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Arts & Culture

Much Handwringing, Slow Progress On San Diego Opera’s Future

Tilting at windmills with Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Quixote and bass baritone Eduardo Chama as Sancho Panza in San Diego Opera's "Don Quixote."
Ken Howard
Tilting at windmills with Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Quixote and bass baritone Eduardo Chama as Sancho Panza in San Diego Opera's "Don Quixote."

Ian Campbell, general director of the San Diego Opera, was heckled and booed before Saturday night’s opening performance of “Don Quixote,” perhaps the last opera to be staged by the storied company.

Ian Campbell Heckled Before San Diego Opera
San Diego Opera Director Ian Campbell is heckled prior to the company's performance of "Don Quixote" on April 5, 2014. Credit: Libby Weber

Patrons in the upper balcony yelled “opera killer” and tried to start a chant of “Ian Out.” Meanwhile, patrons in the front rows at the Civic Theatre, many of whom are longstanding supporters of Campbell, stood and applauded, competing with the dissension.

“It was definitely confrontational, and that’s always uncomfortable,” said Stephanie Thompson, who was in the audience and worked for the opera 13 years ago.


Campbell was making this “curtain speech” days after the San Diego Opera board breathed new life into the 49-year-old institution, which had been marked for closure on April 14. The board extended the deadline two weeks until April 29 to give another chance to those searching for a way to secure the future of local opera.

KPBS obtained a transcript of Campbell’s speech. It was far from a rallying cry by a man who’s spent 30 years building the organization.

I also want to thank the thousands of artists, orchestra, the soloists, the chorus, who have performed for this company loyally for so many years bringing incredible artistic standards to this city. I want to salute the backstage crew, the wig and make-up crew, the thousands of people who have made opera possible in this theater for so long.

One patron said Campbell seemed like “a man mourning a dead company instead of someone with a two-week reprieve.”

There was no mention of efforts underway to save the company or raise the $10 million that board president Karen Cohn has said is necessary to mount the company’s 50th anniversary season in 2015.

In fact, no one on staff knew if Campbell would give a curtain speech. Nic Reveles, Geisel director of education, prepared remarks in case he had to go on. Staff sources said that at 6:50 p.m., moments before the lights dimmed, the stage manager received a memo from Cohn that no one would give a curtain speech but Campbell.

Memorandum Curtain Speech
This memorandum from board president Karen Cohn was delivered backstage moments before beginning of Saturday night's performance of "Don Quixote."

Campbell then appeared and walked on stage to find a fractured audience.

The pre-performance at “Don Quixote” mirrors what has been going on behind the scenes at the San Diego Opera since the public announcement that the company would be shuttering because of lagging ticket sales and donations.

Sources who have first-hand knowledge of opera events but don’t want to be quoted by name because of their proximity have told KPBS that communication is nonexistent between management and staff, board members are resigning, and the clock is ticking toward April 29 when assets will be sold.

In the meantime, board member Carol Lazier pledged $1 million to explore a sustainable future for the opera.

Lazier said she wants her gift to help a strategic planning committee find ways to reinvent how opera is presented in San Diego. “This money is not being given to restart raising financial support from the community for the company as it exists today,” she said in a statement.

Some opera directors pushed to form a strategic planning committee during a marathon board meeting on March 31 to explore the company’s finances and future options.

According to the organization’s bylaws, such a committee would need to be appointed by Cohn. Sources told KPBS that has not yet happened.

The next board meeting when that could happen keeps getting rescheduled. It’s currently set for this Friday.

Some worry that Cohn and other board members are stalling.

The vote to shutter the opera was 33-1 on March 19, but since then a group of board members has circled back, contending they did not have the appropriate information to make that decision. Opera finances have long been floundering, but board members and staff who have spoken with KPBS say the resolution to shut down was a surprise.

On March 28, this group sent a letter to Cohn and Campbell asking to review a long list of documents.

San Diego Opera Board Request For Information
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

As of late last week, they say they’ve received some but not all of the information requested. The minutes of the compensation committee were not provided, nor were the results of an investigation into management conducted in late February.

The compensation committee is chaired by Faye Wilson, a board member with the title “Life Director.” Sources say she has led the committee for more than 10 years.

Wilson is in charge of determining Ian and Ann Campbell’s compensation package, including salary, retirement and benefits. Ann Campbell is the opera's deputy director and is Ian's ex-wife.

According to the board’s bylaws, the compensation committee is supposed to regularly report to the board:

Each committee shall submit to the Board for review a written summary of matters addressed and actions taken at each of its meetings. The summaries shall be submitted to the Administrator of the Association who will distribute them to the Board in advance of the next Board meeting.

Sources say the compensation committee has not followed this practice. When Ann Campbell’s contract was altered in 2013 and signed by her ex-husband, the action was never put before the board.

In the past couple of weeks, four board members have resigned, which leaves 53. A source said there is almost a 50-50 split between those wanting to explore ways to save the company and those committed to the proposed shutdown.

Board members are required to give a minimum of $25,000 upon joining the board and every year of their tenure. Most give far more. There are at least two members, however, who were given special consideration, according to sources, and haven’t given any money. They are reputed to be friends of Ian and Ann Campbell.

Further, some board members told KPBS they worry about not getting impartial legal counsel during this process.

Attorney Victor Vilaplana, of Foley & Lardner LLP, has been retained and is advising the board, though sources said they have yet to see an engagement letter spelling out his services.

Vilaplana served as best man at the Campbells' wedding, according to multiple sources. At the March 19 board meeting, Vilaplana is cited in the minutes explaining how the company’s financial obligations will be handled.

Mr. Vilaplana explained that as of April or soon thereafter, the Assignee would take possession of all Company assets and would be responsible for negotiating all outstanding obligations and contracts.

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