Drama At San Diego Opera Enters Second Act
Directors of the San Diego Opera will meet Monday to address mounting concern among some on the board that they did not have adequate information – including an investigation of the opera’s management tactics – before voting two weeks ago to shutter the venerable institution.
Sources on the board and opera staff told KPBS they did not have the full picture of expenses, liabilities or the results of a legal investigation that was prompted by a claim alleging a hostile work environment.
A group of board members say they hope to persuade a majority of the directors to “hit the pause button,” and rethink the decision to disband the company.
In a letter, they have requested more than two dozens documents.
David Kleinfeld, who was the single vote against closing the 49-year-old opera company, said he is one of the directors insisting on more answers.
“A decision like this cannot be made under the circumstances that evolved last week,” said Kleinfeld. “We need to take a deliberate look and exhaustively understand what the reasons were for proposing this. That has not been adequately explained.”
Hopes for saving the opera extend beyond those board members.
A petition has more than 18,000 signatures. A White Knight Committee, made up of opera staff, union members, seasonal employees, vendors and supporters, has organized to encourage the board to rescind its vote.
KPBS spoke with or reached out to more than 20 people in an attempt to probe the reasons behind the opera’s sudden announcement to cease operations. Most didn’t want to be quoted by name because they worry about retaliation and future job prospects. Some hope there’s still a chance to “right the ship” and “save face.”
Karen Cohn, the opera’s board president, did not respond to a KPBS request for comment, but in a commentary published Sunday in U-T San Diego, she strongly defended the opera’s action and reprimanded critics.
“The San Diego Opera Board’s decision to shutter San Diego Opera after the 2014 season was the result of years of deliberation as we watched an inexorable trend sweeping toward us," Cohn wrote. "Very simply, dwindling financial support indicated an irrefutable decline in appetite for grand opera in San Diego."
In a reference to opera General Director Ian Campbell and his ex-wife, Ann, the deputy general director, Cohn wrote, "Now that the decision has been made, the conspiracy theorists have emerged, casting totally incorrect aspersions on two key staff leaders. Those aspersions are wrong, they are damaging and they are unforgivable.”
The board voted on March 19 to cease operations and sell off the opera company's assets. The action, approved 33-1, would put hundreds out of work. The union representing solo and chorus singers and stage management personnel has challenged the action in a grievance filed with the National Labor Relations Board.
For the community, closure means little to no opera in San Diego County.
The vote took some board members by surprise. In past meetings, plenty of discussions about fundraising troubles and shrinking audiences occurred, but no talk of an immediate shutdown. Just two weeks before the vote, Ian Campbell attended a regular board meeting to talk up the 50th anniversary season in 2015.
The concerned board members have sent a letter to Cohn and Campbell requesting documents, including compensation packages, calendar appointments with donors and performance reviews.
A vote to end operations was not listed on the March 19 special meeting agenda. Before making the decision, board members were given a one-sheet explainer with a colored graph.
Board members who spoke with KPBS say there should have been months of discussion about company liabilities, reduced costs and new programming possibilities before casting such a momentous vote.
They also question whether the vote to close the operation is valid if board members (there are 58) weren’t given enough notice for the “special meeting.”
One of the items board members did not have before voting was access to a recent investigation into the management style of the Campbells.
In mid-February, legal counsel investigated a hostile work environment claim and determined the incident did not meet the necessary legal criteria for such a claim, sources on the opera staff said.
However, the incident led to a broader inquiry by a new lawyer, who was appointed by Faye Wilson, a board member with the title life director. That lawyer interviewed seven staff members. Nic Reveles, Geisel director for education and outreach, was one of them.
Reveles, 66, who has been with the opera 16 years, described top management as “closed, unwilling to dialogue, a top-down management style and micromanaging.”
He, among others, was disappointed when the investigation appeared to go nowhere.
“Our understanding was there would be a report presented to the board about management style,” said Reveles. “And we waited and waited, and there was no report.”
In his interview with the investigator, Reveles said he talked about how open dialogue is necessary to reinvent the opera for changing audiences and troubled financial times. “We’ve got to have a new vision of what opera in San Diego is going to be,” he said.
No Traction For New Ideas
Staff sources frustrated with Ian Campbell’s management style are conflicted when describing the man who, 30 years ago, took a financially strapped operation and built a world-class opera company. They say he’s an artistic genius, a mentor and has taught them everything they know about opera. They also say he’s heavy-handed and combustible.
Staff said they shared concerns about the Campbells’ refusal to entertain new ideas or consider ways to reach new audiences.
Insiders gave KPBS examples of ideas that the Campbells rejected, including staging populist operas such as “Anna Nicole” and flash mobs.
Even changes to the “no late seating” policy – a long-standing policy that late-comers cannot be seated until intermission – were dismissed.
Reveles said that as traffic in San Diego increased, more people arrived late to the opera, and they were frustrated to miss a major portion of the performance. It was suggested at a meeting that the “no late seating” policy be reconsidered. The staff was told the policy stands, end of discussion.
Ian Campbell did not respond to multiple interview requests. In her commentary Sunday, Cohn alluded to the push for new ideas – and why some would not work.
“We are about world-class grand opera. For 49 years, the San Diego Opera delivered increasingly acclaimed world-class grand opera with internationally renowned singers. That is what our subscribers enjoyed and what our philanthropists supported,” she wrote. “Neither audience was particularly in the market for alternative or radically new programming.”
Sources told KPBS they were honest in their description of working for the Campbells during the investigation in the hope that the leadership would consider new ways to run the company. When the report never appeared, they say they felt duped and feared repercussions. Just weeks later, they learned the company was closing.
Abby Silverman Weiss, the lawyer who conducted the investigation, did not respond to an interview request.
In her commentary, Cohn said the Campbells had the most to lose from the opera’s closure:
“They are soon to be out of work, without benefits, with reputations sullied by unfounded allegations and diminished future prospects. That is unfair. They could have ‘jumped ship’ before now, but their integrity made them want to do everything they could to avoid it. They deserve gratitude and respect.”
Critics inside the opera and out have questioned the opera’s expenses and whether it did enough to curtail them. The cost of office space and the compensation packages for the Campbells have been central.
A lawyer representing the opera company denied a public records request from KPBS seeking copies of key operational documents, including the report on the investigation, internal board documents, and employee compensation packages and expense reports.
KPBS later obtained the employment agreements from another source.
They show Ian Campbell’s current contract, which went into effect in May 2006, extends through 2017.
In addition to compensation, which can be adjusted by the board of directors annually, the agreement provides for health and retirement benefits, as well as a car.
Ann Campbell’s contract was signed by Ian Campbell in February 2013. Benefits include health care and a car paid for by the opera.
The Campbells’ combined compensation was highest in 2009-10, at more than $1 million, according to tax returns filed by the opera association. The total decreased to $992,759 in 2010-11; it fell to $790,366 in 2011-12, the latest year the tax filings are available.
In media interviews, Campbell says he is paid for performing two roles, general director and artistic director.
But Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, a national umbrella organization, said most general directors are equally responsible for the business side and the artistic side of the operation. Those duties are combined, he said, under the title “general director.”
Scorca said proportionate to the size of the company’s budget, “Campbell is the most highly compensated general director among our largest opera companies.” Some general directors have higher salaries, but their companies are much larger, he explained in an email.
Declining Revenue, Sapping Investments
Over the years, Scorca has pointed to San Diego Opera as a model of health, presenting opera of the highest standards.
In a recent interview on the KPBS radio show Midday Edition, Campbell said San Diego Opera was committed to high-quality, grand opera. That is expensive and the greatest expense, he said, is the labor.
Campbell has noted repeatedly that the opera has been in the black for 28 years. In order to remain consistently so, the company has drawn down its investments. In 2003, the opera received a $10 million bequest from Joan Kroc to spend on producing “Olympic-quality opera,” according to Campbell.
Many say that’s exactly what Campbell did.
“We cannot lose sight of the wonderful accomplishments of Ann and Ian Campbell that we’ve all benefited from,” said Kleinfeld, the one board member who voted against closure. “I will express gratitude now and forever for what they have accomplished. At the same time, I’ll do the best I can to right mistakes that I think are being made.”
The opera has roughly $15 million in assets. Those include property, such as the San Diego Opera Scenic Studio on Commercial Avenue, and costumes, some of which were designed by Zandra Rhodes, a locally based fashion designer with an international reputation. Those assets will be sold off after April 14, including the sets from “Don Quixote,” the company’s last production.
Campbell said despite some surplus and no debt, the company does not have a viable future. Ticket sales have consistently dropped and donors have stopped giving.
“When I hear people say that we blew up a budget, no we did not” said Campbell on KPBS Midday Edition. “We brought it down significantly, and the problem is a revenue issue not an expense issue.”
Carlos Cota, who is with the union for stagehands and scenic design, said more could be done to cut expenses. The union was never approached to cut costs before the board vote, he said, adding the union is more than willing to negotiate, including on salary.
But the opera company also needs to look at other kinds of cuts, he said.
“They’re in a beautiful office downtown, right next to the Civic Theater,” Cota said. “If we’re asked to take some cuts, let’s talk about moving into a smaller office, something a little more conservative.”
The opera’s offices are 15,000 square feet. Rent is just under $450,000 a year.
Reveles said staff suggested pay cuts once the recession hit. “We were told, 'Oh, that’s not a road you want to go down,' ” he said.
“I think it was exactly the road we needed to go down,” Reveles said.
Sources said what would have really made a difference was smaller, less expensive, more innovative ways to present opera.
Attempt At Reinvention
In 2013, a new board president, Stacy Rosenberg, set up a strategic-planning committee to look at innovations in opera programming and business models. Scorca, of Opera America, attended a board retreat that summer. “We spoke a lot about the creative energies at other opera companies, and people were very intrigued by it,” Scorca said.
“When I spend a day with a board to do strategic planning, it’s really to launch what I hope will be a continuing discussion about possibilities with the company,” explained Scorca.
According to sources, that didn’t happen. Rosenberg, who did not respond to interview requests, resigned from the board. Board leadership quickly disbanded the strategic-planning committee. The focus, sources say, returned to raising money.
In recent years, several opera companies have closed. Others have reinvented themselves.
The Fort Worth Opera presents its season in an eight-week festival format. Its general director, Darren Woods, said the company has reached new audiences through programs such as “Opera Shots.” Opera singers perform in local bars in front of hundreds – for the price of a beer.
Fort Worth also does site-specific chamber operas out in the community.
In his KPBS interview, Campbell said smaller, chamber operas are not what San Diego audiences want.
“It’s too easy to assume that what your inner circle thinks is what the entire audience thinks,” said Scorca. He said you have to do those operas to really find out if there’s an appetite for them.
Whether San Diego Opera will have a chance to experiment is unknown.
Reveles is encouraged by the support demonstrated by those signing petitions.
“I can’t imagine life without opera," Reveles said. “It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve dedicated my life to, and I’m not about to change that.”
This story was edited by Lorie Hearn, executive director and editor of inewsource, a KPBS media partner.