Saving the San Diego Opera: Employees play a defiant role

Even if you've never been to the opera, you can appreciate the devotion and passion of the people who've helped to bring this art to the stage for the last 49 years. Jobs, 400 of them, are on the line and for the city as a whole, a part of our cultural life is about to die. The opera board says financial problems were behind last month's decision to close, but many advocates for the opera say they are resolved to see it survive.

Much like the art it celebrates, with its big voices and big emotions, San Diego's opera is not about to finish this opera season quietly. The production of “Don Quixote” could be the final one for San Diego's largest arts organization. Pointing to slumping ticket sales and a drop in donor contributions, the opera's board voted in mid-March to shut the opera down at the end of its' 49th season. The Board President Karen Cohn summed it up this way:
“We have run out of cash. We had known that our finances are running out for the last five to six years.”
So how does this world-class opera company, that has always operated in the black, find itself on the brink of collapse? The opera's general director says it's a problem with revenue. But there are others, many others, who say it's far more complicated than that.
“There's many things we could do to save it before shutting it down,” stated Carlos Cota, who works for the union that represents stage-hands.
Calling themselves the White Knight Committee, a group of employees, staff and opera supporters has vowed to fight the closing. They've created an online petition asking the board to rescind its vote. Stephen Bryant, the opera's chief wig and makeup designer, is on that committee. 
“We can't live under the business model we've been living under. We need to change.”
It's a model that has relied on the generosity of about 15 major donors. On the day of KUSI's interview, the makeup designer had drawn a blue question mark on his face, posing the question: why did the board so abruptly decide that opera is dead in San Diego?
“It combines theater, dance and symphony – all of that comes together in a live performance, with no microphones. It's an incredible art form and it is very, very expensive. But there are ways to trim back a little bit and, at this time, we need to trim back a little bit so we can stay alive.”
Despite its financial troubles, the opera has not drawn the strings on executive pay. General Director Ian Campbell has been the driving creative force – shaping the opera's productions for 31 years. Campbell's ex-wife, Ann, is the chief fund-raiser. Together, their annual pay comes close to $800,000. In 2011, Campbell made about $500,000 for the year; Ann Campbell took home $280,000. Even if the opera folds, their contracts ensure they still get paid.
Chris Stephens is a 15 year member of the chorus and a member of the White Knight Committee to save the opera.
“If we wind down with dignity, Ian gets paid his full salary until the end of 2017. That's when his contract is up. If we go in another direction – like filing for bankruptcy – all contracts are null and void and get re-negotiated, so he wouldn't have that same salary.”
The opera also pays top dollar to rent administrative offices: $450,000 to occupy the 18th floor, the top floor of a downtown office building. For a company that's been forecasting a dire loss of revenue, there doesn't seem to be much economizing. 
“There's nothing that any of our auditing reports would demonstrate that there was any kind of malfeasance or bad management,” said Cohn.
But those crusading to save the opera insist that management is at the core of the problem.
“From my end of things, it's just disappointing that he's given up,” said Cota.
“I think it's a struggle when you've done something one way for so long to look at it changing,” said Stephens.
“If he's done, he's done… and the rest of us are not only willing to move on, we're willing to fight for it,” said Cota.
“I think we have to have a change in leadership,” declared Bryant.
Supporters who believe the opera can survive point to the success of other companies. Like the Dallas Opera, which revised its programming to bring in new audiences, Ginny McClure is the costume shop steward. She's worked at the opera for 25 years.
“We can change our repertoire if we have to. We can try to reach a broader base of people.”

“Does it mean that we do things like mariachi operas that was very popular last season, or maybe doing things with crossover musical theater-operas?” Queried Stephens.

“The current formula isn't working the way it used to and that happens, you know, in an organization to take a hard look at it and head in a new direction,” said Cota.

Cota says opera should not just appeal to the elite.
“We need more outreach to students, kids, families. I know a bunch of opera organizations that do free concerts in the park and free shortened versions of opera.”
Consultant Marc Scorca has helped to revitalize other opera companies.
“They've changed their product, changed the brand.”
And with a change in the business model, opera crusaders say the donor base can also expand.
“We need donors. That if one of them gets donor fatigue, there are a thousand other donors,” continued Stephens.

“Many companies facing the same issues have found a way to go forward,” said McClure.

And looking ahead is what these employees are doing, with a personal focus.
Opera staff and employees gathered recently in the Civic Center Plaza to shoot a video as a show of faith and hope to keep the opera alive – saying “we are the San Diego Opera.” The voices of the opera are heard, but Ian Campbell's has been silent for the last few weeks. He has turned down numerous requests for comment. Thursday, it was made public that the opera has hired outside help for its PR crisis. Mark Fabiani – the man who's been trying to get a new stadium for the Chargers – is now doing damage control for the opera. All eyes will be on Friday's board meeting and whether the board has a change of heart, deciding not to close the opera as scheduled on April 29th, will be unveiled. High drama, heated passions, and a possible twist in the last act? Isn't this just what one would expect at the opera.
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