San Diego Opera’s crowdfunding campaign has strong start

San Diego Opera patrons gather outside Civic Theatre before a performance of "Don Quixote" earlier this month. Crowdsourced fundraising is part of the recently downsized opera board's strategy for saving the financially troubled company.
San Diego Opera patrons gather outside Civic Theatre before a performance of “Don Quixote” earlier this month. Crowdsourced fundraising is part of the recently downsized opera board’s strategy for saving the financially troubled company.
(David Ng / Los Angeles Times)

San Diego Opera announced Tuesday that its bid to make crowdfunding a key to its survival had brought in $328,475 since last Friday, nearly a third of the online and telephone campaign’s goal of raising $1 million by May 19.

Opera spokesman Edward Wilensky said that 544 households had pledged that sum as of mid-afternoon Tuesday, for an average gift of $604.

That leaves $671,575 to be raised in three weeks. Opera officials have said the money is crucial to mounting a 2015 season that would differ substantially from the past approach, which called for four large-scale operas each season and an overall company budget of more than $15 million.


Donors will get refunds if the campaign fails to reach its goal by the May 19 deadline, or if San Diego Opera fails to announce a 2015 season. Those giving to the crowdfunding effort are risking $8 each -- the handling fee they’ll be charged if the rescue effort falls short and refunds have to be made.

The opera company said it is “actively analyzing sustainable business models and various plans for future seasons” as it tries to revamp itself on the fly.

Meeting Monday, the opera’s board elected a new set of officers. Carol Lazier, who pledged $1 million toward the company’s rescue early this month, was confirmed as president after having served briefly as acting president. Her predecessor, Karen Cohn, was one of 29 board members who’ve resigned since the company’s turmoil began March 19 over whether to shut down after a 49-year run or make changes and try to continue presenting opera in San Diego with a different, scaled down approach.

The 54-member board that existed when an initial vote was taken to disband San Diego Opera is now down to 25 members who aim to keep it going. The resignations represent a financial loss of about $750,000 a year, since board members pay annual dues of $25,000 each.

The opera board became divided over whether to surrender without a struggle in the face of a long-term trend of dwindling ticket sales and generally diminishing donations. Cohn and Ian Campbell, the company’s general director and artistic director since the early 1980s, argued that closing in the face of what they thought were unalterable realities would allow San Diego Opera to end on a “dignified” and financially responsible note, allowing all its creditors to be paid.

Campbell and his ex-wife, Ann-Spira Campbell, who was also a top opera company administrator, were placed on paid leave last week.

The 33 to 1 vote in March to shut down came as a surprise; while San Diego Opera had been open about its financial decline, there had been no suggestion that it was in imminent danger of folding.

An outcry ensued in the community, and Lazier emerged as a leader of a dissident faction on the board that wanted to adapt to the changing conditions that many opera companies face.

The Grand Opera approach that San Diego Opera has featured typically requires large orchestras and singing casts and elaborate costumes and sets, making it the most expensive branch of the performing arts.

Besides Lazier’s installation as president, the board elected three other new officers -- Courtney Ann Coyle as executive vice president, James A. Merritt, vice president of finance and Frances R. Marshall, secretary and parliamentarian.

The opera’s system of governance also gives an advisory role to a larger group, known as “association members,” who each donate at least $100 a year.

The company said that about 200 association members also met Monday and voted, with just two “nays” and one abstention, to prohibit selling off the opera company’s assets, which include costumes, set pieces and other property. The previous board leaders had prepared to sell off assets in keeping with their plan to shutter the company and pay its creditors. Selling assets in “the ordinary course of business” will still be allowed.


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