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Must the opera become a phantom?

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.


Ford is a freelance writer in San Diego and a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com.

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User Response
7 UserComments
M. B. Allen 8:13am April 2, 2014

Thank you, Mr. Ford, for your valuable insights and history. Please stay engaged in the effort to Save San Diego Opera! One point of clarification: it is not Lorena Gonzales' petition. The petition was originated by the White Knights, the group of SDO choristers, costumers, stage crew, staff, and wigs and makeup crew who banded together to organize those of us who care about saving SDO. Here is the origin of the name. Only minutes after some of us had heard about the SDO closure announcement, Ian Campbell stood before us at the dress rehearsal of the Verdi Requiem and said, "There is no white knight." He was wrong.

Joan Henkelmann 3:42pm March 28, 2014

San Diego needs an opera company. We can do light opera along with grand opera. Plenty of young singers with great voices are ready and willing to participate. We do not need name singers who are often not in great voice when they come to S.D

William Purves 1:37pm March 28, 2014

Right on Pat!

Don Schmidt 9:52pm March 27, 2014

Institutional memory is priceless! Thank you, Pat Ford!!! San Diego was presenting in 1950 and producing in 1965! The ghosts are upset and angry. This closure cannot stand. The opera must be allowed to succeed and move forward. We owe that to the ones that came before us, and to the people who will come after us.

Susanne Hayase 9:06pm March 27, 2014

As a great music lover I can only say San Diego without our amazing Opera would be unthinkable. I surely hope civic leaders but also generous patrons step forward and show their support for this wonderful venue in America's finest City! A public poll could be held or a fundraiser or anything else by the general public to help keeping this cultural gem alive.

martha hart 4:00pm March 27, 2014

Thanks for this terrific post - I appreciate what you say about the City needing to recognize the impact the Opera has, not just in jobs, not just the visitors/hotels/restaurants but the comments on the petition site are illuminating - get past the angry ones, the accusations and the clueless, and there are some wonderful stories there of how opera has touched people's lives. And what a great connection you shared to the legacy and history of SD Opera. My first opera was at a student dress rehearsal of FAUST, the 1966 one, with Placido Domingo stepping in to sing the lead role... I understand he later went on to have a pretty decent career. I saw all of the Verdi Festival productions and many others over the years. A lot of great performances as the company was put back together... but I'm at a loss to understand what's happening here, both in the opacity of the process and the speed. Ciao, martha

ron leonardi 3:49pm March 27, 2014

Great article Patrick.