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Opera workers try to block closure

As questions continue to mount about the San Diego Opera's decision to close its doors, local labor unions have been meeting with lawyers to discuss the possibility of getting a court-ordered injunction to block the organization from selling its assets, which they fear could start when the last performance of "Don Quixote" ends April 13.

"They're telling us they're going to start selling assets right after the last opera closes," said Ginny McClure, shop steward of the opera's costume department, who has worked for the opera for 25 years. "Once that happens, it would be very difficult to put it all back together. The cost of doing that would be horrendous."

"What nobody can understand is why the opera's board would take this step — and with such speed — when they've been telling everybody that the opera's still in the black and that things were looking good, if we could just get through this hump," McClure said.

In the meantime, more than 12,000 people have signed a union-backed petition calling on the opera's board of directors to reverse last week's decision to shut down all operations on June 30.

Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez has used her Facebook page to urge supporters to sign a petition to save "up to 400 good, middle-class jobs and a cultural jewel. We can't let it go without a fight."

The board decided to close the opera even though it is in the black, with no debt, no deficit, no line of credit and a 28-year history of balanced budgets.

In an interview on KPBS radio this week, San Diego Opera CEO Ian Campbell — who initiated the shutdown talks — said the decision was more tied to projections of future performance, saying the opera faced a potential shortfall of around $5 million next year unless it could raise more charitable contributions.

"Looking down the track, we knew that subscriptions had dropped, single-ticket sales had dropped and donors had reduced their contributions," he said. "The money needed to close the income gap between expenses and box office was not going to be there."

Financial data released by the opera suggest that both contributions and ticket sales declined by 7 percent from 2009-10 to 2011-12 fiscal years, although tax returns filed with the Internal Revenue Service show that after a sharp decline at the onset of the recession, ticket revenues grew by 5 percent. By deadline, opera officials had not explained the discrepancy.

The decision to shut down operations has mystified managers at other opera companies, who question why the opera was not trying to fight for its survival — especially on the eve of its 50th anniversary, which could have helped generate more interest in its performances.

"Something about this doesn't add up or make sense," said Perryn Leech, managing director of the Houston Grand Opera.

Leech said that operas throughout the country have been dealing with "donor fatigue" ever since the Great Recession began in 2008, with fewer donors willing to make large contributions. But he said that despite that trend, Houston has been able to double its donations over the past several years largely by broadening its base of contributors.

"Some of them give at a very low level, say $250, and might remain there," he said. "But some who give $250 one year might give $500 the next. By broadening the base and relying less heavily on four or five big donors, that makes an opera much less vulnerable."

Leech said that, like San Diego Opera, Houston saw a large falloff in tickets when the recession hit. In response, Houston cut its ticket prices and boosted the number of performances from 30 in 2010 to 49 during the past year, to attract a wider audience.

"We offer more than 100 tickets at just $12.50, which aren't all up in the nose-bleed section, but instead are spread throughout the house, with the idea that some of those people — who maybe have never seen opera before — would move from $12.50 to a $25 ticket or higher next time they come," he said.

In addition, Houston offers a broader mix of performances than San Diego. This year's schedule in Houston included traditional operas such as "Aida" and "Rigoletto," as well as Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" — "much more like a Broadway musical," Leech said — and the world premiere of "Passenger," an opera about the Holocaust.

Charles Mackay, who heads the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico, said he, too, was surprised by the San Diego Opera's decline, because 2013 generated the highest ticket revenue in his company's history, with 92 percent capacity in terms of sales of available tickets. He even had to add an unscheduled performance of Rossini's "La Donna del Lago" to the schedule, because the other six nights had sold out.

Mackay said that overall revenue was still behind the company's 50th anniversary in 2006, when it generated extra money through special activities. "That's part of what surprises me about San Diego," he said. "I don't understand why they didn't want to stay around for their 50th anniversary."

As with Houston, Santa Fe relied on a mix of grand operas, lesser-known pieces and new operas, including the world premier of "Oscar," based on the final days of Oscar Wilde.

In contrast, the San Diego opera's schedule this year has been dominated by four traditional operas — including "Don Quixote" — with only 16 nights of performance for the season, compared to the 25 nights that the company staged before the recession.

In his interview with KPBS, Campbell — whose salary averaged more than $625,000 from the 2009-10 to 2011-12 seasons — said that besides declining ticket sales and contributions, the opera was also hurt by rising costs, especially labor.

"Seventy-four percent of the budget is people, that’s where the body is buried," he said. "It’s not buried in any other item, it's not buried in the theater rent. It’s people, people, people."

But McClure said that the workers had accepted what amounted to a 25 percent pay cut after the opera scaled back the number of productions. And she said management had never told workers that the finances were in dire straits and had never met with the unions to renegotiate contracts.

"They never asked us for concessions. Not once," she said. "And there are a lot of other things they could have done to save money that weren't even tried. Even if we have to limp along a little bit or go through bankruptcy court, we could easily go another season or two to see if we could make it. But we aren't being given that opportunity."

She said that closing the company will directly affect more than 400 people, including singers, musicians, production workers, stagehands and wardrobe workers, as well as indirectly affecting the local businesses, hotels, restaurants, bars around the Civic Theater and the fabric and shoe stores, dry cleaners and other vendors that have supported the opera's operations.

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