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Arts & Culture

Campbell Out At San Diego Opera

Ian Campbell led the San Diego Opera for 31 years before guiding the board to close the company to "avoid bankruptcy."
Ian Campbell led the San Diego Opera for 31 years before guiding the board to close the company to "avoid bankruptcy."

After 31 years, the San Diego Opera has officially parted ways with general and artistic director Ian Campbell.

His ex-wife, Ann Spira Campbell, the opera’s deputy general director, is also no longer with the company, according to a brief statement released late Thursday.

“The Opera acknowledges and thanks Ian and Ann for their dedication and contributions to the Opera over the past many years. At the same time, the Opera also acknowledges that current differences with them need to be resolved,” opera officials said in the statement.


Lawyers for both sides continue to negotiate a settlement.

The Campbells were placed on paid leave on April 25 and are no longer on the company payroll.

The Campbells’ employment contracts have been a flashpoint since the opera board, in a surprise move guided by Campbell, voted 33-1 on March 19 to shut down at the end of the 2014 season. The closing date has since been postponed to May 19. A press conference is scheduled for Monday where an announcement will be made about the company's future.

Campbell, 68, told KPBS shortly after the closure vote that the opera’s financial future, after 49 years in business, was bleak and he and the board agreed it would be best to close and avoid bankruptcy.

"The opera has no debt, no deficit, no line of credit," Campbell told KPBS Midday Edition.


“This course of action will allow the opera to go out with dignity.”

But that dignified end has eluded the chief in the weeks since.

Campbell was heckled during a pre-performance talk at the opening night of “Don Quixote,” the company’s last production of the season.

Opera staff revealed an investigation into the Campbells’ management style, describing them as closed-minded and resistant to new ideas that could save the company. Critics laid into the general director on social media.

“I don’t understand the visciousness of going after Ian and Ann who have worked so hard for 31 years and brought us beautiful opera,” said Karen Cohn, the former board president who resigned in protest during a contentious board meeting on April 17.

She walked out with a group of board members loyal to Campbell when a vote passed to extend the closing date once again. Cohn says they resigned because they believed the prudent path was to close while there was enough money to pay the company's debts, which included contracts with the San Diego Symphony, singers, and the Campbells. The board is now under new leadership and hopes to raise enough funds for a 2015 season.

“I just can’t stand seeing Ian’s legacy trashed like this,” said Cohn. “I don’t know if he’ll ever get a job again or if he wants to because this has been so harmful."

Until the sudden move to close, Campbell was on course to have an extraordinary legacy.

By most accounts, he delivered an excellent product.

He transformed a fledgling opera company in financial crisis into one that staged acclaimed productions that showcased international talent.

And he balanced the books.

During onstage speeches before performances, Campbell would often boast to the audience that the company was in the black. Marc Scorca of Opera America, a national umbrella organization that Campbell once led, said San Diego Opera was “a company we’ve pointed to over the years as being a healthy one, delivering high quality opera to audiences that have decreased somewhat but not more than any other opera company.”

Since the announcement that the company would close, however, Campbell has publicly underscored the decline in ticket sales and lack of donations. He said he warned the board for years about the bleak outlook.

But critics say Campbell could have avoided closure if he would have been willing to rethink how opera is performed in San Diego.

“You can’t continue to do what you’ve done for 30 years and have it be exciting and relevant to a community,” said David Gockley, general director of the San Francisco Opera.

Campbell insisted on staging elaborate grand operas which require a lot of labor and are expensive. Campbell told U-T San Diego he did not want to “water down the beer” and risk sacrificing quality by staging opera differently. In his KPBS interview, Campbell said that San Diegans only wanted grand opera.

Retired venture capitalist William Stensrud, a longtime board member and past president, resigned from the board in 2010 because he believed the company was not sustainable if it continued producing opera at the same scale.

“I discussed with the board and management what I felt was the need to renovate the company to do something new in order to have a sustainable company over the long run,” said Stensrud who now lives in northern California.“There was no interest in doing that.”

After he voiced his concerns, management sent Stensrud an article about the perils of donor-driven innovation.

Though Campbell is resistant to change, he is “absolutely brilliant,” Stensrud said. “He produced by and large really high quality productions.”

He also praised Campbell for having “an utterly unique capacity for identifying really talented young artists early in their career.”

Because of Campbell’s ability to spot a star, some of today’s most famous opera singers performed in San Diego under his leadership, including Renee Fleming and Ramon Vargas. “Often, I will hear a voice that I know will be right for a future opera,” said Campbell in a 2009 interview.

“I look for an attractive voice with nice color,” said Campbell in that same interview. “Volume does not impress me. I often will say to a singer – ‘Stop singing that. What do you have that is more lyrical? What do you have that fits your voice better?’”

Campbell came to San Diego Opera in 1983 from New York’s Metropolitan Opera where he was the assistant artistic administrator.

J. Patrick Ford, a former San Diego Opera board president who led the committee that hired Campbell, said at that time Campbell was “extremely innovative” and really “up and at ‘em” about pushing the company forward.

And he succeeded.

When Campbell took over the financially troubled organization, it was a $3 million operation.

By 2013, the annual budget was $17 million.

Ann Spira was hired to do strategic planning for the opera in 1983. She and Campbell married two years later. She later ascended to the top fundraising post. The Campbells divorced after 27 years of marriage in March 2013. Spira stayed at the company and the couple have worked side by side ever since.

In 2003, philanthropist Joan Kroc gave the opera a $10 million endowment. Campbell drew from that endowment to keep the company solvent. He told KPBS Midday Edition, “Joan said deliver Olympic quality opera if you can, and this is to help pay for it. ... Any criticism anybody makes about the use of that fund is sheer ignorance and nothing more.”

Stensrud believes there is a market for opera on a smaller, more affordable scale, and he doesn’t agree with how Campbell has handled the push to close.

Campbell’s tarnished legacy is “an enormous tragedy,” he said. “For his entire tenure, [Campbell] was a spectacular general director, ran a tight company and put on a great product,” said Stensrud.

“It’s such a tragedy, someone should write an opera about this.”

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