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Opera president extends olive branch

After nearly a month of being under fire for spearheading efforts to close the San Diego Opera, the president of the opera's board of directors on Thursday issued a statement saying she was "exploring every possible idea" to keep the company running in one form or another.

"Every single one of us wants to save opera in San Diego," wrote Karen S. Cohn, a self-described homemaker and "community volunteer" whose husband, Donald, sits on the executive committee of the Old Globe Theater. "To be sure, there are disagreements about how to best accomplish this goal, but what is most important is that we all share this same goal."

Cohn's statement — described as a "manifesto" by opera staffers — also pledged greater transparency at the opera and more openness to change.

The statement appeared to be a major reversal for Cohn, who led the board's vote last month to close by the end of June, saying that it was "an inevitable death spiral." At that time, she dismissed her critics as being "uninformed" and relying on "conspiracy theories."

"Second-guessing the board, of which I am president, is not productive," she wrote in a column March 29 in U-T San Diego. But two days later the board itself lopsidedly voted to provide more time to explore ways to keep the company afloat, postponing the start of its sale of assets from April 14 to April 29.

Cohn's latest statement doesn't go far enough to assuage her critics, who want the board to rescind or postpone its decision to dissolve the company to allow more time to develop a viable business plan for the company.

"She's trying to reverse the negative PR that has surrounded the decision, but she's still not assisting in any efforts to keep the company moving," said Chad Frisque, a member of the so-called White Knight Committee fighting for the opera's survival.

Frisque and other members of the committee stress that if the opera goes out of business, its impact will be far-ranging.

During an appearance at the City Council this week, speakers from the White Knight group estimated the opera's direct economic impact to San Diego at $7 million, including $2 million in salaries, $1.4 million in revenues for the San Diego Symphony, $800,000 in rent at the Civic Theater, $250,000 in production housing fees and $160,000 in audience parking, besides the indirect impact on local bars, restaurants and suppliers.

In addition, the opera runs a scenery studio in Barrio Logan that uses 750 local subcontractors to produce sets for business conventions as well as for theater groups in San Diego County.

The committee has been working to craft a business plan to keep the opera running, partly based on ideas that have helped create turnarounds at regional operas in Fort Worth, Minneapolis, Detroit and Philadelphia.

Frisque, who has worked with the opera for 13 years, including a stint in its marketing department, said some of the changes would involve new approaches to management style, marketing, advertising, expanding the donor base and cutting costs for executive salaries and office leases, for example.

But he said that the current leadership of the opera has been too wedded to its current mode of operations to listen to proposals to change.

For instance, at a time when most opera houses are trying to attract younger audiences by adding modern operas and operettas, opera management in San Diego, including CEO Ian Campbell, has opposed such changes.

In her U-T column last month, Cohn said that neither the opera's subscribers nor its donors were "in the market for alternative or radically new programming." She took a different tone in her statement Thursday, pledging that the management team would have "completely open minds about what might be possible for the future of opera in San Diego."

Frisque was skeptical of the pledge, as well as of Cohn's promise to make the rationale behind the board's decision "as publicly transparent as possible."

He noted that two weeks after a group of dissident directors requested a list of financial and policy documents from management, they still haven't received several items, including notes from a recent investigation of management practices.

The opera's bylaws guarantee that "every director shall have the absolute right at any reasonable time to inspect and copy all books, records and documents of every kind."

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1 UserComments
William Purves 10:43pm April 10, 2014

On it's face this looks like great news for San Diego Opera and all who want to see it survive and thrive into its next 50 years. I applaud the board and its leadership for this statement, and hope everyone who loves opera in San Diego will help them in any way they can to shape the vision for San Diego opera going forward, including identifying the leadership and financial support that new vision will require. Consistent with this would be the immediate rescinding of the end of April deadline for dissolution, and throwing the full weight of the board behind the strategic planning process. A great first step!