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Roundtable: More Drama At San Diego Opera Unfolds

April 25, 2014 1:02 p.m.

HOST: Mark Sauer


Angela Carone, KPBS News

Beth Accomando, KPBS News

Dean Calbreath, San Diego Daily Transcript

JW August, 10News

Related Story: Roundtable: More Drama At San Diego Opera Unfolds


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.

MARK SAUER: I am Mark Sauer and this is a KPBS News Special. Drama at the San Diego Opera, the story and the impending death of the San Diego Opera features the former hero who built the opera into a power house. Abrupt resignations of board members and a new president leading in an eleventh hour rescue attempt. Stay with us as we sort fact from fiction, and fantasy from reality. Joining me to tell the dramatic story are KPBS Arts Reporter Angela Carone, KPBS Arts Reporter Beth Accomando, reporter Dean Calbreath of the San Diego Daily Transcript and Investigative Reporter JW August of 10News. Well the opening act of our drama was a stunner on March 19. The organization voted to close shop after nearly a half-century of performances in San Diego. That immediately turned the spotlight on what is happening behind the scenes of the opera's operation. Angela, who before we get into the whys and wherefores of all this, tell us what is happening today with the board.

ANGELA CARONE: We learned today that the opera has placed the general director and artistic director Ian Campbell, the hero that you spoke of, is on leave and he will be paid full salary and benefits while on leave.

MARK SAUER: This is indefinite leave.

ANGELA CARONE: Indefinite leave, that's right. His deputy general director Ann Campbell and ex-wife has also been placed on leave also with pay and benefits. Keith Fisher who is the chief executive director of the opera for many years is now the chief operating officer. The other key thing that was announced, there's a million-dollar fundraising campaign, a crowdsourcing fundraising campaign, and all the money raised from all of those donations will be placed into an escrow account, to be used for the 2015 season. If for some reason the 2015 season is not announced or they do not meet the million-dollar goal by May nineteenth, that money will be returned to donors, so it is protected.

MARK SAUER: So they are not going to keep the money and run.

ANGELA CARONE: It will be used in negotiations, it will be used for mounting this possible 2015 season.

MARK SAUER: All right, so that is today's news. JW?

JW AUGUST: Why a million dollars, is that going to help? Is that just to see people if people care enough to open up pocketbooks and start spending money?

ANGELA CARONE: Right, well I think we'll talk about what is possible that they need financially to go forward here in a minute. But I think what they're doing is building off of the community engagement that they saw a vote to close was announced. Thousands of people signed a petition to save the opera and there's so much community involvement and concern voiced about that. I think they want to keep the community engagement, so they say small or large donations, whatever, show us that you do want to support a season going forward.

MARK SAUER: Let's get into the tension that is underlying all of this, why did he Ian Campbell and Karen Cohn want to shut down the opera, rather than make drastic changes going forward?

ANGELA CARONE: Well, they asked the board to take a vote to shut down the opera, because as Ian Campbell has said, ticket sales were declining, major donors were not stepping up to help the opera. Though they were in the black and they have $15 million in assets, he felt that they continued on course that they would end up in bankruptcy and he wanted to avoid bankruptcy and in his words go out with dignity at this point to close the organization. As far as not making drastic changes, that gets into a whole other aspect of it, I think Ian Campbell has said for a long time that there is a certain high-quality way to present opera, this is Grand Opera, expensive productions, and that he firmly believed that is what San Diegans wanted and that is what he had to give them. If he could not give them that, then there was not much of an option going forward.

MARK SAUER: So it's really a question of artistic philosophy?

ANGELA CARONE: In part, sure.

MARK SAUER: Dean, the main problem was finance and audiences, if they had sold more tickets and had more money we would not be talking about the impending doom here. So you looked at the newly posted projections, what do they show?

DEAN CALBREATH: I think the most relevant projection actually came up in January although the opera did not tell anybody about it, in January where they were projecting that by December expenses would start exceeding revenue. Than they were going into the red, and by next June would be about $5 million in the red. So to keep operating through next June, they would need a lot at least $5 million, which is unlike the $10 million that they were touting, when they said they would close down. Still it is a substantial amount.

MARK SAUER: So before January, did Mister Campbell say that we have been foreshadowing this and warning about this for several years?

DEAN CALBREATH: They've been talking about it for several years. But I think it caught everybody by surprise how dire the situation was, although I think it is less dire than what they were presenting. But to go forward it is definitely a challenge. So he says we're talking about it for three years. But they never asked for any concessions, from workers, workers were taken taken completely by surprise. They never contacted San Diego Tourism Authority to ask for help and promotion which is what that authority is there for. There were a lot of steps they could've been taking over the last three years. Simple steps beyond changing the format which is widely recommended by other operas. Beyond changing ticket prices, there are a lot of simple steps they could've taken which would have avoided this.


JW AUGUST: How about reducing the directors salary, aren't they over the top when it comes to that?

MARK SAUER: Remind us, what is the salary for that?

JW AUGUST: $600,000 for Campbell and $400,000 for his wife, is that right?

ANGELA CARONE: If we talk about compensation packages it is a whole different ballgame. But the last time that figures are available in 2011 I think it was $508,000 for Ian Campbell and $240,000 something for Ann.

MARK SAUER: To be fair we have talked on this program, Beth was a guest a few weeks ago where were about this and Angela as well. That is that you have an overall budget about $17 million for this organization. What is a rainmaker, the director on the face of this worth? You can debate that, maybe a million, maybe double that is fair, I don't know, that can be debated. But these kind of questions come up when you get into financial straits.

DEAN CALBREATH: We are one of the top ten operas in the country according to most critics, and a lot of that is thanks to in Campbell, he did it terrific job for the bulk of the time that he was here.

MARK SAUER: Thirty-one years.

DEAN CALBREATH: Yeah, he has been here thirty-one years. He did a terrific job during at least most of that time, but we are in the top ten, we're not in the top five. And if you take New York, and LA out of the mix, we pay him more than any of those other directors in the top five, more than Santa Fe, Houston, Seattle, and they make a lot more money than we do. So, why, if they are pulling that revenue, and they are higher quality than we are, why are we being him more?

MARK SAUER: Let us talk for a minute here about the board president getting replaced, how did that come about?

ANGELA CARONE: There was a board meeting last week in which a vote was passed closely to postpone the closure date of the organization again, for another two weeks till May 19. And at that point, some of the board members who were set on the course of closing on April 29, the original closure date, who were loyal to the path that Ian Campbell headset out, they resigned. There were thirteen of them including Karen Cohn, former Board President. They walked out middle of the meeting.
MARK SAUER: So that showed the real rift we were talking about.

ANGELA CARONE: It is a very fractured board at this point.

MARK SAUER: A philosophical rift and you had a rift here with Ian Campbell and the new contingents.

ANGELA CARONE: So at that point the next in line ñ because the vice president also resigned in that group ñ was board secretary Carol Lazier. She had been a long time board member and obviously an Opera fan, I'm sure everybody is on the board. That's how you get on the board, there are other ways too, but that was one of them. There is that, and Carol Lazier was also part of the strategic planning committee that got set up within the board to try and look at ways to help the company go forward Dirk what kind of operas can we do, how can we do them cheaper, how can we basically save the company. She gave $1 million towards that strategic planning effort. She met with the consultants from Opera America to look at what this might look like, what budgets and what plan we could possibly do, and so now she is the Board President.

MARK SAUER: JW, 10news, you looked at the whole strategic planning committee and the report they had, what did you learn?

JW AUGUST: That was created by Stacey Rosenberg was the president for a very short time, apparently she did not do and say things that made the lady who is the power behind the firm ñ Faye Wilson ñ happy, and they apparently were able to push her off the board. But while she was there she created a committee of three or four members, and what they were going to look at, what's going on with the opera what are our problems, what we need to do, where do we go from here.

MARK SAUER: Like we're talking about before should've happened in January before then.

JW AUGUST: And the interesting thing that I did find they did these market researches while the management would see the market researches, they never told the board. I asked the board members, did you see the market research? You do market research to see who is your audience, and what they like, where is the potential for next audience and it had all of the details.

MARK SAUER: So they had red flags in those reports?

JW AUGUST: There were things like a lot of the audience would have enjoyed is split Opera season, we go straight through. They did not want an operas longer than two hours, they would love to have a nice dinner with the opera, that is one of the biggest numbers to come back, and I don't think ñ

MARK SAUER: So these reports all showed this sometime back?

JW AUGUST: Three reports over a period of three years which management had, but the board did not have.

MARK SAUER: Beth, your knowledge and of course you have seen your share of operas and these productions. In these reports, what is your reaction as an educated and experienced observer, with the support? Would this be what the audience wanted, would we be having this discussion?

BETH ACCOMANDO: Possibly, opera anywhere is a bit of an uphill battle as Ian Campbell said. they were tilting and Opera is about tilting at windmills to a certain degree. But the thing is that Ian was very resistant to change and to feedback, so it is uncertain whether any of these things would've helped, but definitely it would have been interesting to at least give them a try and listen to what some of this feedback was. Because it could have made a difference. And it could have made a difference in at least ticket sales, and possibly even in donors.

DEAN CALBREATH: You talk about what is happening on the board and with market research, one thing that I look at, as a business newspaper, is that this is really an example of every bad business practice you can imagine. The overpaid CEO who has personal charisma and as a result is able to create his own backing on the board, regardless of the torpedoes we will back him. There is a lack of transparency and these hidden records and hidden finance records or whatever that you have to pull out with pliers. Whereas other operas, have posted, now this Opera is doing i, t but operas have posted financial statements right on their main website and everything, they are open, they are telling people, listen, this is our financial situation, please help us.

MARK SAUER: Before we get to that I want to finish up with Beth, you had the last interview with Ian Campbell on KPBS, we want to hear what he had to say here.


IAN CAMPBELL: The reason we have to close, it's running out of money. If somebody could've stepped in and said we can raise millions from wealthy people in San Diego that would've been a great idea. But I couldn't do it, my board could not do it, my president couldn't do it, my fundraising staff couldn't do it. And people have been aware of this issue for three years, this is no sudden problem.

MARK SAUER: That gets to what we are talking about here, that was the model that he had and that was the way to do it, but there were other ways.

BETH ACCOMANDO: That is the story he's presented and he was sticking to. The interesting was going into that interview, he looked battle weary, and he mentioned he was getting a lot of emails, he said hateful emails. And he looked genuinely surprised. I think that reflects the fact that he kind of was very insulated, and had this group of people who supported him so blindly. That when he made this announcement, it really seemed like he did not anticipate the kind of reaction that he got.

MARK SAUER: So here is how we have done it, how we've always done it, this group is always been there and we have managed to keep it solid, this is how we will continue to do it. Angela?

ANGELA CARONE: Along with the marketing report from 2013 I've heard from so many people, for example a former venture capitalist formally here in San Diego, he was a board present for a number of years, and he resigned in 2010 in protest because he went to Ian Campbell and to the board management and said look, we cannot go forward like this. I looked at the projections down the line and it does not look good, we have to switch it up. And they were not open to any kind of ideas for change, in fact he went home and the next day he got an email with an article attached to it that said about the perils of donor led innovation, and so he resigned. They have been hearing this.

DEAN CALBREATH: And the thing that has been the modus operandi of him and also the past leading board members and everything, that they don't want to hear criticism. They sprang this on the board by surprise, they called this special meeting, they did not say what they're going to talk about.

MARK SAUER: This is March 19th.

DEAN CALBREATH: This is March 19 and they did not say what they're going to talk about. Before the meeting, they prepared a press release to say that they have decided to shut down. They had really decided that they were just going to run this thing through. There was not a huge number of directors who showed up, and as a result I think that a minority on the board was able to push itself into the majority position.

MARK SAUER: Beth, I wanted to ask you about other operas here in California. The quality of the San Diego Opera in this mode that we have been in, under the direction of Ian Campbell compared with San Francisco or Los Angeles, I know it is an esoteric thing, and a subjective thing, but what is your impression?

BETH ACCOMANDO: Well San Diego Opera is considered a first-tier Opera. I've been to operas in LA, they have been a little more's experimental. I would have to say I saw David Cronenberg's ìThe Fly,î which is probably not something that we might see on our stage here in San Diego.

MARK SAUER: Wouldn't have seen anyway.

BETH ACCOMANDO: Yeah, and they did do the Mariachi Opera which was very successful, but that was something that seems Ian Campbell did not want to bring back even though it was successful. These other operas in San Francisco and Los Angeles are more financially sound and doing better than we are, and don't look to be closing. But in terms of quality, I think they are on par. But I think they tend to be a little more experimental, and diverse, and a little more flexible.

DEAN CALBREATH: In this season, none of the operas were written after 1900. I think they were all written in the 1800s. Next year I think they were planning on doing Nixon in China, which is more of a popular Opera. But when you talk to other presidents and leaders of other operas and the country, and talk to Santa Fe, talk to Houston, talk to Seattle which are all doing better than we are. They're saying one way you have to just have to mix it up, you keep those older operas. But you also present things like the Passenger which is an opera about the Holocaust, there is opera about the last days of Oscar Wilde, and which draw and more people and draw in the newer audience.

BETH ACCOMANDO: Also they could do more of their one night productions like Requiem, which did very well and sold-out where as Masked Ball was not selling out that they could try more things like that.

DEAN CALBREATH: When they complain about lower ticket sales they don't talk about the special events that actually make money. Major shows actually lose money and the special shows make money and we don't do enough of them.

BETH ACCOMANDO: I think is also exciting to think about what kind of operas could be done outside of the actual theater itself. I noticed something that is the group is actually looking at doing. I've heard in talking with other opera directors stories about operas that take place in bars. Under the bridge in Brooklyn, all these other locations. And then it pulls you out of the civic theater, which you're talking about a pretty high rental cost. It can be upwards of $120,000 just to rent that space for one production. So they're all kinds of ways that you can look at cutting costs to get the community Opera.

MARK SAUER: Let's talk about a little bit about costs. If the opera were to shut down, how about the underlying labor contracts and what is the situation there?

DEAN CALBREATH: They had it penciled out, their planning was if they shut down by June 30, they would pay off all of the bills. I think that that was correct and you know I would think that because so many of the bills are the on that list of things that we're going to pay off, that they may have been able to survive at least through December 31, which would give them more time to build up more money. In terms of the contracts, they've got contracts with the San Diego Symphony which they intend to pay off and those workers are going to be paid off, they are going to pay off the singers and everything that was arranged to come in for the shows next year.

MARK SAUER: Those obligations are there.

DEAN CALBREATH: Those obligations are there, but fewer obligations to local workers who have been around and they are suing now, they have gone to the national labor relations board about that.

MARK SAUER: Give us a scope on that, how many folks are we talking about?

DEAN CALBREATH: About 400 jobs, they're not necessarily full-time because it is seasonal. But this constitutes a large chunk of their money, and during the rest of the year they are being music teachers or whatever, making ends meet through that, when you take away those jobs you are taking away the anchor.


JW AUGUST: One thing that has been bothering me, the Kroc money, I have not heard a lot of talk about that. The money ran out, she gave what, $20 million, $40 million?

BETH ACCOMANDO: $10 million.

JW AUGUST: $10 million.

MARK SAUER: There was an endowment.

JW AUGUST: And then it ran out in April this month, they have been sliding at $2 million a year, I saw that the financials, to balance the books, and make the books look good.

MARK SAUER: That is another hole in the budget.

JW AUGUST: They knew the money was going to run out, and they knew the amount of money, then they should of been able to look ahead when they started taking money. I don't even know if it was legal, I can't seem to get my hands on the paperwork that would provide what they can do that Kroc gave them.

DEAN CALBREATH: I think they followed her guidelines. But I think one thing is that you heard on the video that we have gone to all of these San Diegans and all of these people who can make million-dollar contributions, they're looking for similar contributions to that. That population is either dying out, or has more places to put money and that sort of thing, and what other operas, that is a finite group of money. You should look beyond that at people who could contribute $500, a thousand dollars, or something.

MARK SAUER: I also wanted to ask about assets, they do not own their theater but there's talk of selling off assets. What are we talking about? Generally in terms of assets and what might that be worth?

BETH ACCOMANDO: They have sets and costumes, in terms of the company and they can rent those out. That is actually one source of income that they can get, to rent those out, but those have to be sold.

DEAN CALBREATH: They have a big design shop in Barrio Logan which they have said they think will bring in $3 million if they sell that. And they do have a very respected costume shop which provides costumes all over the state.

MARK SAUER: Which is a revenue stream.

DEAN CALBREATH: This is the Barrio Logan thing, they create sets throughout San Diego County as well as for the convention center and stuff. They don't only create stage sets, but also business-oriented sets.

MARK SAUER: What about the city's role and arts money from the city that the new Mayor Kevin Faulconer stepping in, we will have him next weekend on KPBS and ask some of these questions, might they find an invigorated partner with the city as a source of help?

BETH ACCOMANDO: I don't know about whether or not the city will be willing to give more than they already give. There's basically a process for arts organizations to apply for funding through the commission of arts and culture and the opera was given 300,000 in the last round. I actually happen to know that a group from the board that was actually at the commission meeting this morning, letting the commissioners know that they plan to move forward and with some kind of season next year and hopefully beyond. I think Mayor Faulkner has already said that right now no money is going to come forward to save the opera, but I think that the group can continue to reapply. There's always that funding opportunity to get some money from the commission like everybody else.

MARK SAUER: I wanted to say about, if the opera were to actually go away, what does that say about San Diego as a city? America's finest city loses a cultural institution that has been here for half a century, what does that say about us? I know it's kind of a subjective thing.

BETH ACCOMANDO: I mean, I work with a lot of film operations, film festivals, small venues like that. part of the problem is, people come to San Diego not for the culture, they come for the weather. So if that is their main reason for being here, they are far less likely to be supporting the opera and film festivals and things like that. I think it does reflect something about us, and both the Ken Theater which has threatened to close down, and the opera. People come out and support only after it was announced at the closure, the Ken has not had sellout audiences on a regular basis, but once it was announced that it was closed they had packed houses. Now that it's safe, I am wondering how many of these people are going to continue and it is the same thing with the opera, a lot of people of come out to say we cannot lose the opera, but how many of those people were season-ticket holders, how many those people were going regularly and how many will continue to go if it does remain? And one of the really sad things about if we do lose the opera, is the opera was an educational institution that was introducing kids to opera because our schools are not really doing that. And if there is a gap in terms of another opera filling in or this one coming back, we're going to lose the next generation.

MARK SAUER: We'll have to leave it there and I know we'll have plenty more stories going forward here. That wraps up this KPBS News Special, Drama at the Opera. I would like to think my guests KPBS Arts Reporter Angela Carone and KPBS Arts Writer and Critic Beth Accomando, Reporter Dean Calbreath of the San Diego Daily Transcript, and 10News investigative producer JW August. A reminder, for comprehensive coverage of the crisis at the opera, go to our website I am Mark Sauer and thank you very much for joining us today.