San Diego Opera kicks off new season
San Diego Opera general director David Bennett previews the 2023-24 season and talks about the changes and challenges ahead.
Next Wednesday, San Diego Opera (SDO) kicks off its new season with "Grammy Greats Unite – Latonia Moore and J’Nai Bridges in Concert." Soprano Moore and mezzo-soprano Bridges sang together in SDO's 2016 production of "Madama Butterfly." Next week, they will join together in concert.
"They'll be performing a varied program with lots of operatic favorites, music, theater, little George Gershwin, a little Edith Piaf. So a nice program with members of the San Diego Symphony and conducted by our resident conductor, Bruce Stasyna," Bennett said. "And so when we do these sorts of concerts, the conductor works very closely with the artists to curate a program of their choosing. And that's one of the things I like about these concerts, is we really get a sense of who these artists are from the repertoire that they choose."
The concert will take place next Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Balboa Theatre. The concert is a way to celebrate some of the themes that Bennett has been championing since he came onboard as general director.
"One of my goals since I've been here, is to explore the breadth of what we consider opera," Bennett said. "We've been thinking about the expressive potency of the human voice being the centerpiece of everything that we do. We had a rebranding and we have a new tagline, which is 'Every voice tells a story.' And why that's important to us is that gives everyone that attends — new and old audiences for San Diego Opera — the understanding that they'll see themselves in some way in the work that we do."
As proof of those different voices, SDO will be presenting another mariachi opera, "El Milagro del Recuerdo (The Miracle of Remembering)" in December.
"The story is really about Mexicans who have to come to America to work to support their families and what they gain by that — security — but also what they leave behind. So it has very funny moments, very beautiful moments. And it's told with this gorgeous music that we love, mariachi, and it's a very beautiful, poignant Christmas opera," Bennett stated.
One thing patrons may notice is that the operas will be having only two performances rather than the usual four. That decision was a budgetary one. Audiences are returning but not to pre-pandemic numbers and the cost of putting on opera has gone up.
"We closed about $1.4 million less in box office revenue than we did in our last pre-COVID full year, so that's quite significant," Bennett said. "And so we find ourselves in this moment where we have less demand than the supply of opera that we were providing. And one of our core value statements focuses on fiscal responsibility and adaptiveness and making sure that we are adaptive to current circumstances so we can be here for the future of our community."
And while it may seem counterintuitive to save money by having fewer shows to sell tickets to, the truth is SDO loses money every time it opens its doors for a show.
"The per performance cost at the Civic Theater has increased from 2017, it was $325,000 per performance, and last year was $415,000 per performance. It's just the nature of producing opera. We'll oftentimes have in excess of 300 people that we engage when we're performing a particularly large opera. And box office just doesn't pay for that. Last year, we closed the year with about 20 percent of our expenses being covered by ticket revenue. That means the other 80 percent has to be covered from donations."
Adding to those challenges is the fact that the future of the Civic Theatre is up in the air.
"The city declared the land that includes the Civic Theater, surplus land, which allows it to be redeveloped and allows the whole area around the Civic Theater to be redeveloped, which is a good thing," Bennett explained. "By declaring it surplus land, that allows big portion of this property to be redeveloped with affordable housing, but they did not require developers to include a theater in their responses. So that left us scratching our heads, saying, will there actually be a theater in San Diego, a renovated Civic, or a new theater in San Diego?"
For "Don Giovanni," Bennett said, "It will be a dynamic new production that we're putting together with a beautiful, very talented young director who's worked here a number of times, but it may remind audiences of perhaps a concert by Taylor Swift or Katy Perry. So it will have props, it will have costumes, it will have scenic elements, but it will be very vibrant."
Bennett also teased that at the final concert of the season, SDO will preview an opera film it has made. So while the road ahead may be a little rocky and uncertain, it also promises to be exciting.