San Diego Opera spent $2.4 million on Verdi’s Masked Ball, but it played to quarter-empty houses and the company is fighting to stay alive.
  • San Diego Opera spent $2.4 million on Verdi’s Masked Ball, but it played to quarter-empty houses and the company is fighting to stay alive.
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The San Diego classical music scene is healthier than anybody would have believed four months ago. The La Jolla Music Society — which specializes in chamber music but also presents ballet, jazz, orchestral programs, and cabaret performers — is doing sensationally.

Christopher Beach

It intends to raise $50 million to build a new performing-arts center in La Jolla and bolster its endowment. According to rumors, it is close to the $50 million mark, but Christopher Beach, its president and artistic director, won’t confirm that, or even confirm the $50 million goal. (An item on its website, however, mentions the $50 million objective.)

Meanwhile, the San Diego Opera, whose board voted overwhelmingly in March to go out of business, refuses to do so and has raised $4.5 million toward its 2015 season, says Edward Wilensky, spokesman.

Does $4.5 million sound lame next to $50 million in super-upscale La Jolla? Not really, when you consider the hole the opera has climbed out of. “Imagine that not only in San Diego but across America there are articles saying the San Diego Opera is a disaster,” says Beach. “Now go raise $4.5 million. Raising that much money in the middle of a crisis should not be underestimated.”

Ian Campbell

It’s remarkable for other reasons. The major donors of San Diego Opera were dominated and manipulated by its former general director, Ian Campbell. After the board reversed itself and decided to continue, those big donors stormed out in a huff. The board shrank from a ludicrously unwieldy 58 persons to a dedicated group of 26. It will be difficult getting those former big donors back, concedes John Patrick Ford, who was the second president of San Diego Opera in its 49 years.

There is another fund-raising roadblock: in March, the extraordinarily generous — and long-running — contracts of Ian Campbell and his ex-wife Ann Spira Campbell were well publicized. The Campbells’ termination pay has been quietly mediated. Potential donors “don’t want their money going to the Campbells,” says Ford.

But then there’s the sunny, money side of the street: La Jolla. According to unconfirmed rumors, two fat cats accounted for 25 million of the bucks raised by La Jolla Music Society. The cachet of those words “La Jolla” makes a difference. Back in the 1980s, the organization — then called La Jolla Chamber Music Society — had a hard time getting its regular patrons to go to El Cajon’s East County Performing Arts Center for presentations of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. The joke was that La Jollans feared they would be attacked by Indians out in the boondocks.

The society is in great fiscal shape. According to data compiled by watchdog ProPublica, contributions were 77.8 percent of total revenue in 2011. Beach says it is probably running about the same now. “The La Jolla Music Society has done a masterful job at cultivating its patrons,” says Bill Purves, a former boardmember. And it goes without saying that the base is quite well heeled.

“At least for the last eight years, we have run a planned surplus,” says Beach. And how. According to ProPublica, the organization had total revenue of $5.5 million in 2011 and net income of $1.8 million.

Joshua Bell

This year, the society’s members heard perhaps the world’s greatest violinist, Joshua Bell, and the world’s greatest cellist, Yo-Yo Ma. It also brought cabaret singers Patti LuPone and Ann Hampton Callaway and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis with the Lincoln Center Orchestra. Thus, the society, able to rely on its affluent base, reached out to a broader segment of the community.

Yo-Yo Ma

But the opera had done the reverse. As donations and attendance plummeted in recent years, the opera increasingly relied on a small group of the rich. “They ran these full-page portraits of the big donors,” says Ford. “They let it get out of hand — glorifying these people, and…poof!…they were gone.” During that period, “A lot of people thought they didn’t have to give” because the fat cats were giving so much.

Wynton Marsalis

Says Welton Jones, retired arts critic of the Union-Tribune, “The La Jolla Music Society is a well-managed, classy organization with social cachet. People will pay for it. Ian Campbell attempted that with the opera, and it got out of whack.”

In the teeth of stark declines, Campbell mainly stuck with his old formula: 19th-century grand — and very expensive — opera. In the 2014 season, the company spent $2.4 million on Giuseppe Verdi’s A Masked Ball, in which the tenor was paid $16,000 per performance. The opera, while magnificent, drew only 78 percent of the house. “We can’t afford that,” says Ford.

Ian Campbell regularly flew to Europe to scout out expensive talent. “Bulgarian sopranos,” sighs Ford. But companies such as Santa Fe Opera are thriving with American talent that is also very good and costs far less.

The new board is slashing costs. Ian Campbell’s planned $17 million budget for next year has been pared to $11.2 million. The company saved $790,000 by cutting out a Richard Wagner opera. Employees have taken a 10 percent pay cut and 13 have been laid off. By moving out of posh quarters, the company is saving $440,000 on rent.

The opera will try to broaden its appeal. It plans to send young singers out for noon concerts on the Concourse and appearances at such things as Rotary Club meetings. Students will get to see an entire dress rehearsal — not just one act. Chamber operas, recitals, and mariachi performances will be put on at smaller venues such as the Balboa Theatre. (When the company uses the Civic Theatre, it must pay stiff union wages.) The company may try semi-staged operas, with no sets and few costumes, an idea that has been successful elsewhere.

The opera will go after young audiences with modern works on current themes. It is doing John Adams’s Nixon in China next year. But this is risky. These works may be on contemporary themes, but they feature dissonant music. Ian Campbell tried too many modern operas and admitted they had not worked.

Ken Caswell, a general manager of the opera in its early days, and now retired as head of the Austin Symphony, warns against “putting on crap — modern opera, which I call tortured-souls-and-hell music.” It could be a road to ruination, says Caswell.

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Comments

eastlaker July 16, 2014 @ 11:20 a.m.

What you write is so very true. Many in the 'upper echelon' of the Ian Campbell days must have been part of the group so they could dress up, go to the parties and mix with other well-off people--not because they enjoyed opera!

That would account for some of the rapid fall-off.

In general, when charismatic-types are running organizations, that is when the checks and balances need to be the strongest. Charm and ethics often do not occupy common territory, sad to say.

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Don Bauder July 16, 2014 @ 12:19 p.m.

eastlaker: What bothers me is that Ian Campbell's now-departed clique has personal egos tied up in the opera failing. You will never get them to admit it, but the ones who walked out, saying that those who wanted to save the opera were delusional, want to be proved right -- secretly hope the opera will fail.

I hate to say that, but I fear it is true. The opera will never get those people back, and may well have to fight them at times. Best, Don Bauder

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OperaBuff July 16, 2014 @ 4:13 p.m.

This is a bit of apples to oranges, Don.

San Diego Opera is raising money for a season, an ephemeral product that will be gone in 9 or so months. Poof.

The La Jolla Music Society is raising money for a building, one we hope will be standing for generations to come.

And we all know there are those out there who will put their money up if they can get their name on a building. You could say, they have an Edifice Complex (we say this with humor and respect, as these are the people who truly make our city great).

San Diego Opera has no such building in which to offer naming rights as there are very few theatres in San Diego not in use with an orchestra pit.

So the headline is a bit misleading, as both the music society and the opera are running very different races. Both important races, but very different ones.

We wish them both the best!

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Don Bauder July 17, 2014 @ 8:36 a.m.

OperaBuff: I agree. The two campaigns are apples to oranges -- "a bit," as you say. Brick-and-mortar campaigns are likely to raise more money than a campaign to preserve an institution for one season. No question. Still, the fact that La Jolla Music has apparently raised so much is quite significant. The opera's $4.5 million is also significant, in a positive sense. Like you, I am rooting for both. Best, Don Bauder

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Visduh July 16, 2014 @ 9:26 p.m.

One factor in the La Jolla society's success may be one of their largest benefactors. Yes, good old Irwin Jacobs opens his purse for them and has their undying gratitude. I well recall the fawning that went on about him and his wife at one of their concerts a few years ago. The real sad thing is how hard it is to access La Jolla from the rest of the county now; to head to a concert there requires far too much time, traffic hassle, and search for a place to park the car. Oh, La Jolla will be La Jolla far into the future, but the development now is for the locals. Live outside LJ? Cool your heels in traffic and then search for a place to park. No, this is for the locals only, or for the limo crowd.

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Don Bauder July 17, 2014 @ 8:40 a.m.

Visduh: I suspect Irwin Jacobs has pledged money to the La Jolla Music Society campaign. However, according to my sources (this is unconfirmed), Jacobs is not one of the two donors pledging a combined total of $25 million. I have not named them because, as I said in the column, this is still rumor, although a sound one.

I don't know whether Jacobs has helped the opera. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder July 17, 2014 @ 8:24 p.m.

STATEMENT THAT TELLS NOTHING ABOUT SETTLEMENT WITH CAMPBELLS RELEASED. THIS WILL WORSEN OPERA'S MONEY-RAISING CHANCES. San Diego Opera, along with former Director Ian Campbell and his former chief assistant and ex-wife, Ann Spira Campbell, released this evening (July 17) a statement that may please lawyers but is a public relations disaster for the opera.

The statement: "San Diego Opera, Ian Campbell, and Ann Spira Campbell announced today that they have mutually resolved their differences arising out of their former employment relationships. Out of respect for each other's privacy, no further comments about these resolutions will be made by any of the parties."

This is an insult to the San Diego community. There has been controversy about how much Ian Campbell and Ann Spira Campbell are owed. Ian Campbell may be owed as much as pay through 2017, and Ann Spira Campbell could get 18 months of severance pay. Some have suggested that the contracts offering these terms have been altered, and they won't get that much, but there has been nothing definitive.

It is widely believed that the opera's fundraising efforts have been hampered because San Diegans understandably do not want their money going to the Campbells, who were vastly overpaid during their tenures. For the opera to agree to say nothing that would satisfy these potential donors is just plain stupid. The opera, in agreeing to a non-statement, was probably listening to lawyers -- a frequent route to perdition.

I will do some reporting to see if I can come up with more. Best, Don Bauder

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Christian_Hertzog July 19, 2014 @ 1:49 p.m.

Nixon in China consists largely of diatonic harmonies (i.e. consonant, not dissonant). There are a few dissonant passages such as the scene where Nixon meets Mao (very Stravinskian), but most of the opera is extremely listenable--and it's very exciting. The criticism of dissonance may be more appropriate for Jake Heggie's Moby Dick, but--that sold extremely well, didn't it?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nr8et4cev-A

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Don Bauder July 20, 2014 @ 8:31 a.m.

Christian_Hertzog: I saw Nixon in China once and did not find it listenable. You note that there were some dissonant passages. I found more than a few.

Incidentally, I just saw Heggie's Dead Man Walking. The music was basically non-music -- not ear-piercing, sometimes dissonant...basically, a non-music background for what should have been a play. In one place, it sounded like a tree full of screech owls, but, mercifully, that did not last long.

After the opera, we read the actual story. The opera took almost unconscionable liberties with the facts of the case. The opera would have us believe that the man who went to the electric chair had committed only one crime -- murdering a young woman he was raping because she kept screaming. However, that person who went to the electric chair confessed that he had committed several rapes and murders. As he went to the electric chair, he winked at the nun who supported him, not wept copious tears over one so-called misstep. Best, Don Bauder

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