Saving the San Diego Opera: Is it the final act?
When word came last month that the San Diego Opera would be dissolving, there was disbelief, and in some quarters, anger. A seemingly robust opera company was faltering, yet why was the decision made so suddenly to just end it?
On the stage of the San Diego Opera, the “Legend of Don Quixote” springs to life in a full-throated song. This tale of a knight chasing his lofty but fragile dreams seems to mirror the struggles now facing the San Diego Opera. The city's biggest arts organization is now on the brink of closing. The news of the closing hit opera employees like a sledgehammer.
“Floored, flabbergasted,” said Chris Stephens, a 15-year member of the chorus.
“Shock, complete shock,” said San Diego Opera wardrobe dresser Ginny McClure. “There was no indication prior to that that there was anything wrong.”
“As a matter of fact, Ian Campbell – the general director – came down to the chorus last year to tell the chorus they had nothing to worry about,” stated Stephens. “That with all these other opera companies folding, we're incredibly fiscally sound and have nothing to be concerned about.”
So, why did the opera's general director and the Board of Directors suddenly decide to call it quits? The 33-to-1 vote by the board came in mid-March and occurred behind closed doors. The opera's general director is Ian Campbell – the driving force behind the opera for 31 years. Campbell told his employees the decision was an economic one, a response to more than three years of falling ticket sales and wavering support from the opera's major donors.
“For everybody, it's a very sad day: for staff, for me, for the board,” stated Campbell.
One day after the board's fateful choice, Ian Campbell told KUSI the opera was out of cash – dashing the hopes of celebrating a 50th anniversary season.
“We don't owe any money. We've had 29 consecutive years of balanced budgets, but the board is very responsible and so is the financial staff. Looking forward, we don't see the money to support next season and, therefore, are not going to take subscription money that we can't give back and we've decided to close with dignity.”
Board President Karen Cohn says the opera had been draining a 2003 fund from Philanthropist Joan Kroc – a gift of $10 million – to keep the opera going.
“Because of ticket sales, it just made this run-out even faster,” said Cohn. “And subsequently, over the last 10 years, it has gone down to nothing and it wasn't replenished.”
Longtime opera employees say if finances were such a big worry, why wasn't there any budget cutting?
“Ian's run the company in the black for 28 years, and suddenly, we're completely out of money,” said Stephen Bryant, the chief wig and makeup designer.
On the day of KUSI's interview, Bryant had drawn a blue question mark on his face – an allusion to the questions which he says have not been addressed by Campbell and the opera board.
“We don't have the confidence in Ian anymore. The people that work for Ian don't have that confidence anymore.”
While Bryant and 400 others will lose their jobs if the opera folds, Ian and his ex-wife Ann, the deputy director, will not suffer financially. In 2011, Campbell made $500,000 a year; Ann earned $280,000. Even if the opera goes dark, they still get paid.
“It seems at this point that he has more to gain from our failure than the success,” said Stephens.
With three years until his contract runs out in 2017, Campbell may be walking away with $500,000 times three, that's $1.5 million. Yet, employees like Ginny McClure get just three weeks of severance; she's been a wardrobe dresser for 25 years.
“I know that everybody is willing to do what needs to be done to keep this company going.”
As part of closing the San Diego Opera, the board will sell off its assets, including the Scenic Shop in Logan Heights – where the opera's elaborate sets are designed and built. Liquidating the shops, sets and costumes will allow the Opera Association to pay out its obligations to Campbell and others.
“This is the largest asset, from what I understand, that the opera has,” said Carlos Cota, a worker with the union representing stage hands. “Once it's gone, it's gone and our city loses all of it.”
The media is no longer allowed to go beyond the gates of the Scenic Studio. From photos, some of the equipment used by the 60 to 70 people who work there is visible – welders, painters and craftsmen – who also build sets for theaters, churches and schools.
“The jobs go away. That income and tax dollars, all of it goes away.”
Cota says opera management never asked for pay cuts or gave any sign of trouble in the wings.
“None of it made any sense. To us, there's many things we could do to save the organization before shutting it down.”
If money is the only root of the problem, then this could be the opera's last act. But a group of employees and supporters believe this near-death experience could also lead to a revival.
“It's just a great opportunity to show people that we have something worth saving,” continued Stephens.
Time is running short, and the season about to end, but as the saying goes, it's not over for the San Diego Opera yet – at least not until it's time for the big soprano to sing.
So, after the last performance of the season this Sunday, what's going to happen next? The opera board has said as of April 29th, the San Diego Opera will be formally dissolved and the sale of assets will begin. But those plans are running into some big opposition. In Part Two of KUSI's special report Thursday night, a look at the movement to keep the music alive at the San Diego Opera will be revealed.