicago Symphony, National Symphony, London Symphony, and Berlin Philharmonic. Most recently,Scene4 Plácido Domingo Mr. Domingo won acclaim for his performance as Siegmund in Washington National Opera's production of Die Walküre and for singing Queen of Spades and conducting Madama Butterfly, both at the Metropolitan Opera. Among his more than 100 recordings are the Deutsche Grammophon anthology of the complete Verdi arias for tenor and the EMI album of the role of Siegfried from Wagner's Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. He founded the international voice competition Operalia and is a 2000 Kennedy Center Honoree. Last year, Mr. Domingo was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was granted the title of Honorary Knight of the British Empire, and received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University for his substantial contributions to music and the arts.


Lyric coloratura soprano Jessica Swink, a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist, Scene4 Jessica Swinkwill be singing the role of Essy Baker in the premiere of Democracy and Pamina
in two performances of Die Zauberflöte this 2004-2005 season with the Washington National Opera. Last season, she performed Annina in La Traviata. She has performed with Washington National Opera Chorus and was a 2001 Operalia semi-finalist. In 2004, Ms. Swink performed Samuel Barber's "Knoxville, Summer of 1915" with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center as a winner of their Young Soloists Competition, and in Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortilčges. She sang the role of Gilda in the fourth act of Rigolettowith Opera International, and recorded a duet with Denyce Graves for a PBS television special. In the summer of 2004, she sang the role of Blanche in Les Dialogues de Carmélites

Another aspect of employing Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists will occur in January 2005 when WNO presents the world premiere of Scott Wheeler's comic opera Democracy . Democracy is an opera that Domingo commissioned after he heard a workshop performance of the piece at New York City Opera's Vox showcase of work-in-progress operas in 2000. The WNO premiere of Democracy, which offers two public performances only, includes Jessica Swink in the supporting role of Essy Baker. Domingo explained that box office draw for young artists is limited; therefore, the WNO decision to offer only two performances is purely economic.


Will the Washington National Opera offer other world premieres of operas they commission and provide additional opportunities for young artists? Although nothing new is scheduled for 2005-2006 season, Domingo affirmed, "We are moving toward new commissions."

Also don't be surprised if in a year or two, Domingo establishes another project like the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program in Los Angeles where he is also the general director of the Los Angeles Opera. Plácido Domingo's commitment to young artists is that strong.

©2004 Karren LaLonde Alenier

Scene4 Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is a contributing writer to Scene4 and has created her first opera. To read all about it, click here.

For other articles by Karren Alenier, check the Archives.

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