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PLAYING TO THE AUDIENCE PLACIDO DOMINGO LENDS HIS NAME TO PROMOTE OPERA AMONG HISPANICS.

Byline: Evan Henerson Staff Writer

Friday night figures to be a late and highly festive evening both for Hispanics for L.A. Opera and - especially - for the Domingo household.

After ``Traviata's'' love-struck courtesan Violetta breaths her last, Placido Domingo (the performance's conductor) and his wife, Marta (director), will take up their honorary chair duties during the fifth annual Placido Domingo Award Dinner, HFLAO's biggest fund-raiser of the year.

The 10-year-old support group has raised more than $600,000 through the awards dinner alone. More importantly, its members have brought new audiences to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Domingo, the company's artistic director as well as a world-renowned tenor, has noticed the growth and is extremely appreciative.

``Sometimes people don't know about opera, and that's the reason they don't come,'' says Placido Domingo. ``Hispanics for L.A. Opera is a very important group. I am very happy about the way (Hispanics) are more and more enthusiastic about the opera and about the company.''

A voice for the people

That enthusiasm is precisely what the company's top administrator wants to see. In that regard, Domingo and HFLAO founder Alicia Clark share the same vision. For the past decade, Clark has focused her attention on bringing more Hispanics into the audience and putting more Hispanics on stage - singers and composers.

She reports success on both counts, meaning a victory both for the artists and for the city at large.

``Ten years ago, 1 percent of the audiences at the opera was Hispanic. Last year, I was checking the numbers of people buying tickets, and we've grown to 9 percent,'' says Clark with a touch of pride. ``When we stared, it was only my husband and I. Now we have 1,800 members.''

In the beginning, Clark was recruiting opera fans practically one at a time, hosting dinners, selling tickets to special events and getting friends to pass along the names addresses and phone numbers of their friends.

An L.A. Opera managing director who lives in Pasadena, Clark is quick to share the credit for Hispanics for L.A. Opera's growth with the artists who visit schools, with the L.A. Opera's former artistic director Peter Hemmings, with her board members and volunteers.

She also lauds Domingo, who is honorary co-chairman of Hispanics for L.A. Opera, sharing the position with his wife. A native of Spain who grew up in Mexico, the maestro has supported the program since its inception.

``He loved the idea of what we were doing,'' recalled Clark. ``He said, 'What can I do to help?' I hadn't thought of him doing anything. I just wanted to use his name on the membership. He said, 'I know. I'll give a concert and that will give you a lot of publicity. You will find help.' ''

Indeed, she did. Through that concert and an accompanying dinner, Clark raised $198,000 in a single evening.

``Certainly, they have the capability to help us,'' a grateful Domingo says of Hispanics for L.A. Opera, ``But there's another important thing, what we should do for Hispanics who cannot afford the opera and what we can do to bring the music to them. This is going to be part of our educational program.

``I have started doing some Spanish works and I am going to do it again,'' added Domingo, who, in his capacity as the company's artistic director, programs the season. ``This might be a good opportunity to do more and more, not only opera, but Spanish music like zarzuela, that brings in more people.''

In addition to the school and outreach work, the company tries to do one event or production per season with ties to the Spanish-speaking community. This season, ``A Night of Zarzuela and Operetta With Placido Domingo & Friends'' replaces a previously scheduled Spanish-language version of Lehar's ``The Merry Widow.''

Finding suitable tie-ins has been a challenge. The company has performed one Spanish-language opera in its 15-year history: Daniel Catan's ``Florencia en el Amazons'' in October 1997. Catan, who lives in Los Angeles, says that in a genre dominated by Italian, French and German, the repertory field is relatively empty for composers writing in Spanish.

``When I first started pushing my opera, 'Rappacini's Daughter,' I would go to opera houses and people would say, 'In Spanish? Why have you done that?' '' says Catan, a past Domingo Award winner. ``Why not? It's taken awhile for English to become established as an opera language. It will take just as long for Spanish to be established. It's my claim that Spanish is as beautiful a language as Italian.''

Citing artists like Catan, Domingo says if you scratch the surface, artistic talent from Spanish-speaking composers and artists will spill out.

``If we establish a Young Artists Program, which I am establishing also in Washington, D.C., we will have so many people offering their work,'' said Domingo.

Voices joined

Clark faces a different kind of hurdle. In her quest to stir an interest in opera among the Hispanic community, Clark encounters people who have had little or no exposure to the art form, even though opera is very much a part of Hispanic culture.

Growing up in Vera Cruz, Mexico, Clark said she was exposed to opera from childhood, even though she didn't see her first performance until age 25 - a production of ``The Tales of Hoffman'' in Mexico City. Once she began her support group duties, enough people started asking her about the place of Hispanics within opera that Clark began using a portion of her organization's newsletter, Que Viva L.A. Opera, to recount the history of opera in several Latin-American countries.

``We don't have opera houses in Mexico, but we hear it constantly,'' said Clark. ``I just thought it was a regular thing. I never thought it was something special or rare. We've had opera for more than 100 years.''

A reputation to overcome

No matter the ethnic background of your target audience, HFLAO officials acknowledge that the genre has a reputation to conquer. Because opera is expensive, lengthy and performed in foreign languages, it's not necessarily something that, say, a classroom full of restless high-school freshman would be interested in sampling.

But Clark and other company outreach coordinators have proven adept at selling opera to adults and students alike, says mezzo soprano Suzanna Guzman, another Domingo award winner.

``Hispanics for L.A. Opera has shown them that it's just a great story,'' says Guzman, an L.A. Opera associate artist who has performed for students in the L.A. Unified School District. ``The fact that Jose Hernandez is coming to opening night (of 'Traviata') is a proof of that. Those musicians in Mariachi Sol de Mexico are just as exquisitely trained vocalists and instrumentalists as our opera people.

``When they can make that connection, through some art form that's familiar, it makes opera more accessible for them.''

Domingo, who grew up witt opera-loving parents (both singers), sees pop music as a competitor within the educational system.

``The parents play it at home, probably in the school bus,'' says Domingo. ``If they do something at school, it has to be something pop. We're at a tremendous disadvantage.

``I'm sure with the brilliant people who exist in this country, you could do phenomenal things. You could really make little children know this beautiful music,'' he added.

A trio of honorees

Friday's recipients of the Placido Domingo Award include soprano Ana Maria Martinez, who sings the role of Violetta in ``Traviata''; multimillionaire arts patron Alberto Vilar; and Marta Domingo.

Vilar, a native of Cuba, was an obvious choice. His pledge of $12 million over four years helped finance this season's production of Wagner's ``Lohengrin'' and the season-closing double bill of Puccini's ``Gianni Schicchi'' and Bartok's ``Duke Bluebeard's Castle.'' Vilar also underwrote the opening-night gala and is helping to finance a young artists program for the company.

The Puerto Rico-born Martinez made her L.A. Opera debut singing Mimi in ``La Boheme'' in 1997 and has since performed at major theaters throughout the world. An award winner in Domingo's Operalia contest in 1995, Martinez is, says Domingo, the obvious choice for a career recognition award.

As for Domingo Award winner No. 3, well, the maestro says that recipient is extremely deserving as well.

``For her international work and for her work with the L.A. Opera as well,'' says Domingo of his wife, Marta. `` 'Traviata' is actually the first time I've had the chance to ask her to do something here. The three times she was here before, it was under the direction of Peter Hemmings. She's found a wonderful family in the company, and we really love her work.''

It was Domingo who suggested to Clark that Marta Domingo be considered for the award. Clark, who greatly admired the performances of the former Marta Ornelas at the Bellas Artes in Mexico City, was thrilled to give Mrs. Domingo recognition many years later.

``Very few people know she was an opera singer or how good she was,'' says Clark. ``This gives us the opportunity to let everyone know, not only was she a great singer, but she was extremely knowledgeable. That's why she's directing now.''

When the two women first met, Marta Domingo explained that she gave up her career after she and Placido Domingo had children and it became impossible for both singing careers to continue.

``She was telling me this story and she said, 'I hope, Alicia, that you are happy with my choice,' '' Clark said.

- Evan Henerson

``FIFTH ANNUAL PLACIDO DOMINGO AWARD DINNER''

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.

When: Friday night following the performance of ``La Traviata.''

Tickets: $200, or $135 for those who already have tickets to the performance. Call (213) 927-7498.

CAPTION(S):

6 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) A NEW DIRECTION

As honorary chairman of Hispanics for L.A. Opera, conductor Placido Domingo entices those who are unfamiliar with his favorite music

(2) ``Sometimes people don't know about opera, and that's the reason they don't come. Hispanics for L.A. Opera is a very important group. I am very happy about the way (Hispanics) are more and more enthusiastic about the opera and about the company,'' says conductor Placido Domingo.

Evan Yee/Staff Photographer

(3) Domingo with Alicia and Ed Clark

Lee Salem

(4) ANA MARIA MARTINEZ

(5) MARTA DOMINGO

(6) SUZANNA GUZMAN

Box:

A trio of honorees (see text)
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 18, 2001
Words:1736
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