Can opera shed its elitist image?

It was a spirited gathering for the special members’ meeting of San Diego Opera last week. Concerned patrons and subscribers spilled their enthusiasm and frustration over the future of opera in San Diego with comments and advisory resolutions to a receptive board of directors led by President Carol Lazier.

Despite considerable advice and queries from the crowd, the association members have only two powers: elect the board of directors and approve dissolution and substantial sale of company assets. However, several other management issues were approved as advisory directives to the board.

The meeting was a fine example of town hall governance, reflecting the outlook of grass roots supporters. The uprising of opera fans against a former out-of-touch board of directors might spell the end of elitism associated with opera.

As demonstrated by consultants from Opera America, a national association helping the San Diego company to survive, the demographics for opera today have changed. The potential new audience is not educated in traditional music forms, thanks to the public school system dropping music classes.

Even traditional opera fans are becoming interested in contemporary works produced by time-honored companies (such as the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera companies) and many of the innovative regional companies.

That doesn’t mean dropping the 18th- and 19th-century repertory that defines grand opera. Just provide a mix of old and new, other forms of musical drama such as Broadway musicals and light opera from bygone days that appeal to a new audience.

Take opera programming into the streets, at malls and stadiums, to reach another crowd that shuns the formal opera house and the high price of a ticket. Reach out to new and younger spectators to define another kind of opera not related to the black-tie-and-tiara set.

In the 1950s and 1960s, going to the opera was a special occasion and set the standard for social and business status. Rising ticket prices ($13 in 1969 versus $240 in 2014 for the best seats) and a more informal style of living keep younger generations away from the opera house. It’s a different world that doesn’t cater to elitism.

An energized new board of directors and officers has heard from its constituency and is proceeding with raising an operations fund of $1 million by May 19. If successful, the company can move ahead to meet payroll and overhead until the 2015 advance-ticket revenues come in.

To reassure those supporting a 2015 season, their donations will be held in an escrow account to be refunded if the goal isn’t reached. The good news is that 85 percent of the gifts received so far ($770,000 at press time) are less than $1,000 each. That indicates that someone other than the elite and big contributors is helping the opera.

The status of the contracts held by former CEO Ian Campbell and his former wife, Ann Spira Campbell, has become an issue with several potential donors who do not want their support to go to the long-time employees now on administrative leave. That is a delicate obstacle because the employment contacts would be difficult to break; among the reasons are for cause or damage to the Civic Theatre.

The contracts, approved by the previous board of directors, are iron-clad in favor of the Campbells. Refusal to pay would only lead to costly litigation and probably settle in their favor.

Opera fans who want to keep opera in San Diego under a new, innovative and affordable format will have to get over their sanction and just recall the 30 years of first-class opera we have enjoyed.

A competent staff under dedicated board leadership is working hard to pull off the makeover of San Diego Opera to better serve the community with quality productions that can reach out to new audiences.

Enjoying musical drama does not have to be elite. Opera is about people and should extend to people of all classes as it evolved in the 19th century from baroque to verismo as a popular entertainment.

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at the San Diego State University. He can be reached at

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1 UserComments
Carol Foley 12:34pm May 8, 2014

If SDO must pay the Campbell's then let's keep them under contract. In other words, they can't go to work for anyone else. They may soon decide they want to move along and compromise on a settlement rather than spend the next few years doing basically nothing from 9-5, five days a week. Please tell me you've considered this.