San Diego Opera embarks on its 50th year this month, after coming to a crossroads and choosing the road less traveled — to preserve the cultural icon through new leadership and a fresh business plan.
On the brink of collapse in March (when longtime CEO Ian Campbell and the San Diego Opera Board of Directors voted 33-1 to shutter the company for financial reasons after the final performance of the 2014 season in April), new leadership headed by former board secretary Carol Lazier took the reigns.
Lazier, a major donor to the opera’s 2014 season, gave the company an additional $1 million to explore its options and “encourage the board to rescind the dissolution vote.”
The result? A new board emerged; opera offices moved to new, smaller digs; interim artistic advisor Bill Mason was brought in from the Lyric Opera of Chicago; and the Company launched a crowd-funding campaign that resulted in an unprecedented $2.2 million in public donations.
In May, after two months of deliberations and analysis, San Diego Opera announced its 2015 season — three operas “La bohème,” “Don Giovanni” and “Nixon in China” performed at the San Diego Civic Theatre; a mariachi opera; and special Gala Concerts of favorite arias, duets, ensembles and choruses with the San Diego Symphony at Copley Symphony Hall.
“Clearly there are people committed to saving the San Diego Opera — the third largest cultural institution in the city — and they seem to be making strides in engaging stakeholders and the broader community in the conversation,” wrote Eileen Cunniffe in the April issue of Nonprofit Quarterly.
The company’s new offices occupy the fifth floor of the Centre City Building on A Street in downtown San Diego — 7,000 square feet, down from the 15,000 square feet of office space the company previously occupied on Third Avenue.
In addition to the move, which will save the company $400,000 per year in rent, the San Diego Opera reduced 13 staff positions and employees have taken a 10 percent pay cut across the board.
Opera Board President Lazier states in a press release that the Company “continues to look at cost-cutting measures and efficiencies as it moves forward. These cuts have helped reduce the 2015 budget from $17 million to around $11 million.”
William and Evelyn Lamden, and Randolph and Carol Lamden Corby, granted Centre City Building’s three-year lease, which represents a $300,000 gift to the opera company. “Our support of the Opera in its efforts to continue producing great operatic events reflects our desire to see a thriving arts community in San Diego,” Bill Lamden said at the time.
Of his vision for the San Diego Opera, interim director Mason told La Jolla Light, “San Diego opera lovers can confidently look forward to a future of continued artistic excellence and innovation as the Company embarks on its 50th season.
“I urge the community to continue to support the company by attending performances, donating as generously as possible, and spreading the word about the beauty and life changing power of opera.”
San Diego Opera is not alone in its struggle to survive. With great hope, its new path will save it from the fate of other opera companies that have gone out of business recently — New York City Opera, Opera Boston, Opera Cleveland, Baltimore Opera, San Antonio Opera, Lyric Opera San Diego and Opera Pacific in Orange County.
San Diego Opera: Season 50 Schedule
• Dec. 11, 2014: Stephanie Blythe and Craig Terry present “We’ll Meet Again: The Songs of Kate Smith,” 7 p.m. Balboa Theatre, 868 4th Ave., downtown San Diego.
• Jan. 24, 27, 29 and Feb. 1, 2015: “La bohème” by Giacomo Puccini, 2 p.m. Sunday, 7 p.m. other days, San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 3rd Ave., downtown San Diego. House debuts of tenor David Lomelí as Rodolfo, soprano Alyson Cambridge as Mimì and soprano Sara Gartland as Musetta. San Diego Opera’s resident maestro Karen Keltner conducts.
• Feb. 14, 17, 20 and 22: “Don Giovanni” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 2 p.m. Sunday, 7 p.m. other days, San Diego Civic Theatre. Making his house debut as Giovanni is bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo. Soprano Ellie Dehn returns as Donna Anna. Also making a Company debut is soprano Myrtò Papatanasiu as Elvira. Conductor Daniele Callegari returns.
• March 14, 17, 20 and 22: “Nixon in China” by John Adams, 2 p.m. Sunday, 7 p.m. other days, San Diego Civic Theatre. Making Company debuts are baritone Franco Pomponi as Richard Nixon, soprano Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon, baritone Chen-Ye Yuan as Chou En-Lai and tenor Alfred Kim as Mao Tse-Tung. Baritone Richard Paul Fink returns to sing Henry Kissinger and Joseph Mechavich returns to conduct.
• April 18 and 19: 50th Anniversary Gala Concert, 2 p.m. Sunday, 7 p.m. Monday; Copley Symphony Hall, 750 B St., downtown San Diego. A selection of arias, duets and choruses featuring soprano Lise Lindstrom and special guests conducted by Karen Kamensek.
• April 25: A mariachi opera “El Pasado Nunca se Termina” (The Past is Never Finished) by Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, Leonard Foglia and José “Pepé” Martinez, 2 p.m. San Diego Civic Theatre. This new opera tells the story of the appearance of Halley’s Comet over Mexico in 1910. Taken as a portent to war, it heralded the eve of the Mexican Revolution as peasants turned into soldiers and soldiers into revolutionaries who sought to reclaim land that had been theirs for centuries. Developed by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the show will be part of the second Mariachi Week in San Diego with citywide performances of mariachi talent and celebrations on the Community Concourse in front of the theater before the performances
■ Subscriptions: $105 for a three-opera series to $1,405 for a full season package (Orchestra level subscription and the 50th Gala Anniversary Concert at the Jacobs Music Center Copley Symphony Hall, the two recitals, and the mariachi opera)
■ Single Tickets: $45-$290
■ Box Office: (619) 533-7000
■ Website: sdopera.com
History of San Diego Opera
— San Diego Opera Guild is founded in 1950 to present San Francisco Opera productions in the San Diego community.
— San Diego Opera Association is incorporated in 1965 as a producing company and presents its first staging of “La bohème” in the new Civic Theatre. From 1965 to his death in 1975, founding General Director Walter Herbert produces a balance of standard repertoire and new works.
— In 1976, General Director Tito Capobianco brings the Company international renown with an annual Verdi Festival and expands the season to six productions, with renowned superstars like Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti and Beverly Sills.
— Ian Campbell, assistant artistic administrator at the Metropolitan Opera, succeeds Capobianco in 1983.
— In March 2014, citing a decline in donations and ticket sales, and the depletion of a $10 million endowment donated in 2003 by the late San Diego philanthropist Joan Kroc, Ian Campbell and the San Diego Opera’s Board of Directors votes to shut the company down after the final performance of the 2014 season in April.
— In May 2014, after former Board Secretary Carol Lazier donates $1 million and rallies a group to save the San Diego Opera, a new board and a reinvented Company announces its 50th Season.