Monday, 14 May 2012

In the Washington Opera pit with Plácido Domingo

Excerpts from Chapter Fourteen:
In the Washington Opera pit with Plácido Domingo.

In January 2001 I had a modest exhibition in The Gallery at Lincoln Center, under the Metropolitan Opera. People like Maestro James (Jimmy) Levine would drop by, on their way to their limos. He knew all the musicians I had painted, so for him my show was like a reunion. My show included an earlier painting of Plácido Domingo in action on stage and that month saw the Met’s gala celebration of his sixtieth birthday. They used my painting on their programme (sorry, program) cover.  Despite all the hype and a wonderful reception hosted by my old friend, the late Catherine Curran-Gamble, the show didn’t sell well and I flew home feeling depressed.  People just bought the catalogues, for goodness sake!

Plácido Domingo rehearsing Carmen at the Washington Opera, watercolour, 92x92cm, 2002.

But one lady was deeply impressed by my show.  It was Kathryn Ecenbarger, who contacted me from San Francisco in February 2001, to ask if I would be willing to make another painting of Plácido Domingo.  We spent months discussing how to choose from the many alternative ways to paint this great personality - the personification of opera.  When I heard that in May 2002 he would conduct Carmen at the Washington Opera, it suddenly occurred to me that I could portray another side of the great man at work in rehearsals – not on stage, but “up close and personal”.  Kathryn agreed. I insisted on getting close to the action and the music and fortunately she was able to arrange for me to stand in the opera pit during rehearsals: sketching, watching and listening, as Plácido Domingo coaxed a production of Carmen into shape. This proximity surely contributed to the dynamic energy of my painting and I felt really privileged.  Rumour has it that part of this deal was that Kathryn (who amongst other things was the owner of a coffee plantation on Hawaii) had offered the Washington Opera all the coffee they could drink for a lifetime. That’s a lot of coffee.  Some of it also contributed to this painting! 
Plácido was singing all the parts as he conducted, energetic, benevolent, a man with a clear vision of the colorful and emotional opera in which he had performed so many times. I lived Carmen day and night for the month or so that it took to put this painting together.

My large (near one meter/three foot square) watercolour places the spectator at the center of the action, on an undulating diagonal from bottom left to top right.  We are at the heart of a creative process, very close to this sympathetic Maestro, whose warm expression radiates understanding and encouragement.  We follow his sensitive hands as they mold the sound, taking our gaze right up on to the stage, for a glimpse of the mysterious lighting and shadows of this drama.  With the red plush of the opera house at his back, he is standing in a sea of movement: the dynamic bowing of the strings and the splatters of paint that might be seen as notes, or as a hint of the bloody events about to take place on stage.  In the variety of reds, browns and ochres I’ve tried to evoke the earthy passion and tragedy of this intense opera.

After finishing the watercolour in my Amsterdam studio, I flew back to Washington with the painting rolled up as hand-baggage and with an appointment to show it to Kathryn the day after my arrival.  Carrying your latest fragile creation on a flight is always an anxious time, especially one of such size.  I used to take paintings on board in a large portfolio and asked for it to be slotted into the business class wardrobe. A lot of talking and a hint of the “enormous” value of the work of art often worked well, but nowadays, with all the security regulations, this method has become impossible. 

All went well. After a very late arrival I had to put the painting into a provisional frame (ordered in advance) in my hotel room that night, ready for a morning presentation.  It was a short night and at ten o’clock, Kathryn Ecenbarger arrived; I sat her down in a comfortable chair and unveiled my painting of her idol.  She burst into tears - I knew it was okay.  Even better - Plácido Domingo himself liked it enough to pencil his autograph along the lower edge, after a gala at the Washington Opera.  Mission accomplished!

Back at the Washington Watergate Hotel, where I was staying (the scene of the 1972 Watergate scandal), I walked towards the lift where a familiar figure was standing with a white cello case – yes, it was Mstislav Rostropovich! But that’s another story.


Next Monday: Elevated to the skies with Slava Rostropovich.


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