'La Bohème' a rousing comeback for San Diego Opera

'La Bohème' is a rousing comeback for the embattled San Diego Opera

— The first standing ovation of San Diego Opera's season opener Saturday came at the start of the evening, not at the end.

Taking the stage before "La Bohème" to cheers at the Civic Theatre downtown, opera board President Carol Lazier praised the staff, donors and audiences for rallying behind the company even after it abruptly announced last year that it was shutting down.

"You never gave up hope," Lazier said.

The performance was a rousing comeback for the company — celebrating its 50th anniversary season no less — after months of uncertainty and internal power struggles. The opera reversed its decision to close in May, but only after a mass board exodus and the departure of its longtime director.

San Diego Opera has since worked to rebuild its board, bank accounts and, most of all, the trust of the public. In an interview Saturday, company leaders said the opera was back on solid financial feet, but they acknowledged that challenges still lie ahead.

One of those challenges is the continued lack of a permanent, full-time leader. Ian Campbell, who had run the company for more than 30 years, exited during the summer after the backlash against his decision to shut the opera down.

Campbell had argued that the opera faced declining audiences and that it was no longer able to sustain itself financially. The company had relied heavily on a $10-million gift from the late Joan Kroc, the widow of McDonald's executive Ray Kroc, but said the fund was virtually depleted.

The opera is searching for a new general director and hopes to reach a decision by April. "We have some wonderful and qualified candidates," Lazier said.

She added: "We have to do a lot of rebuilding and regain credibility in the community. But the community has realized how important the opera is in the cultural climate of the city."

The opera's board of directors stands at 24 members, down from about 60 last year.

"We are unified. Everybody who's stayed wants to stay," she said. "Of course, we would love to have additional board members."

The company is the subject of an inquiry by the California attorney general's office. Opera leaders said they were cooperating, but they did not provide additional information.

For the current fiscal year, San Diego Opera has projected a budget of about $11.5 million, substantially lower than the $17 million planned before the shake-up in leadership.

The company last year launched a $6.5-million fundraising campaign that included an online crowd-sourcing effort. Leaders said they so far had raised $6 million toward the campaign; more than $2 million of that came from the crowd-sourcing effort. The remainder of the budget will be covered by ticket sales.

In the last year of Campbell's leadership, the opera saw a deficit of approximately $1.9 million, according to audited financial statements. For the current 2014-15 fiscal year, the company is aiming for a break-even budget, according to Keith Fisher, the opera's chief operating officer.

"We need the confidence of the community," he said.

To achieve that, San Diego Opera has made cuts, including reducing its administrative staff to 29 full-time and three part-time employees, down from a total of 50. Staff members have taken across-the-board pay cuts of 10%.

The main-stage season has been cut to three productions, down from four in recent years.

An audit in late 2014 by the accounting firm Leaf & Cole characterized the opera as a "going concern" — an accounting description for a company expected to be financially stable for at least a year.

"Fund-raising half of your budget is always a challenge. But we're rebuilding.... We're well-positioned to raise the money we need," Courtney Ann Coyle, the opera's executive vice president, said Saturday.

David Kleinfeld, another board member, credited the San Diego community "with an outpouring of support."

"La Bohème," which runs through Feb. 1, was a symbolic choice for the company's new season. The Puccini favorite was the organization's first production in 1965. The current season also includes productions of "Don Giovanni" and "Nixon in China."

Next season will feature "Tosca," "Madama Butterfly" and "Great Scott," a new opera co-commissioned and produced with the Dallas Opera.

San Diego Opera leaders are planning the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, and each will feature three main-stage productions, they said.

david.ng@latimes.com

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