ike eBay, Madonna and the NASDAQ, Plácido Domingo has an official internet address. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the crimson-colored homepage of http://www.placidodomingo.com/ reminds both the classical-music industry and the tenor's fans of his enormous domain, from his opera recordings and conducting chores to his interest in his New York restaurant. The digital revolution has strengthened the marriage of art and commerce, and for that reason and others, Domingo has plenty of company in cyberspace.
Singers today may be found at customized websites, record-company sites and fan sites. Each has value and appeal to both artists and their audience, and some singers (such as Domingo) have a presence on all three. The customized site, however, promises to become the internet address of choice. Such sites contain photographs, reviews, discographies, performance schedules and authorized biographies. Well designed and well maintained, these sites may cost as much as $5,000 to set up, with monthly fees of $350; according to artist managers, however, they not only give singers exposure but function as low-cost press kits to which newspapers and magazines can gain access directly and immediately.
Most of the customized sites emphasize the humanity of the singer. http://www.dolorazajick.com/, for instance, reproduces some of the mezzo-soprano's poems and watercolors. Thomas Hampson's http://www.hampsong.com/ weaves the baritone's thoughts on song ("the software of the soul") into an autobiographical essay; though the rhetoric occasionally totters -- Leonard Bernstein gave Hampson the ability to "deliver myself up to Mahler," the poetry of music lets us "connect the dots of our lives" -- the site agreeably represents man and artist. Notable for its handsome graphics and easy navigation, "The Official, Authorized Plácido Domingo Website" contains not only an exceptionally comprehensive roster of the tenor's books, videos and recordings but a modestly priced Plácido Domingo wristwatch, available in the "Souvenirs" section of the website, with profits going to charity.
The record-company sites, maintained by a company rather than a singer, generally contain a singer's bio, touring schedule and discography (only those recordings the singer has produced for the label, of course). As expected, most singers' homepages on these sites follow a uniform pattern. Renée Fleming's Decca homepage, for instance, calls the soprano "America's beautiful voice." Elsewhere, on other homepages, Decca calls Cecilia Bartoli "the voice of a thousand colours," Matthias Goerne "the prince of lieder," Luciano Pavarotti "the world's greatest tenor," and so on. Domingo, who records only occasionally for Decca, appears in the catchall section of the site, called "Other Artists," with no epigraph. So much the better, since cumulatively, these honorifics begin to sound like the stuff of championship wrestling rather than classical music. They also demonstrate why Domingo and other singers who wish to raise their profiles, rather than their recording company's, prefer customized sites.
The fan sites vary greatly in purpose, content, design and accessibility. The José Cura site, www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~jcx/index.html, which also operates a fee-based fan club, promotes "friendships across cultural and international barriers." The Edita Gruberova site, www.kfki.hu/~kszabo/e_g_main.html, not only reproduces an astonishing amount of printed matter but also answers fans' questions, including, "Why was she not more famous?" (The answer begins: "Don't speak of her in [the] past tense -- she's extraordinarily busy in Europe, where she is regarded as one of the greats of the past half-century.") The June Anderson site, www3.sympatico.ca/balza/junea.htm, catalogues the singer's performances, then, via hyperlink, takes visitors to an out-of-the-way site, La Scala's vast, easy-to-use database of artists, roles and dates. Such links underscore the serendipity of the web.
www.pdagroup.com, "the spot on the net for Plácido Domingo fans," pays great homage to its honoree; like several others, the site also invites interactive participation. "If you wouldn't say it directly to Plácido," the creator of the pd aficionados chat-room says to visitors, "why would you share it with the world in general?"
Opera fans on the web always have something to say, often very directly. Columbia Artists Management's Jeffrey Vanderveen calls the fan sites "the terror we all live with." Fans counter that they democratize the flow of information in the Information Age -- though, however inadvertently, they occasionally pass on inaccurate or incomplete information. Fans may also lose interest in the maintenance of their sites, or -- worse -- suffer from tunnel vision in their creation. No question that the architect of one Dmitri Hvorostovsky fan page adores the Russian baritone; however, the photos-only site, which features him in a pair of skintight leather pants, barely mentions that he sings. "So many different things go into selling an artist," says web designer David Perry. Beefcake may be one of them -- but only one, as anyone who has heard Hvorostovsky in performance can affirm.
he construction of singers' websites began as early as 1995. Some were created, then abandoned. "Send an e-mail to Jerry," visitors to tenor Jerry Hadley's site (http://www.hadleyweb.com/) were invited in 1999, but the out-of-date performance schedule and discography suggested that Jerry had moved; his site has recently been regenerated, with a performance schedule that extends into 2002. The best of the new customized sites allow artists to fine-tune their contact with their audience. Hei-Kyung Hong's site, for instance, invites visitors to "stay in touch" by completing a short questionnaire. According to the creator of her site, Mike Lawrence Blinder, 20 percent "opt in." The data they supply -- how they found the site, where they have seen Hong perform, whether they wish to receive e-mail alerts about performances, reviews and new recordings -- goes to a computer in Maine. There, the webmaster adds visitors to the database and sends them an e-mail "thank you" from http://www.hei-kyunghong.com/. He also sends the soprano (and her staff) the messages her fans drop in her cyber mailbox.
Electronic fan mail, for good or ill, has great spontaneity. Denyce Graves's customized website (http://www.denyce%20graves.com/) reprints more than fifty messages from correspondents, including one who heard the mezzo's Carmen in Jackson, Mississippi. The writer had been a Louisiana high-school student in the 1960s, exposed to the horrors of Jim Crow and the violent resistance to change. Seeing Graves "play that tambourine & dance & stand there & sing in all your beauty & dignity, spurning a dramatic white lover in the State of Mississippi where, years ago, civil rights workers were murdered & buried in a garbage dump, filled me with a sense of triumph of right few could thrill to, but which I must thank you for."
Much of the fan mail sent to Deborah Voigt on her state-of-the-art site (http://www.deborahvoigt.com/) comes from young singers pursuing advice or encouragement. She hopes her response to these and other correspondents will make friends for opera, which, she says, the general public still associates with "steamer trunks and lots of attitude." Another prepossessing soprano, Barbara Bonney, has a personalized site at Decca; there, "the first lady of song" receives e-mail from students and others. Her correspondents, she says, are "very very sweet people with only nice things to say." Pressed, she adds that she's had "several chat-ups, people wanting to take me out or get married and stuff." Could the proposals have been inspired by one of the vacation snapshots posted in the "private collection" section of her site? "I'm not exactly a sex kitten or anything," she says, amused by the notion that someone could misinterpret a photograph of her in a swimsuit. "I just want to show that I'm a sporty person as well as being a singer, and the great outdoors is important to me and to my relaxation."
Most opera-lovers' interest in singers falls somewhere between steamer trunks and swimwear. Nonetheless, a "listed" e-mail address may foster not only devotion to an artist but, however rare, a potentially destructive sort of intimacy. As more than one cultural historian has noted, we tend too much to live our lives through our celebrities. When Jane Eaglen was rehearsing her first Tristan und Isolde, in 1998, she kept a journal that she opened to readers on her Sony Classical website, then later on http://www.janeeaglen.com/. Most of her fan mail (she wrote in one entry) was lovely, "but once in a while someone feels they have the right to be rude to you, which always amazes me. For some reason, some people think that because you put yourself on a stage and are available to them, they own part of you and know you, which of course they don't."
"Bookmarking" a singer's web page becomes an electronic -- and eerie -- form of possession, enough to give even the most accessible artist second thoughts. What's more, e-mail can serve as a poison dart. One nasty electronic message to Deborah Voigt criticized the makeup she wore in a 1999 appearance. "I think they compared me to Mimi (Kathy Kinney) on The Drew Carey Show," the soprano said. "I'm a big fan of hers, but I'm not necessarily wanting to look like her on a concert stage."
n the future, singers' websites will become more numerous and more sophisticated. Visitors already can listen to cuts from a singer's recent recordings; soon, they may be able to mix their own CDs or watch a live performance. The website of the future will disseminate information, products, concerts and image; the more polished the site, the better the reception given the artist by an opera company, a concert promoter and, ostensibly, the public. Some sites, such as Hong's and Voigt's, earn praise for their elegant design, effective public relations and careful balance between the singer as diva and as an earthbound human being. That said, these highly evolved websites may leave fans hungering for something more.
Fabio Armiliato's customized website helps define that je ne sais quoi. Anyone conversant with contemporary web design would call www.armiliato.com a shambles. Whereas a professionally designed homepage, complete on one screen, with no scrolling down, ushers visitors into a site, the armiliato.com homepage not only spreads over two screens but prominently features a collage of opera houses with hyperlinks to their homepages, thus luring visitors away from the tenor's site only moments after their arrival. Other signs of amateur construction include both the "hit" box that records the number of visitors to the site and the electronic ornamentation throughout, from banners and spinning icons to the word new, zooming in and zooming out, leading us to audio files of the tenor's spring 2000 appearance in Helsinki.
Armiliato himself created the site, which, he admits, has "an older style." He retains a consulting firm to boost the site's visibility on the major search engines of the internet; otherwise, he alone maintains and operates armiliato.com. "If I lose the control of my website," he says, "I wouldn't like it very much." Neither would visitors, especially those who admire the way the site continues to develop and improve even as it retains its delightfully personalized content, design and tone. This arrangement allows the singer (as Dolora Zajick says on her site) "to feel the pulse of the audience." Armiliato's site, for instance, contains not only audio extracts of Armiliato and older tenors he esteems but an archive of his performances, a gallery of snapshots and an enthusiastic invitation -- and two email addresses -- to send him a message.
"Opera is becoming 'cool,'" says Richard Leech on his customized website (http://www.richardleech.com/), "and there is no 'cooler' place to embrace this renaissance than on the internet." But today control of the internet is passing more and more from the hands of the individual to those of the professional. Anyone who has seen the recent opera-related sites on the World Wide Web must regard armiliato.com as an endangered species. Anyone who wants to see the tenor up close and personal better visit his site at once.
LEONARD LEFF wrote about filmed versions of The Great Gatsby in the December 1999 issue of opera news. He has an unlisted e-mail address.
Domingo's website, top of page, charts the tenor's protean range of interests; Zajick's cyberspace orbit, right, offers some of the mezzo's poetry and watercolors
credits: placidodomingo.com designed by Optical Arts; dolorazajick.com created and maintained by Bliss Enterprises; deborahvoigt.com a production of OperaWeb.com; hei-kyunghong.com a production of OperaWeb.com in conjunction with CAMI
OPERA NEWS, November 2000 Copyright © 2000 The Metropolitan Opera Guild, Inc.