COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

SD Opera hopes to show life begins at 50

A dedicated new board of directors teamed with determined employees and association members to rescue San Diego Opera from the brink of bankruptcy. In just four weeks the successful drive to raise $2.4 million was a great vote of confidence from mostly small donors, many of whom never gave money to the opera company before.

The board of directors supplemented the crowdfunding online campaign with several major donations from members and community leaders. With the pledged funds in escrow, the inspired new leadership team re-instated the 2015 opera season, engaged an interim artistic director to guide the operation and cut the extravagant budget from $17 million to $10.5 million. San Diego Opera is back in business to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

A misguided former board of directors encouraged by former management voted to shut down at the end of the 2014 season. One opposing vote out of 58 directors inspired another look at the future of the company. A second board meeting delayed the closure to test community support. A final showdown meeting split the board with 35 resignations and the exodus of the leadership group that wanted to bury the body while there was still a pulse.

The community reaction was immediate. A petition seeking online support to save the opera, launched by determined employees called the White Knights, gave the reduced board of directors the public support it needed to resuscitate the gasping body.

The first-rate history of San Diego Opera was not put on the deck of a Viking ship, set on fire and sent off to Valhalla, as suggested by Welton Jones, a retired music critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Encouragement also came from the opera world. Opera America, the national association representing all opera companies, sent its president and consultants to help rebuild the company and hire an interim artistic director.

William Mason, a skilled opera executive formerly of Chicago’s Lyric Opera, came out of retirement to take charge of the 2015 SDO season. He considers the new board of directors to be aware of its commitment and its understanding of the oversight required of directors to meet their fiduciary duty.

Future seasons must attract a new and younger audience with a mix of traditional 19th- and 20th-century opera with musicals, rare chamber operas and new works that tell a story about political issues and famous personalities. Repertory seasons of operas about kings and bygone lifestyles do not draw new ticket buyers. This is a bitter pill for the old guard subscribers who are fading in age and ability to buy expensive tickets.

A younger audience can afford opera in a smaller theater presenting less opulent productions with young American artists and innovative staging. That’s the formula for other regional companies, and even a few major houses, that have survived the recession and receding traditional opera audiences.

What’s new on opera stages for 2014 and beyond? Santa Fe Opera will premiere “Dr. Sun Yat-sen” this summer and Opera Theatre of St. Louis will offer “27,” the street address of Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon in the 1920s, both about famous people.

San Francisco Opera opened its summer season with Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat,” also seen at Houston Grand Opera. Lyric Opera of Chicago had a successful run of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel.” Houston again featured two Broadway musicals — Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Sound of Music.”

These more contemporary works are sung by opera stars who recognize the benefits of reaching new audience in crossover roles. American composers John Adams, Philip Glass and Jake Heggie have their new operas performed in many of the large houses here and abroad. Verdi and Wagner need to step aside and let operagoers experience some fresh music and drama combined with theatrical talent and avant-garde stage technology.

These are the innovations for the new opera management to consider. There are many challenges ahead to bring change. If successful, life can began at 50.


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 johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com.

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