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Domingo Addresses the Class of 2008

It was a beautiful spring morning on Friday, May 23, perfect weather for the class of 2008’s commencement ceremony. For the second consecutive year, the exercises were held in Avery Fisher Hall, as construction on Alice Tully Hall continued. Parents, family members, and friends watched as 260 proud dancers, actors, and musicians received degrees at the School’s 103rd annual graduation. Honorary doctorates were awarded to the legendary tenor Plácido Domingo, who gave the commencement address, as well as to jazz pianist Hank Jones; dancer, choreographer, and actor, Carmen de Lavallade; philanthropist and software engineer, Charles Simonyi; playwright, writer, and actor, Anna Deavere Smith; and pianist Mitsuko Uchida.

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It was a beautiful spring morning on Friday, May 23, perfect weather for the class of 2008’s commencement ceremony. For the second consecutive year, the exercises were held in Avery Fisher Hall, as construction on Alice Tully Hall continued. Parents, family members, and friends watched as 260 proud dancers, actors, and musicians received degrees at the School’s 103rd annual graduation. Honorary doctorates were awarded to the legendary tenor Plácido Domingo, who gave the commencement address, as well as to jazz pianist Hank Jones; dancer, choreographer, and actor, Carmen de Lavallade; philanthropist and software engineer, Charles Simonyi; playwright, writer, and actor, Anna Deavere Smith; and pianist Mitsuko Uchida.

Following is an edited version of Mr. Domingo’s speech. It can be heard in its entirety on the Juilliard Web site at www.juilliard.edu/about/multimedia_gallery/. Click on “Commencement Speeches (2005 and beyond).”

Of course, I could sing for you now from Tosca, “Vissi d’arte”—“I lived for art”—but that is a soprano aria, and I’m a tenor. From the tenor repertoire, I could sing Calaf’s Turandot aria “Nessun dorma,” as advice not to sleep—but that advice would come a little late, because you have come through a period of little sleep just now, cramming for the final exams.

How about “Ritorna Vincitor”—“return as a winner”— from Aïda, as an encouragement when you go on an audition or enter a competition? And if you don’t win or are not engaged, I could sing the other Turandot aria “Non piangere piu”—rather than “Liu”—“weep no more!”  I doubt, however, that any of you are such softies that you would shed tears over a fairly common rejection.

No, I think that this time, singing is not the answer for the occasion. But then, how did I get into this predicament of having to talk? My sneaking suspicion is that I accepted the opportunity to address you because you represent what I consider one of the most important aspects in our cultural life: the continuity of excellence in the performing arts, be it in music, theater, or dance. This is a topic which has preoccupied me for years and was the reason for my starting the worldwide singing competition Operalia, and for the creation of young artists programs at the Washington National Opera and the Los Angeles Opera, both companies where I am the general director.

After having been trained and guided by this magnificent school, you are now ready to face the world and conquer it. It won’t be always easy, but you are equipped to deal with any given situation. When I say that it won’t be easy, I mean the following: If you had chosen as a profession medicine, law, business, or even science, you would be almost guaranteed a job upon graduation. That is not so in the arts, where a quick livelihood after graduation is somewhat of a rarity. Some of you may be lucky and find employment almost immediately. I congratulate you in advance! But others may not be so fortunate for quite some time. My urgent advice is never to despair, but use that time to sharpen your tools further, as much as possible. Thus, when the moment of opportunity comes, you will be ready for it and grab it in a spectacular manner. This has been true not only for the creative but also for the re-creative artist. To a degree, this certainly was true of my own beginning.

I had entered the conservatory of Mexico City to study conducting and piano—Mexico being the country where my parents went from our native Spain, because they were invited to form their own zarzuela company there. (I was 8 years old at that time.) Anyway, in the conservatory, they examined whether I had other musical talents, which led to some vocal testing. To make a long story short, I was sidetracked to become a singer—not as a baritone, which was the voice with which I auditioned, but as a tenor. I’ve often said that I built my voice like a bricklayer—one vocal brick on top of the other—until I reached the ultimate, high C. Some call a “high C” any high note at the end of an aria, which might not be a high C at all. But trust me, there are actual high Cs in some of the tenor parts!

To gain much-needed performing experience, my bride, Marta (who was already a successful lyric soprano in Mexico) and I accepted a contract with the New Israeli Opera company. Full of enthusiasm, we packed all our belongings, including specially made costumes for some of our roles, in a big trunk and shipped it to Tel Aviv. The trouble was that the trunk got stuck on a Hudson River pier because of a dock strike in New York. The first six months in Israel, we were without our cherished possessions. At the opera, we did learn our craft, sometimes under very difficult circumstances—like singing four different operas in as many consecutive days, and often making a role debut without a single orchestra rehearsal. We griped quite a bit—griping being a good relief for inner tension. What we did not realize at the time was that these performing conditions were the best foundation for the discipline that is expected from all of us, at all times—that is to say, if we want to make a big career. After two-and-a-half years, Marta and I decided to leave Tel Aviv, and eventually we settled in New York, where I was lucky enough to find work almost immediately—while Marta gave up her career for good, to raise our family.

I learned fairly early in my career that one cannot please everyone. There was a critic who, after having heard me sing Les Contes d’Hoffmann in my return to Mexico City, questioned my right to call myself a professional singer. I was so furious that I made plans to seek this man out in person and punch him in the nose. At the height of my fury, the phone rang. My then agent, Gerard Semon, told me that Sarah Caldwell wanted me at her Opera Company of Boston to sing Bohème with Renata Tebaldi, and Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie with a then-still-fairly-unknown Beverly Sills. All was sunshine again, and the nasty critic was forgotten. I’m telling you this story because you, too, may come up against someone who questions your right to be in your chosen profession. My advice is to shrug it off, because the next moment will probably bring you praise from someone who says that you are wonderful.

This coming season I will celebrate my 40th anniversary at the Met. I often think about that evening on September 28, 1968. I was not scheduled to make my official Met debut in Adriana Lecouvreur until October 2, but at 7:25 the phone rang. It was Rudolf Bing himself, who asked me to come immediately to the Met because Franco Corelli had just cancelled. At that time, Marta and I were living in Teaneck, N.J., and thus I got into my car as soon as possible. It was a balmy September evening and I had the windows wide open. I was also singing full voice to warm up for the performance as I drove down Broadway from the George Washington Bridge. At a stoplight, I noticed that some people in the next car were laughing. “Where are you going?” I asked them. “To the Met,” was their answer—to which I replied, “Well, don’t laugh, because instead of Corelli, you will be hearing me in a few minutes.”

Here is some advice: If you are a musician, try not to argue with the conductor. Conductors are important for further engagements, especially if they are personally successful and thus influential. If you are an actor, try not to antagonize the director, because otherwise he will tell everyone that you are difficult to work with. If you are a dancer, try to execute everything the choreographer has created—unless the choreography makes you fear for your life. Which leads me to a seemingly contradictory observation: As a performer, you must have opinions, convictions, and an ego, because without them you cannot conquer the audience. By the same token, you must be careful not to antagonize the people who are involved in the “producing industry.” Even the biggest stars cannot afford to make enemies of the people in that industry because without their good will, one cannot succeed. In other words, consider your future behavior a clever balancing act between yours and other people’s opinions and behavior.

In conclusion, let me say that all of you are privileged to be in this wonderful profession, because you have been given a talent that allows you to shine. In making your career, always remember that it is vitally important to enjoy that career—and to have fun in pursuing and achieving it.

Congratulations with today’s graduation—and bless you all!

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