Placido Domingo to lead L.A. Opera's 'Il Postino' while in talks to go on leading L.A. Opera
Plácido Domingo the performer will be in exile onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion starting Sept. 23 as he creates the role of Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean lyric poet whose banishment brings him to an island in Italy – and to the unlikely friendship with a humble mailman that’s at the heart of “Il Postino,” a new opera based on the 1994 Italian film that was nominated for a best-picture Oscar.
Meanwhile, Domingo the opera executive is in contract-renewal talks with Los Angeles Opera, with both parties eager to ensure that he won’t be exiled from the leadership position he’s held since 2000.
“I certainly hope it will not be my last season,” Domingo said at a news conference Friday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in which he and opera company chairman Marc I. Stern introduced the creative team and cast of “Il Postino.” L.A. Opera commissioned the piece from Los Angeles-based composer Daniel Catan. Already booked for subsequent stagings by theaters in Paris and Vienna that are co-producing the work, it’s a show that the Los Angeles company hopes will be not only a highlight of the 25th anniversary season it kicks off, but another strong credential for a young company that has earned national and global stature in an unusually short time.
Both as a regular performer and an executive, Domingo, 69, has been a leading contributor to the company’s resume since 1986, when he starred in its debut production of Verdi’s “Otello.” Stern said after the news conference that he thinks there will be “good news” to announce soon regarding a renewal of Domingo's contract. After three years as artistic director, the Spanish star’s title was changed to general director in 2003. His current five-year contract expires in June 2011.
The most recently available public figures show that he earned $814,000 in 2008-09 as an executive and a performer, with $414,000 paid and $400,000 deferred. (Domingo also is general director of the financially troubled Washington National Opera, where his contract also comes due in June. There, Domingo earned $780,000 in 2008-09 -- $450,000 as general director and $330,000 as a singer and conductor.)
Short on cash, and with a large bank loan coming due, the opera persuaded the Board of Supervisors to OK a deal in which the county issued $14 million in bonds –- all of which were sold to a single bank that as a result is the party the opera company must repay. While the county would be on the hook to the bank if L.A. Opera can’t make its payments, the company says it has set aside a large enough chunk of $30 million in emergency donations its board members have pledged to guarantee it will make good on the debt.
“It was a monumental act of confidence on [the supervisors’] part, and we won’t let them down,” Stern said.
“Il Postino” kicks off a season of six operas that will receive a total of 42 performances, with an announced budget of $39 million. That’s down from a 2006-07 peak of 10 operas and 75 performances, when the budget was $48 million in production costs and $60.7 million when other costs such as marketing, fundraising and non-production salaries are factored in. With the cuts, Stern said, he expects a balanced budget for the season ahead. It was unclear Friday how much progress L.A. Opera has made toward closing a projected $6 million shortfall in the $31 million, multi-year budget for its staging of Richard Wagner’s epic “Der Ring Des Nibelungen.” Officials had hoped to close that gap with continued fundraising, but Stern said that, while undertaking opera’s most monumental work has brought in new donors, he wasn’t sure whether those additional gifts have been enough to offset the disappointing box office for the company’s climactic, late-spring staging of three full cycles of the four-part “Ring.” Officials have attributed the shortfall in sales largely to a bad economy that discouraged the international travelers all “Ring” producers count on; they have acknowledged that stretching out each cycle to nine days rather than the customary six or seven – a decision made during flush economic times – also hurt because it greatly increased those traveling “Ring nuts’” costs for food and lodging.
“Il Postino” marks a new season and a turn of the page. The operatic version’s creators said they aim for more than a chapter-and-verse retelling of the beloved film. Catan said at Friday’s news conference that the film inspired him to want to write the opera, but he and director Ron Daniels said they also have tried to capture the social and political sweep of “Ardiente Paciencia,” the 1985 novel by Chilean author Antonio Skarmeta from which the movie was loosely adapted.
The novel was set in Chile from 1969 to 1973, against a backdrop of political turmoil –- the rise and fall of the Marxist regime of Salvador Allende. The film was set in 1953, when Neruda, a communist activist as well as a poet, spent time in exile in Italy. Though “Il Postino” was “a wonderful, sentimental romantic film,” Daniels said, “what I felt it lacked was the historical context, the energy, size and epic [sweep]” that he feels is needed to make it an opera. At the same time, he and Catan sought to avoid sacrificing the intimacy of the film’s love story, in which Mario the postman haltingly woos the beautiful Beatrice –- first by swiping poetic lines from his friend, Neruda, and then, with the future Nobel laureate’s encouragement, learning to speak in his own poetic voice.
One key change that pleases Domingo is that, although the opera is set in Italy like the film, it will be sung in Spanish -- his own native tongue as well as Neruda’s –- rather than the Italian of the film. “I’m going to be performing in my native language, which is very meaningful,” he said, noting wryly that the opera’s title might have been “El Cartero de Neruda,” (Spanish for “Neruda’s Mail Carrier”) if not for the marketing and publicity advantages of retaining the famous Italian title.
Catan said that author Skarmeta gave him carte blanche “to do whatever I needed to do to turn it into a successful opera,” even before he knew that Domingo, now the world’s foremost male opera star, would be involved. Catan, who was born in Mexico City but is now a United States citizen, was asked how “Il Postino” should be identified: is it a Mexican opera because that is his native country? American because of his residence? Chilean because of Pablo Neruda?
“Why don’t we invent a new category?” he suggested. Because the city where he now lives, and where the work was commissioned and will premiere, is itself a hub of Latino culture, he said, it’s most appropriate to describe “Il Postino” as “a Los Angeles opera.”
KUSC (FM 91.5) will broadcast and offer live online streaming of the first performance of "Il Postino," Sept. 23 at 6 p.m.
-- Mike Boehm
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Photos: Placido Domingo as Pablo Neruda in L.A. Opera's "Il Postino;" Daniel Catan, composer of "Il Postino," in 2007. Credits: Art Streiber (Domingo); Pacific Symphony (Catan).