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Opera severs ties with CEO; donations hit $2 million

The San Diego Opera has officially parted ways with former chief executive Ian Campbell and his ex-wife and deputy general director Ann Spira Campbell, paving the way for a new director to lead it into its 50th anniversary year in 2015.

In a carefully worded statement, the opera said it is working "in an amicable manner" to resolve "current differences" with the Campbells -- an apparent reference to Ian Campbell's contract, which theoretically extends into 2017.

Sources say the opera has been seeking an interim director to oversee the 2015 season since putting the Campbells on administrative leave three weeks ago.

Ian Campbell's troubles began two months ago when he helped push the opera's board of directors to vote to close the institution by June, adding that he feared it otherwise would soon run out of cash.

Ironically, the news of his departure came mere hours after the opera announced it had collected $2 million in donations in the past three weeks alone -- double the amount that interim board President Carol Lazier said would be necessary to rev up for the 2015 season.

The board was expected to give the green light to move forward at a special meeting on Friday morning, but because of the disruption caused by this week's wildfires, the meeting has been postponed until Monday. An announcement on the opera's fate is slated to take place at 10 a.m. at the San Diego Civic Concourse downtown.

Born in Australia, Campbell was a 38-year-old wunderkind when the San Diego Opera hired him in 1983, spiriting him away from a position as assistant artistic administrator at New York's Grand Opera.

With a highly praised repertoire consisting mostly of such standards as "La Boheme," "Il Trovatore" and "Tosca," Campbell pushed the company onto critics' lists of the top 10 operas in the nation, while proudly keeping its books balanced with the aid of wealthy backers such as the late Joan Kroc.

But Campbell's critics say that under his tenure, the opera and its fundraising efforts focused increasingly on older, wealthy individuals.

The community-based opera guild, composed of volunteers who once raised funds for the organization, withered away to be replaced by a centralized fundraising staff targeting "high-net-worth" donors and institutions.

In addition, they say, he failed to keep up with changing tastes, sticking with traditional stagings of European shows from the 1800s instead of following the lead of other operas that have moved toward more modern fare.

Faced with declining ticket sales and contributions, Campbell and then-Chairwoman Karen Cohn pushed for the closure of the opera at a surprise meeting of the board of directors on March 19.

Although the board initially supported the proposal, many members later changed their minds, questioning whether enough had been done to explore alternatives -- including changing the repertoire or using alternate ways of funding.

Three weeks ago, the board postponed until May 19 its decision on whether to shut down. Lazier, who became interim president after Cohn resigned, said the opera would need to raise at least $1 million by that date to survive.

An Internet-driven crowd-sourcing campaign subsequently raised $1.4 million, with relatively small donations ranging from $10 to a top gift of $50,000.

On Wednesday, the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation kicked in $100,000, triggering matching funds of $500,000 from The Sopranos investment group together with local philanthropists Jay Merritt and Gloria Rasmussen.

"It makes me sad that the previous administration didn't ever understand the power of social media or the Internet," Nicolas Reveles, the opera's general director of education and outreach, wrote on Facebook. "It was like they considered it a toy or a nuisance. Look what we have done ... word-of-mouth, person-to-person and through social media!"

Assuming that the board votes to go forward on Monday, the opera still faces an uphill struggle, since it was projected to be $6.4 million in the red by next June. But the new management is already taking steps to raise more funds while reducing costs, by taking such measures as moving the opera's offices out of its expensive suite on the 18th floor of the Civic Center Building to cheaper digs around the corner.

In the meantime, the opera will have to determine how to handle the Campbells' salaries.

A list of "financial obligations" prepared last month -- when Ian Campbell was still firmly in place as chief executive -- suggested that the opera would need to pay the couple at least $806,260 in compensation, benefits and accrued vacation pay. But it also suggested that the opera should set aside $722,467 to handle "potential contract liabilities based on the timing and form of dissolution."

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