BWW Reports: San Diego Opera Continues Its Battle for Survival
On Thursday, April 17, controversy over the closure of San Diego Opera took a startling turn when a Town Hall meeting with the theme, "San Diego Opera Moves Forward: Alternative models of Opera in America" for supporters of the company's survival, and a meeting of the Opera's Board of Directors, took place simultaneously. The atmosphere at the former (which I attended) was upbeat and hopeful and ended with cheers from the overflow crowd at the Civic Plaza Copper Room. The latter reportedly was chaotic and contentious and resulted in walkouts and multiple resignations from Board members, including its president, Karen Cohn.
Those who have followed SDO's journey since General Director Ian Campbell made his shocking announcement on March 19 of the company's impending closure are familiar with the circumstances. Citing declines in ticket sales and donations, and the near-depletion of a $10 million dollar endowment, Campbell encouraged SDO's board to shut down the company's operations at the end of the current season, with the final performance scheduled on April 13. The board voted 33-1 in favor of Campbell's recommendation.
Volatile reaction came swiftly from company members, longtime SDO supporters and opera lovers, not only locally, but also across the entire US via the Internet and social media. 400 employees, including singers, San Diego Symphony musicians, stagehands, staff members and many more, were in danger of losing their incomes. Battle lines were drawn as San Diegans stood up to voice their opposition to the planned closure.
Before long it was evident that the implications reached far beyond San Diego. In fact, the situation aroused concerns nationwide about the future of opera. Well-established New York City Opera had already closed in recent months. The Met was having labor disputes that portended possibly insurmountable difficulties. The potential demise of SDO had opened a Pandora's box of fear and worry among opera aficionados. So many people love opera; how could this beloved art form suddenly be poised on the chopping block?
However, it also became clear that SDO was not going to go down without a fight. The crusade to save the company has received almost daily coverage from local media. A group of employees, staff and opera supporters formed a "White Knight Committee" (WKC) to fight the closing and to pressure the board to rescind its decision. Via emails and the Internet the WKC called for opera lovers to sign an online "Save San Diego Opera" petition; over 20,000 signatures signaled an overwhelming desire to keep the company alive. Company singers filed a lawsuit to force SDO to submit arbitration over their contracts. Little known facts about the company's financials began to circulate. Campbell was mercilessly criticized for giving up on the company, and for drawing a salary that was inordinately generous, given the company's financial precariousness. The high-rent penthouse SDO offices were cited as exceedingly posh and expensive.
Clearly, if the opera were to survive change was needed, in the form of economizing, cutting down expenses, and choosing new leadership. The WKC and its proponents insisted the opera was salvageable and mounted a persuasive campaign to prove their hypothesis. Nightly features began to appear on local San Diego TV stations. "Can the Opera Be Saved?" was a recurrent theme in the media, one of many arias that were being composed in the opera within an opera of the company's saga. Soon, public outcry motivated a pressured Board to extend the closure deadline to April 29. The "Save SDO" movement gained momentum at an accelerated pace, resulting in the April 17 "San Diego Opera Moves Forward" Town Hall Meeting at Civic Plaza.
420 attendees in the Copper Room and numerous others who watched via live stream on monitors in the hallway listened carefully as three opera-expert panelists discussed viable alternatives to keep SDO alive. Nicolas Reveles, the Opera's Geisel Director of Education and Outreach and well known to San Diego opera aficionados as the company's superbly knowledgeable pre-opera lecturer, moderated the discussion. Presenters Marc, Scorca, President and CEO of the national organization Opera America, and David Devan, General Director of Opera Philadelphia, informed the audience as to the types of business models that other US opera companies have implemented to bring opera into the 21st century.