San Diego Opera hires David Bennett as new general director

In a surprise move that signals an eagerness to take risks and overhaul its conservative image, San Diego Opera has plucked a prominent figure from New York’s experimental and avant-garde music scene to be its general director.

David Bennett, the executive director of the Gotham Chamber Opera, has been named general director of the San Diego company, its board of directors announced Wednesday. He will start his new job June 15 and will oversee all aspects of the company’s operations but will focus primarily on artistic development, the opera said.

His appointment comes when San Diego Opera is rebounding from turmoil. Last year, after the venerated company announced it would close, an internal fight resulted in the departure of many board members and longtime general and artistic director Ian Campbell.

San Diego Opera has operated without a full-time general director since Campbell’s departure last spring. In the meantime, the company, celebrating its 50th anniversary season, reconstituted its board and relaunched itself in a scaled-back manner with plans for three main stage productions a season, down from four in recent years.

Bennett said he sees the recent turmoil in San Diego as both a challenge and an opportunity.


“The board had already done the work about what the company should be,” he said. “The fact that the community has spoken so loudly about the opera staying alive, I saw as an opportunity.”

He said the challenge remains how to implement his vision in San Diego.

“It’s a little undefined right now because I want to make sure it is appropriate for the community,” he said, adding that programming may include concert operas with the San Diego Symphony, music theater and more zarzuela performances to engage with the city’s Latino population.

Working more closely with other San Diego cultural institutions is in the cards.

“Leaders in the arts in San Diego are relatively new, so there are opportunities to think in a forward way on collaborating,” he said.

Bennett, 51, was born in Kansas City, Mo., and earned degrees from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He was an opera singer, performing as a baritone with companies across the country. He later became an arts administrator in New York, serving as managing director of the Dance New Amsterdam.

He joined the Gotham Chamber Opera in 2006 and worked his way up in a company noted for its bold and sometimes unconventional tastes. The organization was founded in 2001 as the Henry Street Chamber Opera and has distinguished itself by gravitating toward new and nonmainstream works produced at intimate venues and site-specific locations across the city.

Recent productions include Daniel Catán’s “La Hija de Rappaccini” at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and a Monteverdi opera performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s arms and armor court.

San Diego Opera’s artistic reputation is a good deal more staid, with a tradition of producing grand opera in the nearly 3,000-seat Civic Theatre in downtown San Diego. The company’s tastes have tended toward the standard operatic repertoire, though it has also produced or co-produced new works, including the Jake Heggie opera “Great Scott,” to be seen in the 2015-16 season.

Under its new leader, the company said it expects to continue producing grand opera while also diversifying its offerings to include non-traditional works at venues unique to the San Diego region.

“I think it’s going to excite opera lovers who are ready for something more adventurous,” said Carol Lazier, the company’s board president.

She said Bennett “can do grand opera and new stuff. Opera companies that are flourishing are taking more risks, and I think he will make us into the hybrid opera company of the future.”

She added, “It’s going to be much more interesting for young people who are looking for an experience and don’t necessarily want to be sitting in the Civic for three hours.”

Gotham Chamber Opera operates on a relatively small budget of less than $2 million a year, according to publicly available tax documents. By contrast, San Diego Opera has projected a budget of about $11.5 million for the current fiscal year.

In his new job, Bennett will earn an annual salary of $200,000, with a bonus of $25,000 if certain goals are met, the company said. That’s significantly less than Campbell’s salary, which at times topped $500,000 during his three-decade tenure.

Campbell’s salary was a point of contention during the opera’s period of turmoil last year. Some critics of his decision to close the company questioned why the leader of a nonprofit organization experiencing financial difficulties should be paid so much.

Since the vote to close was rescinded in May, San Diego Opera has embarked on a fundraising campaign that has raised about $6 million.

The opera said $2 million of that amount came from an online crowdsourcing effort.

The opera has announced its 2015-16 season and is well into planning the season after that.

Bennett said that in addition to producing unconventional, site-specific works, he hopes to energize the company’s traditional grand-opera stagings.

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT