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San Diego Opera prepares its swan song

After 49 years in operation, the San Diego Opera on Wednesday announced it will sing its swan song this season, with plans to shut down at the end of the current season.

Perhaps appropriately, the opera company's production will be the final scheduled performance of "Don Quixote" on April 30, with all remaining operations wrapped up by June 30 — although, of course, it won't really be over until the fat lady sings.

“We saw we faced an insurmountable financial hurdle going forward,” the opera's artistic director, Ian Campbell, said in a statement released after the board of directors voted nearly unanimously to shut down.

Campbell said it was "better to go out with dignity, on a high note, with our heads held high, than to slip into the night, leaving creditors and community in the lurch."

The decision caught many opera lovers off-guard.

John Patrick Ford, a past president and founding director of the opera in 1965 and who serves as an advisory director, said it appeared to be something the board decided suddenly.

"I don’t think the staff people knew anything,” said Ford, a Daily Transcript columnist. “I’ve only known about this for a couple of hours. I’m still getting adjusted to it."

Ford said the opera has been taking reservations on several fundraising events that have been scheduled over the next few months.

"It’s hard for me to conceive they could be marching ahead if they knew they were going to shut down," he said.

The closure could have some rippling effects on San Diego tourism. It is the principal tenant of the Civic Theater and attracts opera aficionados from Los Angeles, Arizona, Baja California and Orange County, which lost its opera company a few years ago due to financial trouble.

Closing the opera will also put a hole in the San Diego Symphony’s revenues, costing it 20 performances per year, Ford said. In addition, the opera employs 350 to 400 local workers — from production staffers to performers — during its season.

"This is their primary earning that they have," Ford said. "Many have been with us for almost 50 years."

Board Chair Karen S. Cohn said the decision was gut-wrenching but unavoidable.

"In spite of excellent financial management, the opera faced increasingly higher ticket sale and fundraising hurdles," she said.

In the opera's most recently filed financial statements with the Internal Revenue Service, covering the fiscal year ended June 30, 2012, the opera spent $7.2 million more than it pulled in, after a $2.3 million shortfall in the previous year. The opera remained in the black, but only because of its cash reserves.

The main problem hasn't been at the box office. After a sharp drop during the recession, ticket sales — which range from $45 for a nosebleed seat in the balcony to $250 for a premier orchestra street on a Saturday night — have climbed steadily over the past couple years, rising nearly 5 percent between the fiscal years ending June 30, 2011 and 2012, the most recent periods that comprehensive figures are available.

Instead, the opera has been hurt most by the dwindling of endowment funds that once held it afloat, as well as a cutback in charitable contributions from the community.

Charitable contributions and grants to the opera hit a peak of $9.7 million in the 2007-08 fiscal year, at the beginning of the recession. But over the next four years, annual contributions plummeted by 44 percent to $5.4 million.

Efforts to raise more money have fallen flat. During the 2011-12 fiscal year, for instance, the opera spent $102,493 on a fundraising concert that raised only $39,691 in receipts.

The opera has responded by cutting back expenses, including Campbell's paycheck.

In the 2011-12 fiscal year, he earned $508,021 and his wife Ann, the opera's artistic director, earned $282,345, for a total compensation of $782,366. That's a sharp drop from the $1 million total they made in fiscal 2009-10, but it's still ahead of many of his peers.

The operas in Houston, Santa Fe and Seattle — which make much more money than San Diego and generally are ranked higher in quality — paid their directors between $345,000 and $400,000, according to their most recent financial statements.

Ford, who was the chair of the search committee that brought Campbell to the Opera 30 years ago, he said he's aware that the compensation is above average.

“Whatever we pay him — he’s worth it,” Ford said. “He’s been an outstanding manager and has kept us in the black. We were in the red when he came here; we were losing money. In his first season, he couldn’t overcome that. But he’s been here 30 years and we’ve had 29 years in the black.”

Until now, at least. The opera will stage its last performance of Verdi's "Requiem" on Thursday and performances of Massenet's "Don Quixote" on April 5, 8, 11 and 13.

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