SAN DIEGO — Judging by the audience's reaction, the villain at the San Diego Opera's swan-song production of "Don Quixote" may have taken the stage before the curtain was even raised.
As the house lights were about to go down Saturday night, Ian Campbell made a surprise appearance on stage — to raucous boos and heckling from many in the crowd of nearly 3,000. Even so, he also managed to win applause, and at one point several dozen people stood up in his support.
Campbell, the company's longtime general and artistic director, is under fire for pushing to close the opera, which has suffered from declining attendance and donations.
On Campbell's recommendation, the board voted last month to shutter the 49-year-old opera company. The abrupt decision triggered a public backlash and exposed rifts within the company, with dissident contingents of board members, employees and performers saying the opera was given up for dead without a proper fight to save it. Last week, the board approved a two-week extension to the deadline to close, which now sits at April 29.
On Friday, board member Carol Lazier announced that she is giving $1 million to save the company and "to encourage us to rescind the dissolution vote as soon as possible."
Lazier said the donation was intended to help the company rework its mission and identity. She said in a statement that the company's annual roster of four full-scale productions "is clearly unsustainable in our community."
Campbell was greeted with boos when he introduced himself before the performance. Undaunted, he thanked the company's donors and longtime patrons. He reiterated that "Don Quixote" would be the company's final production. Near the end of his speech, several hecklers interrupted him with loud shouts. The phrase "opera killer" was among the epithets tossed his way.
Campbell responded from the stage, saying that now was not the time for "rudeness and bitterness."
In interviews before and after Saturday's performance, members of the audience expressed disappointment and frustration over the decision to shut down the company. Some directed their anger at Campbell.
Jim Goodwin, a longtime patron from Santee, said he believed the opera needed new leadership and could save money by cutting back on administration.
"The opera is top heavy," he said. He added that the company needs to be less stuffy and should work harder to draw in younger audiences.
Maria Prokocimer, a resident of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, said she had been coming to the opera for 10 years and once volunteered as a docent.
"I'm very sad. I'm sure there's a way to avoid it," she said. "We feel defrauded and lied to."
Campbell declined to respond to criticism of his leadership but said he hoped the production of Massenet's "Don Quixote" sells a lot of tickets.
Saturday's performance played to a near-capacity crowd, according to a company spokesman. The production, officially the company's last, is scheduled to end its run Sunday.
Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto reprised the title role he played with the company in 2009. The performance on Saturday ran without incident and the cast received enthusiastic applause.
Outside the Civic Theatre, opera supporters handed out fliers that said "Save San Diego Opera." Inside, some patrons wore stickers on their lapels sporting the same motto.
"It's a tragedy and a travesty," said Delia Castro, a San Diego resident who has been coming to the opera for more than two decades.
"We don't have much going for us culturally here," she said, adding that the closing would make the city feel more provincial.
Despite the effort to save the opera, some employees have already begun preparing for the closure.
Doug Resenbeck, the company's master carpenter who has worked at the opera for more than three decades, said that his team has begun inventorying items in the opera's scenic shop in anticipation of liquidation.
"It's like going through death. It breaks your heart," he said.