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San Diego Opera will close, in 'a sign of the times'

Culture MonsterEntertainmentFinanceBusinessServices and ShoppingHuman InterestBeverly Sills

The San Diego Opera shocked many in the arts world by announcing it will cease operations at the end of the current season, citing a tough fundraising environment and weak ticket sales.

The company's board voted to shut down rather than declare bankruptcy, allowing it to honor its remaining commitments.

"We wanted to do the responsible thing," Faye Wilson, a life director and former board president of the company, said Thursday.

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San Diego Opera was created close to 50 years ago and has attracted top-notch singers throughout its history. It had been ranked among the top 10 U.S. opera companies, according to the national nonprofit Opera America.

The company's final production at San Diego's Civic Theatre will be Massenet's "Don Quixote," which will run April 5-13.

"Over the last of several years, we have lost a number of prominent contributors, frequently because of death, but especially during the recent economic downturn," Ian Campbell, the company's general director, said Wednesday after the board vote.

"The demand for opera in this city isn't high enough," he said.

The closure came as a surprise because San Diego Opera had boasted balanced budgets for 28 consecutive years. But like most opera companies around the country, it was contending with increased competition for donations and dwindling, graying audiences.

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Leaders of the San Diego company said that its cash reserves had been shrinking.

"The option was to borrow and limp a little longer and hope something would change, or to ride it out until we hit the wall," Wilson said.

San Diego Opera had attracted big name donors, including Joan Kroc, the wife of McDonald's chief executive Ray Kroc. She left a $10-million gift to the company and gave a total of $12.5 million during her lifetime.

But recent donations have been significantly smaller than the gift from Joan Kroc, Wilson said.

Other donors have included Andrew Viterbi, the co-founder of Qualcomm, and his wife, Erna.

"It's a sign of the times. Unfortunately, tastes in this country have changed," said Conrad Prebys, who said he donated $2 million to $3 million in the past two years.

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In recent years, San Diego Opera had cut the number of productions per season to four from five, and it reduced the total number of performances. It had also laid off some of its staff, which stands at 40.

The company said it earns close to 40% of its income from the box office and relies on donations for the rest. Records show that for the 2011 and 2010 fiscal years, the two most recent years for which records are public, the company posted deficits.

For the 2011 fiscal year, San Diego Opera had expenses of $15.3 million. Ticket revenue for the same year was about $6.3 million, and donations were $5.5 million. That last figure represents a significant decline from 2007, when donations totaled $9.7 million.

The company expects to report break-even budgets for the three most recent three years, but only because it applied funds from Kroc's gift to offset drops in ticket sales and fundraising.

Attendance has plunged about 15% since 2010, according to company data, with ticket revenue dropping about 8%.

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"It is challenging for many opera companies to find a new way to succeed," said Marc Scorca, president of Opera America. He called San Diego's news "surprising and disappointing," adding that "the forces at hand are something all companies will have to deal with."

New York City Opera shut down in 2013 after 70 years. "I don't think this is an aberrational moment," Scorca said. "The world has changed in terms of competition for philanthropic dollars."

Among the many international stars to have performed with San Diego Opera were Beverly Sills and Plácido Domingo.

"I personally have such fond memories of my experiences there, having sung key roles in my repertoire," Soprano Patricia Racette said in a statement, adding that she was "deeply saddened."

The company leaned toward classic and popular operas, but it also ventured into contemporary works. San Diego Opera's decision will leave only the L.A. Opera in Southern California. In 2008, Opera Pacific in Orange County shut down.

david.ng@latimes.com

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