It was a solemn occasion at the recent performance of Verdi’s “Requiem” by San Diego Opera. The board of directors shocked the community and the international opera world the previous day by announcing the opera company would cease operations at the end of the 2014 season.
After 49 years of artistic acclaim and the past 29 years operating in the black, the abrupt decision by the board of directors was hasty. No efforts to consider other options or to consult with city leaders and loyal patrons were offered. It was a slam-dunk vote behind closed doors to avoid speculation about the ability to fund future seasons of world-class opera.
There’s more at stake for the San Diego economy than the loss of more than 200 jobs. The opera provides nearly half the employment for the musicians in the San Diego Symphony. The opera rents the Civic Theatre for five months of the year to help defray the maintenance of a city asset. The closure of San Diego Opera will severely impact those other two cultural attractions that bring tourists and business to the city.
Now is the time for the City Council, the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups to step forward and find a way to keep opera in San Diego. Local universities and education groups should join a coalition of civic and business leaders, arts patrons and concerned citizens. SDO has filled the gap in music education at public schools for 50 years by bringing hundreds of thousands of students into the theater to see opera.
Does the city want to lose all this just because a rubber-stamp board of directors won’t stand up and fight? They have a fiduciary responsibility to the public to uphold a civic institution that has received public financial support for five decades. They can’t walk away with dignity without seeking community input for potential alternatives.
I can hear the ghosts of opera boards of the past who labored to bring opera to San Diego stalking the back corridors of the Civic Theatre, like a Phantom of the Opera. They are demanding community support.
There were crises before. My first year as president in 1970 required cutting back from four operas to two for the season to stabilize the financial position. SDO went on to grow to five productions with four performances each.
General Director Tito Capobianco left town in a huff in 1983 as the board faced an operations deficit and confronted him by canceling some of his favorite projects. Divided board members pulled up their bootstraps and found a new general director who managed the next 29 seasons without a deficit. It can be done with the right support group that won’t take failure as an option.
Those ghosts I hear were the city’s business and political leaders working with dedicated arts patrons who built our cultural legacy. When I came to San Diego 57 years ago, the symphony played in Russ Auditorium at San Diego High School. You had to be well-padded to sit comfortably in those folding wooden seats. Opera came from San Francisco to play in the Fox Theatre, where acoustics and backstage space for scene changes and dressing rooms were spartan.
One of my ghosts from the opera boards of the past is Morley Golden. A major contractor and arts patron who arranged for San Francisco Opera to perform here for 15 years, Golden was dedicated to providing a state-of-the-art theater for the symphony and opera. With city support for the land and community subscriptions for the building, it was done. Morley’s leadership encouraged the Opera Guild to produce its first opera for the theater opening in1965.
To the credit of those opera crusaders, San Diego’s Civic Theatre was finished under Morley’s personal supervision just one year after the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles and Lincoln Center’s opera house for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, both cities considerably larger than San Diego.
Where are those kinds of leaders with great vision in San Diego today?
There might be hope if San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez has enough clout to get community support. At deadline, her petition to study options is seeking 10,000 signatures to show the SDO board of directors that the city wants to keep an opera company. Let’s find more community leaders to start a crusade.