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San Diego Opera Announces Current Season Will Be Its Last

March 20, 2014 1:25 p.m.


Ian Campbell, Artistic Director, General Manager and CEO of the San Diego Opera

Related Story: San Diego Opera Announces Current Season Will Be Its Last


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I Maureen Cavanaugh. Our top story on Midday Edition, is the unexpected ending of a San Diego institution. The San Diego Opera announced yesterday that it's final performance will take place on April 13. The organization plans to cease all operations by the end of June. The San Diego Opera brought some of the most famous singers in the world to our city, Joan Sutherland, Pavarotti, and the upper would've celebrated its fiftieth anniversary next year. The end of this opera is sending shock waves around the musical community. Jamie to talk about this is in Campbell, the artistic director and general manager of the San Diego Opera.

IAN CAMPBELL: I'm glad to be here to clarify a lot of things.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Would like to invite our listeners to talk about the situation. Please give us a call. Ian, what happened?

IAN CAMPBELL: What happened is something not dramatic, it happened last week and that is important to know, the Board of Directors of San Diego Opera and staff a very good managers and we've been tracking the potential problem for more than three years. We can see the cash flow is diminishing because we've had a loss of donors and the loss of typic ticket buys even though the quality of the product is very high, selling Opera ten tickets in the community has become very difficult and over a three-year period we so we're going to get into a activity by the next season in the fiftieth anniversary and we did ask for it increased contributions from many people and our Board of Directors stepped up and increased contributions and honestly, but we are labor intensive advanced so many people to a and without guaranteed revenue we did not want to start that season and close part way through taking people's money and not repaying it and a practical and honest decision was made to close now. And to close with dignity.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How many people are you obligated to pay?

IAN CAMPBELL: The staff I reset regret to say immediately pounced, we only have a few contracts with individuals, we would like to honor our obligations as well. We can do it, if donors have pledged money for past seasons will honor their obligations will get through this with their heads held high and I hope that all of our donors recognize that we gave the recognition they required, and therefore who would like to get the payments and I think our donors are honest people and that's going to happen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is a because Opera is not popular in San Diego?

IAN CAMPBELL: That is an interesting question because there are some people who come and live the performances and recently we give a maxed unmasked ball with a major international cast with incredible reviews everywhere, email and internet but we only sold 74% of seats, by that measure Opera is not sufficiently upper popular here to support the company, and Opera companies run the country and around the world are facing similar things for now and in less you have a massive endowment which we have never had, you don't have the short-term financing to get through cash flow issues.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of the questions of what happened to the Joan Kroc fund. A $10 million gift given to the opera about ten years ago.

IAN CAMPBELL: It has actually been more than ten years and Joan told us to use it to maintain quality and she said I expect you to use it in about a three-year period, it has lasted fifteen years and it became a investment opportunity for us, it was always meant to be spent in it was not an endowment, Joan said deliver Olympic quality opera if you can and this is to help pay for, it was used appropriately and extended in ominously beyond the life that was expected, and any criticism anybody makes about the use of that fun is sheer ignorance and nothing more.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That me expand upon some criticism if I may, because the run inevitably be questions raised about how the opera spend its money, we know that your salary is a half million dollars a year.

IAN CAMPBELL: It is not, it is significant but it's below that, I occupy two positions, I have artistic director and general manager, and this company has balance its budget for twenty-eight years, helping on the administrative side there can be a lot of criticism and if you look at the artistic side, we have delivered some of the best performances and where I'm not holding the best positions of the Ruby to people holding those positions and the expense would be greater than having me, and yes my salary is significant and I'm paid for what I do.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Have you done any budget cutting when it comes to trying to ring down administer the costs are costs in general?

IAN CAMPBELL: Absolutely, and anyone who is followed our progress knows that in order to make things work we reduced from five operas to forward and cut the number of performances and all of the artists are paid by performance and that is not only the singers, is the makeup crew, stagehands, everybody, we cut from five operas to four, we cut the number of performances to sixteen, the budget in 2006 with $17.4 million, this year will come in and in 15 million, and again when I hear people say that we blew up a budget, now we did not, we brought it done significantly and the problem is revenue issue not of the expense issue.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you believe that grand Opera the kind of Opera produced by the San Diego Opera are too expensive to stage in regional companies?

IAN CAMPBELL: Their becoming that way, there's no question because without a reliable donor base and ticket buyer base, it's too expensive, there's no question of that, and we have found over the years is that there are people in the ticketing area that want to pay the least expensive price and the two rose from the front, it's like buying a meeting access insisting on flying first class, that is just not possible. Opera is not elitist, tickets are about forty-five dollars and the expenses because personnel is a problem, we are labor intensive and 75% of our budget is people. We just concluded a masked ball from the orchestra Backstage, those people number 288 and that did not include front of house's staff, if you want to do that kind of full-scale opera that is what it takes, but the alternative is interesting. The alternative is quality smaller scale operas, chamber operas, I'm not convinced that there is a market for that in San Diego and a willingness to pay for that, it would have to be a totally different kind of company that would have to find a very specialized audience because most opera goers want to hear the bigger voices in the bigger productions.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One question being asked about the sudden announcement yesterday's wife. The opera if it has no debt, why not try to keep the opera afloat while you look for new sources of revenue?

IAN CAMPBELL: A good question, the thing is that the opera performs only from January to April or May, we have very little clash flow after that and the issue again is looking to the future and I complement the board on its courage and we felt that with the loss in tickets and donors over the last few years, there would never be enough money to pay for that season and we lived in the first and second opera and then it would've been bankruptcy and not a wine down to where hoping for, we baked for money from so many people, and they understood the need but opera is not the passion, it's their money, they can use it how they wish, we have no right to some of the else's money. We were unable to raise it and therefore the practical things to do what we have done, and I repeat that this has been a decision taking three years to make, as we watched this decline.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ian I think many San Diegans are surprised that perhaps the opera did not alert the community that there was such an imminent danger of closing, maybe something could've been done if the community was aware of this.

IAN CAMPBELL: For some years I've stood on stage and brought it to our attention to the fact that we need more money, but I've also have the lesson of the symphony where the seventy did all it could to alert the public and it was a tin cup campaign that did not work until Erwin Jacob staved the day, the millions that we need to keep the company going is so great that the public appeal for a dollar here would not do it, and therefore that is not stated, there is no point in encouraging people to give money and we could not give back when we needed such a volume of money, Opera is the most expensive by performing there is and we eat money, is the nature of the business and before anyone gets too concerned about sets,, costumes and leading singers, that is less than 6% of the budget, bidding singers are lessons 6% of the budget, even cutting the quality would probably take it down to 4% of the budget, that is not where the body is buried, it's where the volume of people.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Much of an endowment would be copper need to continue?

IAN CAMPBELL: At least 100 million because the money coming in endowments today is very small and since he Touched principal you'd have to have very good earning power to close the gap, and we would need out immediately. And if you have a large endowment people don't take you need money and I think one of the sins of San Diego Opera which may have been balancing the budget for twenty-eight years because people felt that we did not need help no matter how much we have to come asked, and perhaps we had deficits for five years in a row, something different may have happened that we're to pray for that, we believe our job is to balance the budgets and give people what they pay for, and that is what we have done and that is the right thing to do.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Music that you have approached major donors in San Diego, I think everyone in San Diego is aware that we hear of people and their names over again, same kind of donors are giving to the opera and giving to KPBS and giving to the symphony, there are many will wealthy people in San Diego, to find it puzzling that more of them don't seem to support major arts institutions or major nonprofit institutions?

IAN CAMPBELL: I think when we look at objectively at these people they are extremely generous and it is so much for the city that we will enjoy for so many years to come, and when this advantage that we have is you love to honor our donors and one of the great ways to do it is to put a name on the building for example, when I goes the old Globe theater and see the names of generous people acknowledged on the buildings, I'm envious because we cannot do that, we use the civic theater and we do not own the building of our own, and therefore it is impossible to give that generous recognition that donors deserve, that may have played a part but you have to have passion for what you're investing in, if you give money to the old folks home or at the care for a kitten society, it's because you are passionate about those things and if people are not passionate about opera, then it's understandable that some won't do it. I had hoped that we may find a connection with people who felt the community benefited from the opera even if they did not attend it, but I failed to achieve that and therefore we are in this position now.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Diane is on the limits us from the college area, welcome to the program.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, thank you, I want to say that yen and the San Diego Opera has served this community and I grew up with a San Diego Opera and I had my first professional gig out of college with the San Diego Opera, and that my husband at the San Diego Opera, they have served the community so well and I am heartbroken.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much for the call, is in is on the mind as well.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi Maureen and Mister Campbell, we are lovers of Opera and so is my wife, I am curious has there been any effort to merge the San Diego Opera with other notable Opera struggling companies such as the LA or San Francisco Opera? Create a is is modeled much like the Virginia Opera which operates on that to become a traveling Opera and in broad and the amount of donors? The San Diego Opera has emptied pockets but maybe not as many, I would venture numerous people that would love to donate to this organization.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is a great idea, let me ask Ian.

IAN CAMPBELL: It is the kind of things that sounds great but it does not work anymore, without with Opera there are too many people to move and if we merged, if we had a Lithonia Opera company made up of us, Los Angeles and San Francisco, just moving the resources from city to city is prohibitive, we've been asked frequently to take a production of something up to places like Las Vegas and the deficit on moving a seam single Opera out of office is in excess of $1 million, and that is why there are really no full-scale touring opera companies today, the largest but does it is Opera Australia, based in Sydney. They give more than 300 performances a year all around the country but they subsidize by the federal government to do that, it makes life a lot easier, a great idea but it's one that has been explored met at many levels and cannot work today.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What about a merger with another Opera in California, is that there would not be that much touring but there would be a sort of collaboration between the two companies?

IAN CAMPBELL: Again we get back to the point that if we move merge with any of the company, that company has to come down here and deliver the product, you still have the movement of an orchestra and a chorus, we can make up crews, sets and costumes but you have to accommodate them and give them living allowances, it becomes prohibitive.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Just as weak on this program was he spoke with Nick Revell us about a new program that had been planned of master classes by the San Diego Opera at San Diego State University and San Diego Opera Singer Ahraf Sewailam had this to say:

ASHRAF SEWAILAM: When I was hired by Ian realized that San Diego had an Opera company that is just as significant as any of the major cities like San Francisco, LA, or New York, is that we call a A-level house in terms of caliber of artists and the caliber of productions and maybe not everybody in town here knows that. The code that shows that not only did that come as a surprise to the staff and singers at the San Diego Opera, but also the type of company that you had assembled with the San Diego Opera.

IAN CAMPBELL: This company has an enviable rep reputation around the world and in the last twenty-four hours I have been inundated with emails from singers, seed agents, and Opera company directors from everywhere, and the singers are so flattering because they have been writing to say how sad it is but what the company did for them, we have lost many careers, we have assisted many careers to develop, we have counseled many singers on issues of a personal and professional nature, and what Ashraf said is what is in these emails, many of the singers are urges brokenhearted and some of the people we have not hired for twenty or twenty-five years, but their writing to say that this company is one of the highest quality, friendliest and you did this for me, and I had a call from Israel today from a singer, who made the tube you here in a production and then came back for Moby Dick and she said on the phone, I am in Israel and I am singing and it is because of San Diego Opera, you took the time to audition me, you believed in me, you put me on the stage. We are proud of that, we are proud of that history and we're proud of the reputation that the company has.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me take another call, Aaron is calling us from San Diego, hello Erin. Thank you for calling. Aaron has left the line she remembers going to the opera is a little girl and she wanted tell us about that. I'm running out of time here and I did want to ask you the impacts you think the closing of the San Diego Opera might have on the San Diego arts community as a whole?

IAN CAMPBELL: The first thing I would like to do is remind people that the wind down begins after Don Quixote, build and Don Quixote as on April 5, 8/11 and thirteen, please come celebrate the history bike coming to see Don Quixote. The impact is considerable, we hire many people each year full-time or part-time and they are dependent on us to receive a certain amount of their income, that stops. This includes members of the chorus who have been loyal and incredible choristers for years, they get paid by the session, by the hour, that money goes away and we can make up crew stagehands and we pay the 71.5 million a year for their services and unfortunate that goes away, the impact is huge, there is no denying it. There is nothing that we can to without adequate funding. That is the bottom line, and were we to join companies like New York City Opera which went bankrupt last year, operable to Mark, there's so many unfortunately facing this position and where we are different is we want to go out with dignity and not with a courtesy.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of our callers said that she is to attend the opera but could not attend after the economic crisis, do you think the great recession and played into the fact of seeing decreasing ticket sales in San Diego and perhaps that up to the ultimate decision that the San Diego made?

IAN CAMPBELL: There is no question it certainly did animate to your. We lost about 3 million in contributions from corporations and individuals which we never recovered and these were gifts that have been coming for about ten consecutive years, we could rely on them and those went away, and certainly to get buyers had to reallocate resources and the numbers started dropping rapidly, the economic recession has played a huge part because it put us behind the eight ball and we have not been able to get away from that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is is truly the end or is there a chance that the opera can be saved?

IAN CAMPBELL: Is important to know that we have ceased performing but the Opera Association continues as an institution and anybody who has the money and the drive and the energy can say I'm going to start another Opera company and they can start a number that name, it can be done legally, they have to know that there is a lot of money and resources needed, but the Phoenix can arise from the ashes and I think an aggressive young man or woman could do it, I ran my first Opera company at the age of thirty and I've been in the business now for forty-seven years, maybe there's a thirty-year-old out there who says I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it better than it's ever been done and I welcome and encourage it, I hope it can happen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As in Campbell says the final performance of the San Diego Opera will be Don Quixote and April 13 and we will of course broadcasts on April 5 as keeping this has been broadcasting these performances for many years. I am speaking with Ian Campbell, we've spoken together many years about the San Diego Opera and I'm very sorry to hear about this.

IAN CAMPBELL: If there is a white horse I will be holding the reins.