#SDTheatre: Is San Diego Opera’s denouement a sign of changing times?

by Tim West

in National Conference

Post image for #SDTheatre: Is San Diego Opera’s denouement a sign of changing times?

(Pictured: Tim West. The following post is part of a series highlighting and celebrating the theatres and theatre people of San Diego as part of the 2014 TCG National Conference in San Diego. Email Gus Schulenburg if you’d like to participate.)

San Diego, site of TCG’s 2014 National Conference, is abuzz of late with the news that one of the city’s largest, oldest and most prestigious arts organizations has announced that it is closing on the eve of its 50th anniversary season.

The San Diego Opera’s General and Artistic Director, Ian Campbell, gave the word that the board of directors of the venerable institution had voted, with only a single dissenter, to close their doors for good. Although Campbell tried to sound the proper notes for a proud denouement, something didn’t resonate quite right. Of course, the closing of an established and well-regarded arts organization could not be expected to be received well, despite Campbell’s claim that the Opera’s swansong ends on a high note.

Newspaper reports visited that rather obvious metaphor, the curtains-down-on-tragic-operatic-death, but the consistent theme in the responses of journalists on  the arts and culture beat was… downbeat. The consensus seems that this is not the inevitable demise of a fatally flawed institution after a heroic struggle, but rather  the confusing finale to the almost 50 year history that should have ended with a bang, not a whimper.

The San Diego Union, owned by the wealthy Copley family until controlling interest was sold to developer Doug Manchester, seemed sympathetic to the  funding dilemmas facing the Opera. However, even the staid U-T questioned not only the Opera’s choice to call it quits, but the numbers behind it.

The Los Angeles Times, which might be expected to hold itself aloof from events   in the Southern California hinterlands, called the closure a “disturbing decision,” adding that the Opera was opting for “senseless, premature death.”

With 28 years of balanced budgets, assets nearly equal to annual operating costs, and leadership that appears to have been drawing significant salaries during the recent economic downturn, there are questions to be asked. These questions are bound to reverberate, compounded by the lack of involvement of, consultation with or even prior notice to the Opera’s long-time partner, the San Diego Symphony and its many musicians,  not to mention the unionized stagehands of IATSE Local 122, local branch of the International Affiliation of Theatrical and Stage Employees. Shock certainly adds to the impetus to ask questions.

Campbells(Photo: Luxuryworld.com) Some of those questions lead to the larger issue of compensation for arts executives. The Oregonian headlined this theme: “Husband/wife at failed San Diego Opera made eye-opening salaries.” Ian Campbell’s salary, according to the Times, had increased by 67% since the depression of 2008, and together he and his (now former) wife have collected $4.6 million. Of course, Campbell defends his salary.   He is, after all, both General Director and Artistic Director,and Artistic Director, and Ann Spira occupied the position of Director of Strategic Panning, crucial for the institution’s survival when ticket sales cannot be expected to keep pace with rising production costs.

The San Diego Weekly Reader’s “Inside Story” focused on this question of ticket sales. Veteran arts journalist Don Bauder served on the Opera’s board and advisory board for 30 years, a ‘bravissimo angel’ who estimates his own donations averaged $10,000 annually. He also identifies himself as a personal friend of the Campbells. Bauder says he privately questioned Spira’s salary (which, he notes, was negotiated independent of the general and artistic director’s) but kept his concerns out of public dialogue.ales cannot be expected to keep pace with rising production costs.

The article attempts to examine problems objectively, with insights from observer Mark Overton, critical of the high-priced offices adjacent to the Civic Theatre in downtown’s Civic Center. Bauder quoted two other arts journalists, though, who sympathize with the plight of the Opera’s top administrators. Charts pointed up declining ticket sales and revenue as the real problem.

Another department in The Reader handled the whole affair with off-beat humor. The popular weekly’s “Fake News” (comparable to the humor magazine The Onion or a sketch on Comedy Central) lampoons Southern California’s cultural priorities and purports to seek a scapegoat in the bloated diva whose aria signals final curtain. (“It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings” is a reference to Brunhilde’s aria at the end of the world in Gotterdamerung, and is the rare colloquialism whose origin is traceable)

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Mayor Faulconer makes dramatic plea…

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Brunhilde sought in Opera closure…

In an interview with KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando, Ian Campbell himself points to the cost of human resources in producing opera. “74% of the budget is people, that’s where the body is buried, it’s not buried in any other item, it’s not buried in the theater rent, it’s people, people, people.”

Rising costs is the reason given for the demise of other opera companies since 2008. Orange County, Baltimore, Connecticut, Cleveland, San Antonio and New York City have all lost at least one outlet for the old art form. Dallas had to downsize, as did Los Angeles and Philadelphia, to survive. Campbell and his board were unwilling to make that compromise, comparing the preservation of the vintage art form in the modern market to, in Ian Campbell’s words, “watering down the beer.”

In 31 Years at the opera, the majority of the institution’s 49 year history, Campbell has a unique perspective on the dual attempt to preserve artistic standards and reduce costs, having presided over years that saw stabilization in a previous era of challenges, but has since seen the season move from eight productions to four. As the flow of the art is reduced, of course, funding sources dry up –and it becomes increasingly difficult to justify repeated trips to the well.

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Campbell with Luciano Pavorotti (Photo: SD Opera)

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Campbell with Placido Domingo     (Photo: SD Opera)

The Voice of San Diego, a populist, progressive publication, queried Campbell on this phenomenon, known as ‘donor fatigue.’ “I do have a concern,” the arts administrator admits, “that we’re losing many supporters as they age and if you look at the programs of the opera, symphony, Playhouse, Old Globe, many of the same names are listed. This should be a wake-up call.”

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Ian Campbell, with set and costume pieces (Photo: Voice of San Diego)

San Diego’s ABC affiliate, 10News, however, noted that even as the Opera’s ticket sales and gifting have declined, The Old Globe Theatre’s ticket sales are up 25% percent in the last eight years. Artistic Director Barry Edelstein, who just passed his first year of stewardship at the Globe, credits programming that has kept pace with modern audiences.

Perhaps, after all, the fault lies not with overpaid arts administrators, but with a model of production that entails paying handsomely for administering the unwieldy high overhead: the well-appointed offices and newly-renovated venues with the “Your-Name-Here” opportunities to attract donor dollars, the glossy programs that (like high-fashion magazines) are more than half made up of pricey advertisements, the big-name stars whose cache draws increased attention from other media, and the bloated production budgets which must include the stipends for the chorus and the management of volunteer supernumeraries and other unpaid support staff.

The elephant in the room, of course, is that declining ticket sales and a drop-off in donations is evidence that a grandiose art form has simply outlived its heyday, like epic poetry or the Gregorian chant. Opera prospered in the 18th and 19th Century world, the Ancient Regime of aristocratic privilege and Belle Epoque of gentrified bourgeoisie aficionados. The art form is having obvious difficulty garnering popular or even broad support in the 21st Century, in which a much more democratized sense of culture prevails.

This thought might lend comfort to other theatrical arts, if not outright aid. However, it might also suggest the challenging if not disturbing thought that modern theatre must remake itself, as ossified opera did not.

frank richnymagWe don’t want to fall into the trap of a “declinist panic” that culture critic Frank Rich (at left) decried in a notable 2012 New York Magazine article titled “Is America Dead?” Reports of the death of our culture generally (if not our art specifically) seem greatly exaggerated.

After all, people have been decrying the impending disappearance of theatre for a long time. It is a plaintive speech likely whispered at the back of every Greek amphitheater. It was probably muttered as mummers traipsed by, or guild wagons trundled past, or Hell-Mouth crowded the public square, in every morality, miracle or mystery play. It was doubtless declaimed as Elizabethan patrons made their way past the bear-baiting pits to see staged bloodlust in Tamburlaine, Parts I & II.  There must have been such cynics in the audiences of Garrick or Kean. It was surely a current of opinion when Joseph Jefferson and James O’Neill held the stage with Rip Van Winkle or The Man in the Iron Mask, and when touring companies brought Ida Isaacs Menken or Sarah Bernhardt to town.

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However, to blithely state that theatre will always survive is a very different thing from determining the terms and conditions under which it will do so. Theatre may not be dying, but theatre as you know it almost certainly is.

Perhaps that’s the most important thing to take away from the San Diego Opera.

As Joseph Cermatori says in ”Notes on Opera’s Exquisite Corpse” for last year’s Journal of the Performing Arts, “Just because you’re a hypochondriac doesn’t mean you’re not actually dying.”


TIM WEST saw his first opera, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, at the Civic Theatre with the San Diego Opera in 1971. He passed up tickets to the company’s Madame Butterfly to make his professional debut as an actor in 1989. He saw his last opera there, adopted from the contemporary novel Cold Sassy Tree, in 2001.

  • Rodney Atkins

    The content is interesting, but this article is in sore need of some copyediting. The paragraph beginning “Some of those questions lead…” is rife with the remnants of incomplete edits.