On the evening of March 20, San Francisco Opera held its annual meeting. David Gockley, general director, said the announced folding of San Diego Opera is "a tragedy." San Diego was"one of the best-run companies in the country for decades — it sends shudders through me and my staff that this happens to a good company, not a New York City Opera." (That New York opera company was known to be mismanaged.)
There is a lot of criticism of Ian Campbell, general and artistic director of San Diego Opera, and the board, which voted overwhelmingly to disband after the last opera this season. But the company did slash costs. It faced the woes that every opera company — in fact, every serious music organization — faces: audiences are dying off and younger and middle-aged people are not coming in to take their places. Classical music in the United States appears to be in the early stages of a death spiral. San Diego Opera acted before it got heavily in debt and had to go into bankruptcy.
Look at the numbers from San Francisco Opera, one of the nation's premier companies. The number of subscribers dropped from 165,000 in 1980 to an expected 93,000 next year; the company hopes the decline will only be to 80,000 in 2022. In 1980, ticket sales were 58.7 percent of the budget. That will be 32 percent next year. Gockley said that throughout the nation, opera companies face "the slowly declining role of subscriptions, the difficulty of balancing budgets...the marginalization of the classical arts in education and the mass media, the plethora of competing entertainment forms" and similar woes.
San Diego Opera faced the same factors — particularly after the Great Recession that began in 2007 and technically, but not realistically, ended in 2009. (Polls show most Americans don't think that recession has ended.) Total tickets sold dropped from 41,353 in 2010 to an estimated 31,500 for this season. Total ticket revenue dropped from $5.4 million in 2010 to an estimated $4.3 million this year.
San Diego Opera's net assets declined from $22 million in 2009 to $15.7 million last year. The biggest drop was $3.8 million in 2012, although the decline was $770,310 last year. The opera gets almost 40 percent of its revenue from ticket sales; the rest must come from donations, and after the Great Recession, they were much harder to bring in.
San Diegan Marcus Overton, who has had positions with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, marvels that Campbell and the board mulled the financial problems for three years, but no one was "able to formulate plans for an alternative business model for the company" in trying times. He believes overhead was too high -- particularly the plush offices across from the Civic Center. He does not understand why Ann Campbell, Ian's ex-wife, was promoted to a high post, and both Campbells had high salaries. (The company's 990 report to the Internal Revenue Service indicates that in 2011, Ian Campbell made $508,021 and Ann Campbell $282,345. Four other officers had salaries in six figures.) Overton also believes two of the four operas could have been oratorio-style (bereft of sets, costumes, and the like.)
Ian Campbell points out that expenses were $17.4 million in 2007 and and probably less than $15 million this year."To reduce expenses we dropped from five operas to four in 2010, reduced the number of performances, reduced outreach programs we had offered for decades, and later reduced staff, with those remaining carrying a greater workload," says Campbell. "It was to no avail." He adds that for the last twelve months the opera has looked for more economical space.
As to his salary, Campbell had two jobs: general director (overseeing all operations) and artistic director (planning all artistic matters). The board's performance review committee, consulting Opera America's survey of similar positions, determined that Ian Campbell's salary was appropriate. Ann Campbell negotiated her own salary and Ian Campbell was not involved.
Welton Jones, former arts editor and critic-at-large for the Union-Tribune, is not critical of Ian and Ann's pay. They were at going market rates, Jones says. However, he dislikes the abrupt announcement of the demise. "They are saying that this board and this staff are unable to run the company, and if they can't run it, nobody else can," says Jones. Like Overton, Jones thinks the board should have determined if some other chief executive officer could have saved the company. Ian Campbell "shaped the board, the board supported him. He stayed out of trouble with a ham and eggs menu." Says Jones, noting that he has been going to the theater for 50 years, "If you give people what they want, you can't keep them away."
Preston Turegano, retired arts writer for the Union-Tribune, says, "I can't believe the board would not encourage Ian to retire (save face) and reorganize, hiring new blood at a cheaper salary and creating a budget they could live with."
However, Charlene Baldridge, a San Diego arts writer who interviewed Campbell each year, is not critical. After 2009, "Every year he stresed that unless the economy improved and with it attendance and corporate, governmental and individual support, there would be no way forward eventually. I know he diligently tried and I don't think the board can be blamed for failure. The fact that [Ian Campbell] did not compromise quality and did not run up a huge deficit and then declare bankruptcy is to his credit."
Personally, I agree with Baldridge. The economics are simply against serious performing arts, in San Diego and everywhere. I think the Campbells and the board did what they could against long odds.
(Full disclosure: I was on the board and advisory board of San Diego Opera over 30 years, and was a bravissimo angel donor, giving $5000 to $12,500 a year, probably averaging around $10,000 in the last 15 or 20 years. Ian and Ann Campbell are personal friends, as are Jones, Turegano, and Baldridge.)