World-renowned opera tenor Plácido Domingo received the Chairman's Award at the 2005 Education Commission of the States (ECS) National Forum on Education Policy last July. ECS Chairman Mike Huckabee, Governor of Arkansas, presented the award as part of his initiative on the arts in education. Domingo's son, Alvaro Domingo, accepted the award on his father's behalf at the National Forum in Denver. Following is a brief interview with Plácido Domingo about the arts in education, the Chairman's Award, and his passion for music and the opera and how he brings that to other performers and to young audiences. ECS is especially grateful to Alvaro Domingo for conducting this interview with his father on our behalf.
Please tell us more about how you became involved in music and how it has enriched your life?
I was brought up in and with music from very early on since my parents Plácido Domingo Sr. and Pepita Embil were themselves singers and performers of Zarzuela, Spanish Operetta. They ran their own Zarzuela Company first in Spain, then in Mexico and the rest of Central and South America. Being around singers, actors and instruments, on and off the stage, and back stage, was practically my playground until it became my school and later my passion.
The Education Commission of the States was pleased to honor you with the Chairman's Award at the National Forum for your contributions to the arts in education. Why do you consider promoting the arts, in particular opera, to young people so important??
I am honored to have received the Chairman's Award from Governor Huckabee whose own work and dedication to promoting the arts in education is an inspiration. This award is also important to me as it comes from the Education Commission of the States, whose commitment and vision I share. I believe in and strive for the continuance of the art form that has given me so much, and because I did not have the opportunities growing up that I can now create and give to young singers in their preparation towards a solid career. It is a tough and competitive world, but if valued accordingly, the preparation and opportunities we offer our Domingo-Cafritz young artists in Washington can prepare them well for a life on and off the big stage. (Editor's note: The Domingo-Cafritz young artists program, as part of the Washington National Opera, is designed for singers on the verge of international careers, as well as coach-accompanists, directors and conductors. Along with General Director Plácido Domingo, world-renowned singers, directors and coaches work with the young artists to guide them in their transition from musician to artist and help them build long-lasting and healthy careers.)
What is most rewarding to you as you work with gifted young people through the Operalia program?
In its 13 years, the World Opera Competition Operalia has accomplished what we set out to do, which is to discover, expose, nurture and catapult the careers of promising young opera singers from all around the world. Just this year, a young American soprano, Susanna Phillips, showed the makings of an extraordinary talent. Year in and year out, outstanding voices and unique personalities arise from Operalia and go on to perform in the biggest international stages. Also this year, the young Mexican tenor Arturo Chacon not only earned the second prize in the opera competition, but even before the night was over, he was offered a contract to sing the role of Christian in Cyrano de Bergerac next year in the Nuevo Teatro de Valencia in Spain. My biggest satisfaction is to know that we are helping to discover the next generation of great opera singers who will maintain the integrity of this great tradition. (Editor's Note: The World Opera Competition Operalia, founded by Plácido Domingo in 1993, allows gifted young singers the opportunity to compete and also to launch their careers as a result of their participation.)
As general director of the Washington National Opera and the Los Angeles Opera, you have developed an impressive array of outreach, education and training programs. What has been most successful about these programs? Do you have any recommendations for opera companies and arts and cultural organizations to establish similar programs?
Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program has become an important type of master's degree for aspiring opera singers. They are given every opportunity to learn, be coached and become involved with every aspect of the operatic theater and career. Additionally, they not only get involved with main stage productions either as covers or often in leading roles, but at their young age they also contribute to the outreach programs to make opera accessible to younger generations.
On the other hand and perhaps at a younger level, our “Opera Look-In Program” in Washington, D.C., and the free admission performances in Los Angeles contribute to an early exposure to opera and classical music for young children whom otherwise would not have the opportunity. I have always believed in letting anyone select what music they listen to and even, one day, choosing to perform, as long as they have had the proper exposure to every kind of music, including opera. One would be surprised at the genuine amazement and gratification children get from these opportunities.
As far as other opera companies and art organizations establishing similar programs, I would say the more the merrier. There are interested youngsters out there and no effort to implement such outreach and educational programs is ever too big or small. Our communities very much long for the type of programs that can enrich and sensitize our youths and they, I am sure, would be willing to cooperate in any way that they can. It is just a matter of proposing it.
What is the importance of audience development and how can integrating the arts in education contribute to the future of opera and the arts? What are some of the reasons and rationale for supporting the arts in education and why is it important that the arts are not left out of the curriculum?
Again, the most important result of this equation is to ensure the continuance of the art form for generations of singers and audiences to enjoy. It is extremely encouraging to see younger patrons in the arts. In Washington, we are honored to have a collection of young couples in their 30's and 40's supporting the opera and its outreach programs. They have young children themselves and have discovered the magic of opera and its positive effect on the mind and soul. I believe that the arts in general, and classical music specifically, contribute to an acquired sensitivity in children. It has proven to even enhance their appreciation and understanding of other subjects such as mathematics.
There are groups of popular music arising every day and although some are short lived, others go on to long prosperous runs. No matter how long they last in the audiences' minds, however, they all enjoy abundant marketing and publicity that automatically makes them and their particular style a household entity. If only we could ensure opera exposure to our children in that same way, they would know the difference between different types of music and might decide to become a concert pianist or a singer. Opera is perhaps one of the safest examples in which to say “if you try it, you'll like it” and more often than not, it happens.
Lastly, let us not forget the faculty. It is imperative that we offer as much or more attention to those who are supposed to reach our children at the closest level. Their capacity and knowledge must be vast and they must be able to pass it on seamlessly so that this very subject might become one of the child's favorites.
What would you recommend to other artists who want to support the arts in education? What are your suggestions for how and why to get involved with students and the arts?
I would tell them to do it, by all means. It is perhaps to my advantage to be a public figure and to be liked or looked upon as an example. If for this reason I can inspire and mentor younger generations, then it would be a waste not to do it. Today's youths have ample creativity and initiative but they can always use some guidance. Encouraging a child's sensitivity through the arts can improve our society. It is perhaps too much responsibility to put upon the arts, but the arts can enrich our children on many levels and perhaps prepare them to choose a wiser future.
Do you have any anecdotes about working with students and the arts that you would consider sharing with us?
It has always given me a tremendous satisfaction to give back and see the results before my eyes. Perhaps one of the most gratifying experiences of recent years was working closely with our Domingo-Cafritz young artists from Washington on a full-blown production of Mozart's masterpiece Don Giovanni . We worked and rehearsed hard for several months and the single performance they put together for one of our free attendance “look-ins” was an unbelievable success in every aspect. These young artists reached out to a new and young audience. It is a day I will never forget.