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City Council gets opera serenade

More than 50 members of the San Diego Opera serenaded the City Council with song Tuesday morning, after asking the council to support their attempts to keep the institution running.

The council took no action on the request, which would require public notice if it were to be acted on.

The singers warned that if the opera closed, it would have a far-reaching impact on the local economy, especially because of the rippling effect on other arts groups, from the San Diego Symphony to small theater troupes throughout the county.

"We need our arts to make this city great," Nicolas Reveles, the organization's director of education, told the council.

The council meeting was the latest evidence of the sharp divide between the opera's workers, who hope to keep the company’s going through at least its 50th anniversary next year, and the organization's upper management, who hope to shut down operations April 29 and liquidate the company by June 30, even though it faces no immediate financial dangers.

On Tuesday morning, the upper management team instituted new rules that require public statements about the opera to be approved by at least four of the five members of a panel composed of CEO Ian Campbell and Board President Karen S. Cohn — two of the driving forces behind the proposed closure — as well as Campbell's ex-wife Ann, the opera's high-paid executive director of marketing and development; Keith Fisher, executive director of administration; and Michael Lowry, the chief financial officer.

"From now until further notice, what we are calling the 'operations team' will make executive and administrative decisions, particularly about financial issues, publicity and public statements…," Fisher wrote in the memo. "This system may be a bit cumbersome, but it sets a protocol, covers all the departments, seeks everyone’s input and involves the board through Karen Cohn, when appropriate."

Opera workers who appeared at the meeting described the memo as being tantamount to a "gag order," although they said they felt their words would be covered by free speech and labor law protections.

Reveles, highest-ranking member of the management team to be aligned with the protesters, gave a "no comment" when asked if he felt the memo would apply to his statements before the council.

The management team did not respond to questions about the memo.

Beyond the clause about "public statements," the memo discourages opera workers from providing information to the board of directors without permission from the operations team.

"You can invoke this policy if a board member requests something related to finances, operations or publicity," the memo said. “We have already provided financial and other operating documents to several board members, so these requests should be minimal and can easily be handled as set out above."

At the request of a group of board members who oppose the opera shutdown, management has provided the board with more financial information. But it has not released all the information that was requested — notably details of an investigation into allegations of a "hostile work environment."

Chad Frisque, a member of the so-called White Knight Committee that is working to keep the opera open, said that the investigation was reportedly conducted from six to eight weeks ago — not long before Campbell's call for an opera shutdown — but that the details have so far remained secret.

At the City Council meeting, members of the White Knight Committee described the wide impact that closing the opera would have on San Diego, which they estimated would total at least $7 million annually.

Beyond the loss of 50 full-time staffers and 350 seasonal jobs for singers, set designers, stagehands, costume makers and other workers, Reveles said the San Diego Symphony would be hit hard since its musicians would lose their work at the opera and smaller venues would lose access to the opera's rentals of costumes and sets.

In addition, closing the opera will mean less revenue for the downtown hotels, restaurants and other services that cater to the organization's workers and its patrons, Reveles said.

After the City Council meeting, Jeff Chipman — who has sung in the opera chorus for nearly 40 years — said he is beginning to feel "a lot of positivity" about the attempts to keep the organization running, especially after board member Carol Lazier pledged $1 million to help the opera draft a workable business plan.

"I think a lot of other donors might step forward after that," he said.

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