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A stirring Requiem for San Diego Opera's senseless, premature death

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SAN DIEGO — On the first page of the program booklet for San Diego Opera's stirring performance of Verdi's Requiem Thursday night at Civic Theatre, the company's board president, Karen S. Cohn, ended her welcoming note with the line: "I can't wait to see you in 2015 for our 50th anniversary season!"

She can wait.

The day before, out of the blue, the San Diego Opera board voted 33 to 1 to cease operations of the city's third largest cultural institution after the final production of the season next month. The press release noted that Cohn called the decision heart-wrenching but unavoidable.

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Like everyone in the business, San Diego Opera had begun to find fundraising and ticket sales more difficult than before. In the 1980s the company had a season of eight operas, this year it was down to four. It prided itself on 28 consecutive years of balanced budgets.

In announcing the folding, Ian Campbell, who has headed the company for 31 of its 49 years, said that instead of facing an insurmountable financial hurdle, San Diego Opera would make "the choice of winding down with dignity and grace."

But who has ever heard of a major arts institution with a $15-million budget, one of the country's top 10 opera companies, simply throwing in the towel over a deficit of a couple million dollars and not fighting to the end because there is no dignity in that?

Since when was an art form that thrives on high emotion and expressions of unending defiance, that is "exotic and irrational" as Samuel Johnson famously described it, meant to be an example of good manners?

What was operatic was the shocking announcement, coming without warning. A player in the San Diego Symphony, which partners with the opera company, told me after Thursday's performance that the orchestra learned the news the same time the public did. The ensemble had long planned its 2014-15 season around the opera's, he said, and was suddenly left in the lurch for a significant part of its season.

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The orchestra is not alone. Typically opera productions are planned and cast years in advance. Contracts by this point for the celebratory 50th season that will not happen must have been signed. Discussions with artists and likely commitments were in process for seasons beyond.

Thursday's Verdi Requiem had long been sold out. The evening went on as planned. There were no remarks onstage. No inserts in the program. No calls to the save the company. No expressions of gratitude. Nothing.

None of this makes sense.

But there was outrage on that stage, and it could be felt in every forceful, accusatory and longing note sung and played. It wasn't a spiritual approach to the Requiem, as Gustavo Dudamel had led in his performance of the Verdi's great score at the Hollywood Bowl last summer. It was an angry Requiem for a senseless, premature death.

The cast was sensational. Three of the singers — the darkly melting Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, the galvanizing American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and the elegantly understated Polish tenor Piotr Beczala — had recently appeared in the company's production of Verdi's "A Masked Ball."

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But it was Ferruccio Furlanetto who really set the tone. The veteran Italian bass sang with the cross expression on his face of a Grand Inquisitor. Weary, forceful, unforgettable, he doled out punishment to a "Death that will be stunned." Furlanetto will be reaching for the impossible dream in the company's final production, Massenet's "Don Quichotte," next month.

The noted Italian conductor Massimo Zanetti led a lithe, fiery, cutting performance, one in which the expression mercy was not a priority. The San Diego Symphony, San Diego Opera Chorus and San Diego Master Chorale completely filled the large stage. They sounded extremely well rehearsed. This was clearly a grand, spare-no-expense occasion.

The standing ovation was long and loud and would have gone on for much longer had there been enough curtain calls. People hesitated to leave once it was over. An after-performance bar in Civic Theatre, a welcome new (if now short-lived) innovation this season, was packed. I heard a man say to another, "I guess I'll now be going to L.A."

So what gives? Where are the civic leaders in a town with the motto "America's finest city"? I wanted to say to the guy who thinks he'll be coming to L.A. for opera, good luck, buddy. The 405 was a nightmare Thursday. I was on the road a total of eight hours for an 80-minute performance.

After 31 years, Campbell seems to have run out of ideas. The company's board has run out of fundraising moxie. The same old, same old won't work any longer. But opera as an art form is changing a lot faster than this company has been.

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But Thursday, the first day of spring, was not the time for a requiem but for renewal. San Diego has a thriving artistic community. Its Museum of Contemporary Art is on a major expansion. This is a theater town. There is a vibrant university life.

The San Diego Symphony is reaching new levels of prominence. The La Jolla Symphony is one of the country's most imaginative community orchestras. SummerFest in La Jolla is arguably the best chamber festival in the country. The Mainly Mozart Festival is original and interesting. UCSD is a center of musical experimentation.

But venues are a problem. Civic Theatre is a barn. The symphony plays in a reconverted movie palace now bizarrely buried in an office building and with ghastly acoustics. The La Jolla Symphony uses a sports stadium on the UCSD campus. SummerFest's auditorium at the Museum of Contemporary Art is dry and dull.

No town is in more need of a performing arts center. New halls are sexy, and there is tech money in town maybe for the taking by the shrewd. Begin investing and a new company will need to rise if the old can't be saved.

If nothing else, let the San Diego Symphony serve as an example. It went bankrupt in 1996, ceased operations and, given up for dead, was resurrected two years later and now thrives. A new mayor took office in San Diego this year. Do something.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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