Questions roil San Diego Opera in aftermath of its decision to close

San Diego Opera has a reprieve for now after board members and petitioners objected to plans to shut it down. Here, a performance of "Murder in the Cathedral" last year.
San Diego Opera has a reprieve for now after board members and petitioners objected to plans to shut it down. Here, a performance of “Murder in the Cathedral” last year.
(Ken Howard)

There’s nothing opera buffs like better than a climactic death scene. But the one that San Diego Opera scripted for itself has gone over so badly that its leaders are now trying to write a new ending.

Last month’s sudden announcement that the opera would shut down just short of its 50th anniversary next year raised an outcry from patrons and company members alike, who said they didn’t have any advance warning of the company’s escalating financial troubles.

A faction of the board, which has close to 60 members, has succeeded in getting the closure postponed by two weeks, to April 29, in hopes that last-ditch pleas for donations can keep the lights on. More than 20,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the opera to be saved.

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David Kleinfeld, a longtime board member and former president, said the initial 33-1 vote to close the opera took place in an “inappropriate manner.” Many board members didn’t attend the March meeting and there was no advance notice that the closure vote was going to be on the agenda.

“I am gratified and encouraged that the board seriously and constructively revisited a decision that it now recognizes was precipitous and flawed,” said Kleinfeld.

Members of a “white-knight” committee of board members, staffers and opera guild members have also criticized Ian Campbell, the general and artistic director who’s led the company for more than 30 years.

Among other things, they have questioned Campbell’s compensation, which has long topped $500,000 a year, saying it appears excessive for an institution struggling to make ends meet.

“The only way forward is with new leadership,” said Carlos Cota, a representative of the opera’s stagehands union. He said Campbell and other leaders “have lost faith and are continuing to push to shut the organization down.”

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Campbell did not return calls for this report. After the board vote last month, Campbell said the decision to shutter the company made sense because donations and attendance were eroding. “The demand for opera in this city isn’t high enough,” he said.

The opera company’s financial assets plunged from $33 million in 2007 to $15.7 million last year, according to audited financial records provided by San Diego Opera. The company has been spending at least $15 million a year to mount four productions in the 3,000-seat Civic Theatre, with box office returns of just over $5 million a year, the records show.

Attendance has plummeted 15% since 2010, with ticket revenue dropping about 8% since then, according to company data. However, ticket sales were down 14% from pre-recession levels.

Like most opera companies, San Diego’s relied on donations to make up the difference. The economic downturn cut into donations, which fell to $5.3 million in fiscal 2012, although for fiscal 2013 gifts increased to $8.8 million, the records show.

Will the two weeks gained by the board’s reversal of the immediate shutdown make a difference?

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“It’s going to be tough,” said Karen Cohn, the opera board president who initially had defended the decision to close. “I’m not going to say it’s impossible.… There’s a lot of passion going around to try to keep it alive.”

She said San Diego Opera would need something on the order of Joan Kroc’s now virtually depleted $10 million bequest to the company in 2003 to continue operating as it has in the past. Kroc was the widow of the late Ray Kroc, who headed the McDonald’s fast-food chain.

Spending taxpayer dollars to save the opera “won’t be an option” given priorities such as street repairs and neighborhood services, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in a statement, adding that he’s “willing to work” with San Diego’s philanthropic community to raise private funds.

The opera company has been one of the leading recipients of arts grants that the city funds with hotel tax revenues, including a $389,157 grant for the current season that ends after the four-performance run of “Don Quixote” that opens Saturday. The grant application forms require organizations to divulge whether they’re under financial duress, but Dana Springs, interim executive director of the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, said there was nothing in the opera company’s applications, including one filed recently for the coming fiscal year, that “caused the application review panelists to question [its] fiscal viability.”

Records show that Campbell’s total compensation in 2011, the most recent year available, was $508,021 — down from an average of $686,000 from 2008 to 2010. His ex-wife, Ann Spira Campbell, who also works on the opera’s administrative team, pulled in $282,345 in 2011; the couple’s combined compensation had peaked at $1 million in 2009.

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Unlike leaders of similarly sized opera companies, Ian Campbell oversees both the business and artistic sides of the organization. Seattle Opera’s Speight Jenkins earned $383,730 in 2011 while Dallas Opera’s Keith Cerny made $263,838.

Campbell’s contract is set to expire in 2017. The board said that the contract doesn’t provide him with benefits such as a cash bonus or other severance-type payments in the event he is terminated.

Union leaders said it’s puzzling that the opera didn’t approach unionized employees about taking pay cuts in light of its financial deterioration. They said union members received regular cost of living raises in recent years.

The San Diego Symphony, whose musicians rely on earnings from playing as the opera company’s pit orchestra, also had no warning.

“We did not have a clue,” said Edward Gill, the symphony’s chief executive. “I was as dumbfounded as anyone else.”

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The American Guild of Musical Artists has filed a complaint against San Diego Opera alleging that leaders have “refused to provide the union with information relating to its fiscal condition and the business practices relating to the announced closing.”

Chris Stephens, a member of the opera’s chorus for the past 15 years and a guild representative, said any campaign to save the opera should include a significant shift in the company’s direction.

“None of us wants to get behind raising money toward a company that isn’t changing,” he said.

In hindsight, said William Purves — a longtime opera subscriber and donor who helped found the San Diego Performing Arts League, a support group for local theaters — the key moment for San Diego Opera may have come and gone a few years ago, when it decided to stick with Campbell and his approach, rather than mount a concerted planning effort to roll out a new vision in time for a 2015 50th anniversary that now may never arrive.

For a long time, he said, Campbell had shown an “uncanny” knack for feeding San Diego opera fans what they wanted — a mix of mostly standard operas, spiced with a bit of more adventurous fare. But he thinks the company missed its chance to respond to changing attendance patterns in the arts, and new post-recession realities.

“The vision at the top of the opera has not changed, so you really don’t have a lot of new donors coming in, and the donors that are there are starting to tire,” said Purves, an executive for a San Diego producer of corporate events and entertainment.

But some basics never change. “When ‘Don Quixote’ opens Saturday, we need the community to fill those seats and demonstrate to donors that the community wants the opera,” Purves said.