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Mark Swed: What sexual harassment allegations against Placido Domingo could mean for opera culture

Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Placido Domingo last appeared in Los Angeles in May, adding his 151st role as an opera singer, the "wildcat." The titular fugitive in the zarzuela, "El Gato Montes" is fatally persistent in his love for a former girlfriend he returns to reclaim from her now-bullfighter fiance after many years. This is a Spanish operetta Domingo had first appeared in 65 years earlier at 13 in his parents' Mexico City company as the bullfighter, making the two roles bookends to an illustrious career.

But with the Associated Press publishing accusations from eight singers and one dancer of Domingo being relentless in pursuing them with unwanted sexual advances, it all appears far too personal.

The outcome is far from certain. Domingo has denied the allegations as "inaccurate." The accusers, but one, remain anonymous.

The ramifications are considerable. If proved true, the allegations would be a tragic ending to one of the great careers in the history of opera, a tenor and now baritone who has sung more roles than any other, as well as a conductor, opera administrator and celebrity. It would also be a sad revelation about the catalyst and voice of opera in Los Angeles.

Reaction has, in this age of #MeToo and social-media immediacy, been quick and brutal. By Tuesday morning the Philadelphia Orchestra had dumped Domingo as the star of its season-opening gala next month. Not long afterward, San Francisco Opera followed suit by canceling Domingo's Oct. 6 recital. New York's Metropolitan Opera said it would wait for the results from L.A. Opera's investigation before making a decision as to whether Domingo will still sing in "Macbeth" at the end of next month.

On the other hand, the Salzburg Festival has said that Domingo will sing as scheduled in an upcoming concert performance of Verdi's "Luisa Miller" next week in Austria, conducted, incidentally, by L.A. Opera's music director, James Conlon. L.A. Opera, itself, where some of the accusers claimed they were subjected to Domingo's advances, has hired outside counsel to investigate the allegations.

 

There have been voices in L.A. for a while saying it is time, already, for the peripatetic Domingo to step down as general director. He is 78, and the company can seem his personal fiefdom. He conducts. He hires his wife to direct; her old and old-school production of "La Traviata" closed the season. Maybe the company's imaginatively daring and cosmopolitan president and chief executive, Christopher Koelsch, should run the whole show (it's kind of hard to figure out who does what).

But Domingo is still an important and powerful presence, to say nothing of a tried-and-true draw. Biology be damned, he remains a compelling singer. He brings incomparable experience to the stage. He has performed with a broader range of great conductors and worked with a broader range of great directors than any musician alive.

Beyond that, he stands for something: opera for all. Born in Madrid, raised in Mexico City, he has been a proud model for a Latino community with too few superstars. His celebrity gets the attention of Hollywood. He opens the pockets of philanthropists. I've known him professionally for more than a quarter-century and am always won over by his charm and graciousness.

We also owe him big- time operatically in this town. His appearance with London's Royal Opera at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival helped galvanize the Music Center to start L.A.'s first major opera company, further nurtured by Domingo's advocacy. He became an advisor to the new company and two years later starred in its opening production of Verdi's "Otello." In 1998, he was named artistic director of the company before ultimately being named general director.

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