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San Diego Opera Extends Final Act

Above: "Don Quixote" is the last scheduled performance at San Diego Opera.

Aired 4/1/14 on KPBS News.

Opera closure postponed by two weeks and board opts to salvage 2015 anniversary season.

The board of the San Diego Opera has hit the pause button on closing the 49-year-old arts institution, while a special committee scrambles to find a financial way forward.

After a five-hour meeting, the directors voted 35-4 to postpone the closure until the end of April. The company had been scheduled to shut down after the final performance of “Don Quixote” on April 13.

The meeting Monday was called to answer questions raised by directors who worried that they acted hastily and were not privvy to adequate information before the March 19th vote to shut the opera down. Yes, they knew the financial picture was deteriorating, but they said the resolution to close took them by surprise.

General Director Ian Campbell, in announcing the action last month, said the company “had a choice of winding down with dignity and grace … or inevitably entering bankruptcy.”

The Monday agenda packet, which was nearly 40 pages, contained detailed financial documents and minutes of previous meetings, including the one at which the vote to disband was taken.

The directors formed a special committee to investigate the company’s finances, management, and artistic options, including the feasibility of other styles of opera. San Diego Opera is known for producing labor-intensive grand operas, and opera leadership has been quoted saying there is no financial support for alternative forms.

Directors also took up the challenge Monday of raising $10 million over the next month to save the 2015 opera season, which would be the company’s 50th.

Speaking to the media after the meeting, board president Karen Cohn was quoted as saying, "Buy the tickets to the last Don Quixote to see the opera and come forward -- we need at least $10 million."

It is unclear what that fundraising strategy might be.

Minutes of the previous opera board meetings, obtained by KPBS, show recent efforts to secure major gifts were unsuccessful. At the meeting of March 19, the finance director reported that “some significant asks” were declined by supporters, making the outlook for the 50th anniversary “pessimistic.”

After the meeting, board member James Merritt said a lot of viewpoints were shared.

"I would expect a great deal of effort on the part of individual board members to work with their colleagues and with company to, in essence, salvage the 50th anniversary season," he said.

He added the board will be meeting regularly in the coming weeks.

Members of the White Knight Committee, a group of opera staff, union representatives, chorus members and supporters trying to save the opera, met after the board meeting adjourned. They expressed concern that the board did not vote for a change in company leadership.

Opera staff and some board members have complained that the current management of the opera is not open to new ideas.

“Closed, unwilling to dialogue, a top-down management style, and micromanaging,” was how one long-time opera employee described it to KPBS.

Financial documents show the opera’s revenues dropping each year. In forecasts last month, the company would run out of operating cash by the early months of 2015.

At the March 19 meeting, Campbell “reminded the group that these financial matters have been brought to the board for years, and that the staff had been going to major donors to explain the situation with no results.”

The business report the board heard at the March 3, 2014 meeting -- just two weeks before the vote to close the opera -- did not appear to forecast such an imminent end.

According to the minutes of that meeting, Harry Suh, vice president of finance, said ticket sales were down but operational expenses also were down. In his projections, Suh said, “operating cash is expected to be exhausted by January or February 2015.”

“Opera,” he said, “is a money losing art form.”

He concluded that various financing options offered only short-term solutions. ”Increasing fundraising is imperative in order to be viable,” he said.

After the discussion of financials, Ann Campbell, Ian Campbell’s ex-wife and deputy general director, presented marketing materials to solicit support for the 50th anniversary campaign in 2015.

According to the minutes, there was no mention of canceling that season.

At the next meeting, on March 19, Suh said the “cash flow projection has not changed significantly,” but factors have “negatively impacted the outlook on the company’s future.”

He listed lagging tickets sales, unsuccessful fundraising “asks,” and financing options that would not solve the long-term problem. The finance committee, he said, recommended that the opera cease operations after the 2014 season.

Next came the president’s report from Karen Cohn. Although the board did not vote on shuttering the opera until after that report, General Director Ian Campbell laid out a plan he had put in place for notifying the media and the opera staff.

He said if the resolution passed, staff would be told at 2 p.m. that day. He had made an arrangement with U-T San Diego the day before that allowed the paper to go live with the story of the closing at 4 p.m.

A resolution for board approval was then put to vote. It passed 33-1 in favor of ceasing operations on April 14.

This story was edited by Lorie Hearn, executive director and editor of inewsource, a KPBS media partner.

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