Now in Black, S.D. Opera’s Ready for Artistic Breakout

Over the past several years, the saga of the San Diego Symphony has dominated the local classical music scene. From the orchestra’s move to its new quarters in Symphony Hall, its financial crises and infamous canceled season, to its slow rehabilitation, the symphony has been at the center of attention.

Across town, the San Diego Opera has kept an amazingly low profile, especially contrasted with the careening symphony soap opera. Under the leadership of general director Ian Campbell, the company has not only become solvent, it has amassed a modest cash surplus. Over the last five years it has increased its audience size as well as its subscription base. But these achievements have come at a cost.

While other companies have grown remarkably, San Diego Opera has been in a holding pattern for several years. In terms of programming, the company has limited its offerings to the most standard operatic fare.

“We pulled in our horns for several years,” said Campbell. “We had to compromise to some extent artistically by presenting certain operas that we knew would restore confidence in the company--the Bohemes, Rigolettos and Toscas must be done.”


According to opera board president Esther Burnham, when Campbell was hired in 1983, the board’s major concerns were restoring the opera’s audience base, which had declined in the early 1980s, and retiring the company’s then unpublicized $750,000 deficit.

“The accumulated deficit had us all worried,” Burnham said. “We penny-pinched to the bone.”

One of Campbell’s first economies came in the 1985-86 season, when he reduced the number of major opera productions from six per season to four. Burnham pointed out that, in spite of those cut-backs, Campbell did introduce a recital series, which has remained a viable addition to the operas presented in Civic Theatre, and chamber operas performed at the Old Globe Theatre. The demise of the chamber opera project remains Campbell’s major disappointment with the local opera audience.

“The reluctance of San Diegans to attend chamber operas at the Old Globe came as a big shock,” Campbell said. “I thought it was the right theater, and that the product we were doing was right.”

Campbell added that Peter Maxwell Davies’ “The Lighthouse,” the 1986 chamber opera, which was directed by the Old Globe’s Jack O’Brien, was one of the company’s finest artistic achievements.

Campbell said he is pleased that San Diego Opera retired its debt in 1987 and now enjoys a cash surplus of $350,000.

“In the top 15 American opera companies, we are the one with the largest cash surplus. That makes me happy in terms of stability, but the whole purpose of an opera company is to create interesting art.”

One sign of the company’s doldrums is the drop in subscribers from last season’s high of 8,300 to 8,000 this year. Although Campbell denied there is any significance in this modest decline, he did concede that it is time to start spending money to get the company going again.

Campbell noted that his company’s budget has barely grown from $3.6 million five years ago to the current season’s $3.8 million.

“When you hold a budget as stable as that, something starts to give eventually.”

One of the things that has “given” is San Diego’s ranking among American opera companies. When Campbell’s predecessor, former San Diego Opera general director Tito Capobianco, described the local company in 1977, his first season here, he ranked it among the top seven American companies. Today, Campbell said that San Diego ranks in the top 10 or 12, based on budget, quality of work and the number of international artists engaged.

Ten years ago, San Diego had a virtual monopoly on professional opera in Southern California. But, in recent years, spunky Long Beach Grand Opera has gained national attention by presenting such adventurous pieces as Ernst Krenek’s “Jonny spielt auf” and Karol Szymanowski’s “King Roger.”

In three short seasons, the Los Angeles Music Center Opera has emerged as the leading company in the area. This season’s eight operas and a $12-million budget make it the fifth-largest opera company in the country. Its bold productions of 20th-Century landmarks, Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova” and Berg’s “Wozzeck,” have given it international cachet.

Campbell denied that his company had become complacent in the face of growth elsewhere.

“Every company has its own kind of marketplace and risks. San Diego Opera had to deal with some specific problems, and we took a very conscious decision to be financially viable. It was evident that there were stresses in other local arts organizations--it was no secret to us that the symphony was going to have difficulties--that might lead to difficulties in fund-raising. We made the decision to fill the house to survive a financially difficult period for the San Diego community.”

Campbell asserted, however, that San Diego Opera is ready to break out of the holding pattern of the last several years, and Burnham agreed that it would be a mistake to sit still after solving the company’s financial problems.

“It’s time to get on--we’ve overcome the sins of the past,” said Campbell. “Our repertory choices in the future will be a lot more aggressive. Our new policy from 1990 onwards is that every season will include at least one 20th-Century opera.”

While he was not ready to divulge the entire 1990 season, Campbell stated that it would include Francis Poulenc’s “Les Dialogues des Carmelites,” first performed in 1956. The opera will be a co-production with Houston Grand Opera, with sets built in San Diego’s own scenic studio. San Diego’s budget for the 1990 season is projected at $4.2 million, and, if the production of “Boris Godunov” for the Soviet Arts Festival is included, the budget rises to $4.9 million.

Campbell is lobbying his board to expand the 1991 season to five opera productions, which would give him even more freedom to program new and unusual repertory.

“One of my ambitions is to open a season with a 20th-Century opera in the next few years, to make clear to everybody the statement that we believe in it,” Campbell added. “The opera company that merely appeals to what the public wants is doomed to disaster eventually.”