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Opera tries to plan new future

After a shake-up on the San Diego Opera board of directors, the major challenge facing the new leadership is how to keep the company afloat despite previous projections that it would run out of money by January.

Under a plan presented to the board Friday by Opera America, a nonprofit consulting group that advises opera companies throughout the country, the first objectives will include slashing the opera's operating costs and launching new fundraising and marketing efforts that expand beyond its traditional base of wealthy supporters.

Despite serious financial challenges, newly elected board president Carol Lazier was upbeat about the organization's chances for survival.

"We have a devoted staff, an energized association and a board newly focused on finding novel and fiscally responsible ways to present great opera to the city of San Diego," said Lazier, who recently donated $1 million to help reorganize the opera.

Lazier — who worked with Opera America to develop the plan — was elected president Thursday after the angry resignation of Karen Cohn, who stormed out of a board meeting after coming under fire for her moves to close the opera and sell its assets.

The resignation took place a day after public reports questioned the legality of two board votes that Cohn and Campbell spearheaded last month to sell off the opera's assets and dissolve operations by June 30. The votes appear to have violated state law as well as the opera's bylaws, both of which require more participation from members.

Twelve other directors left after Cohn, but at deadline CEO Ian Campbell — who has helped spearhead the closure attempt — remained on the job.

Over the past month, Cohn and Campbell have argued that the opera would need at least an additional $10 million to stay in business, but the Opera America consultants — who have helped other operas rebound from near-bankruptcy — say there is no reason that costs should be that high.

"A lot of cost savings can be facilitated through the reallocation of resources," Opera America Michael Scorca said at a forum staged by the White Knight Committee, a group of opera workers and supporters aimed at keeping the organization in business. "There may be a diminution of the quantity of operas being performed, but not the quality. High quality must be the defining characteristic to strengthen demand."

The plan that Opera America unveiled Thursday — developed in conjunction with Lazier and other board members — involves cutting overhead expenses, including the opera's office payments and executive salaries; expanding fundraising operations to target smaller donors as well as the huge endowments that the opera has traditionally relied on; staging performances in different venues such as warehouses or outdoor amphitheaters; and introducing a wider variety of musical styles to the repertoire.

"There is no single audience for opera," Scorca said. "There are different audiences for different operas. You have to get over the idea that people will like everything you're going to do."

That message runs counter to the San Diego Opera's longstanding practice — championed by Campbell and Cohn — of keeping an opera mix that is dominated by the grand operas of the 1800s instead of more modern fair.

David Devan, who heads the Philadelphia Opera, told the White Knight Committee that his organization was "on the brink" during the recession, but that it survived by following the pattern recommended by Opera America.

He said the opera's survival was related to four key objectives:

• "You have to be part of the city and not above it," which in San Diego's case involves exposing people to the opera in venues outside of the Civic Center as well as getting input from diverse groups.

• Partnerships with other music organizations, which locally could mean developing relationships with musical and theatrical groups throughout the county and even Orange County and Los Angeles.

• More consumer choice. "We're living in the age of Netflix. It's a multichannel universe," Devan said. "You can't force people to see what they don't want to see." In Philadelphia, recent offerings included a performance based on Serbian wedding music, followed by an audience dance to Balkan music with kegs of beer, as well as an experimental performance staged at an old pump house beneath the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, where "the hipsters met the tiara set."

• Entrepreneurial fundraising. Devan said that operas could attract more contributors if they emphasized potential returns on the investment, such as the direct impact the investments would have on the city.

"This requires a lot of hard work and constantly being on the treadmill to keep up with changes," Devan said. "But if you don't have the energy to keep up with changes, then you may as well go elsewhere."

That remark drew a standing ovation from the audience of more than 200 people, who have been critical of Campbell's unwillingness to move into more experimental opera fare. In public remarks, both Campbell and Cohn have said that local opera contributors and subscribers would not support such productions.

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