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BWW Exclusive: San Diego Opera Rejoices in a New Vision

San Diego Opera announced today that the March 19 decision to close the company had been rescinded, and that the company would continue operations for the upcoming 2015 season. In a press conference this morning, Opera Board president Carol Lazier touted the news to an eagerly expectant crowd of SDO staff members, chorus personnel, association members, press corps and well-wishers.

A surge of applause accompanied Lazier as she strode to the podium at 10 a.m. She began by thanking the San Diego firefighters first responders for their remarkable job in fighting the recent firestorms in the area. Then she launched into her announcement.

"I'm here to tell you that after careful review of analysis and revenues and expenses... and the outpouring of financial emotional support from the public, San Diego Opera Board of Directors voted unanimously to rescind the decision to close the company that was made two months ago."

The Company has also announced that the ongoing crowd funding effort has resulted in a total of $2,116,376 in donations from 2,461 donors, 48% of whom were first time donors, with a median gift of $100. Foreign donations came from six countries: Austria, Australia, Canada, England, Italy and Mexico, and thirty-six states. She then announced SDO's 2015 50th company season starting in January: La Bohème, Don Giovanni, Nixon in China, all at the Civic Theatre; finishing with a 50th anniversary Gala Concert at the Copley Symphony Hall, with the space donated by the San Diego Symphony.

In the four weeks since its groundbreaking Town Hall meeting on April 17 (/bwwopera/article/BWW-Reports-San-Diego-Opera-Continues-Its-Battle-for-Survival-20140422), San Diego Opera has turned several corners and several pages. The grit and determination of the company's staff, its most intrepid board members, and the city's rabid opera lovers, have sparked a potential resurrection of an organization that, as of the earth-shattering March 19 announcement of its imminent closing, was perceived as doomed.

The above-mentioned meeting lit a fire under its hundreds of attendees, and also thousands of San Diego operagoers and aficionados, who have rallied around the cause of saving the company and reinventing it in more realistic, contemporary terms. Change was needed and due. Results of the meeting and its "Move Forward" theme were well publicized (

The story of San Diego Opera literally has been ripped from the headlines. Word of the company's plight, and eventually its hope for resurgence, resounded throughout local and national news and social media. Postings on Facebook and Twitter, providing links to local and national news media reports touting the latest SDO happenings, have appeared almost daily. The company's immense progress in its journey to affect a new, improved "opera company for the people" has been carefully chronicled.

At the Town Hall meeting, Opera America president Mark Scorca and Opera Philadelphia chief David Devan inspired SDO minions with testimony about the innovations that other smaller US opera companies have incorporated in order to ensure their survival. At a board meeting on the same day, president Karen Cohn resigned, along with numerous other board members, helping motivate the much criticized, beleaguered board to push the April 29 closing deadline to May 19. Soon afterward, local philanthropist and opera aficionado Carol Lazier, who is well known in the nonprofit world as a dedicated advocate for local arts organizations, pledged $1 million toward the company's rebuilding, fueling fervent hopes of revival among the company and its fans.

Changes then came swiftly and precipitously. Lazier was named acting board president. SDO launched an online crowd-funding campaign to raise another $1 million to help fund the 2015 season. On April 25, the company placed General Director Ian Campbell and his ex-wife Ann Spira Campbell, whose generous salaries had become a source of great controversy, on paid administrative leave. Speculation abounded that the move spelled the end of the company's "Campbell era." Lazier acknowledged Campbell's valuable contribution to the company during his 31-year tenure, but she emphasized the need for new leadership and a different vision of a "fiscally responsible" nature, guided by advice from Opera America. Executive Director Keith Fisher was named Chief Operating Officer. By April 28, thirty percent of the crowd-funding goal had been reached. Lazier expressed her encouragement at the public support for a "new San Diego Opera."

It was then revealed that according to California law and the bylaws of the 800-plus-member SDO association, the board of directors could not act alone to shut down the company's operations. In addition, association members had not been notified immediately of the board's decision to close, and also were not convened to vote on whether the board could sell the company's assets, as Campbell has proposed. Two association members secured the signatures of a requisite 5 percent of the overall membership to convene a special meeting, where it was decided that the Opera's assets would not be sold, and that all reasonable alternatives to preserve the company would be explored.

Large strides toward the New San Diego Opera seemingly occurred almost every day:

  1. On May 1, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer verbally pledged his support of the opera's continuation, citing the company's importance to the city's cultural life and its job-creating.
  2. On May 6, in response to the City Council's decision to cut SDO's funding by half, Keith Fisher proposed a plan substantially cutting the already slashed budget the opera had put forth in a transition plan for the company. The same day, SDO announced their crowd funding campaign had passed the $750,000 mark.
  3. On May 9, after responses from individuals in San Diego, more than thirty states, and three foreign countries (Italy, Austria, and Mexico), the opera announced it has reached its $1 million crowd-funding goal and was being offered a $500,000 matching grant by two board members and a donor group, "The Sopranos."
  4. On May 12, SDO announced a May 16 press conference to reveal the decision of the Board of Directors about the company's future (postponed to May 19 due to the San Diego firestorms). Lazier and the new board worked to meet a May 19 deadline to raise $3.5 million to keep the company in operation.
  5. On May 13, SDO announced a May 19 benefit screening of the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera at the historic Ken Cinema (symbolically on the verge of closing), featuring the SDO chorus and Director of Education and Outreach Dr. Nicolas Reveles. The event soon sold out. The La Jolla Community Center started a series of "Opera Wednesdays" programs that involve regional singers, including members of the San Diego Opera Chorus, also included in the 21st annual San Diego Sicilian Festival on May 18.
  6. On May 14, the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation made a $100,000 gift to the Company's escrow account. Combined with an additional $400,000 raised through the opera's crowd-funding effort, it met the challenge gift requirement of $500,000 and released the additional $500,000 pledged by the above donor group, bringing the crowd fund total to over $2 million.
  7. On May 15, SDO announced they had ended their formal relationship with Ian and Ann Campbell, emphasizing that the parties intended to try and resolve their differences amicably. If the company is allowed to go forward, they will announce the 2015 season, start selling tickets, and complete a search for an artistic adviser.

After her initial announcement, Lazier said that subscriptions are available at 619-533-7000, and on the website, ( and expressed her hope that those who contributed would continue their support by buying tickets. She thanked Mayor Faulconer and the City Council for publicly advocating for SDO's survival, and the Arts and Culture Commission for their continued support. "Arts are one of the reasons San Diego is 'America's Finest City'", she said, and thanked "the donors who contributed over $2 million in three weeks. Today is because of you."

She named each of the unions "who have rallied together to save our company", with special mention for the San Diego Symphony and other opera companies whose support has helped save SDO; and the dedicated staff, which "met every challenge with determined enthusiasm."

She also thanked the 'White Knights', who "rode in to save the day...their unity was an inspiration to all of us... and each member of the remarkable Board of Directors. These last two months have been incredibly difficult for all of us. But with commitment and leadership we are emerging a stronger company for our community."

Lazier then announced a special gift from SDO's opera chorus: an excerpt from Verdi's A Masked Ball, conducted by Reveles, which sings of tragedy followed by resurrection. The symbolism hit home to all of those attending.

"Thank you from the bottom of my heart," Lazier said afterward. A shout of, "All hail Carol!" from the back of the crowd elicited ecstatic applause.

Lazier, who has said she could not bear to witness the destruction of the beloved institution that was such a key influence in her childhood, has attained "opera angel" status in the hearts of opera-loving San Diegans. I spoke briefly with Lazier afterward. She laughed when I called her "our opera angel."

"I was only an inspiration," she said with genuine modesty. "The rest of you did the work."

But without her inspiration, there would have been no campaign, no resurgence, and no new company.

SDO's staff is "facing its greatest challenge in the Opera's 49-year history," Lazier declared recently. "The work will be difficult, we will be exhausted, but I believe that with this team we'll emerge as a stronger, better opera company for all of San Diego."

That vision was confirmed in today's most joyous news. There is much to be done, but if the tireless work of the past two months is any indication, "the Little Opera That Could" will prevail.

All hail Carol.

Photo credits: Carmen Kruse

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