Karen Cohn, chairwoman of San Diego Opera, says if some moneybags comes forward with a fat gift, the opera would love to start business again. I interviewed her because Ian Campbell, general director, said he will not do any more talking.
One of the ugliest rumors making the rounds is that Ian and Ann Campbell, his ex-wife, were going to make $2.5 million in retirement benefits, and might lose them, or a lot of them, if the company would go bankrupt, and that's why it took on no debt and is in a hurry to close. Says Cohn, "They will not get retirement funds," including medical coverage and severance. "There is no golden parachute," Cohn says. "They are both devastated, their reputations are tarnished, there is talk of misappropriation of funds," but none of this talk is true. Ann stops getting paid in April and Ian will only be paid until the company is dissolved.
However, Cohn defends the money they were paid annually over the years. They were paid more than $1 million for the year ended in mid-2010, even though Ian Campbell had told me in early 2009 that the company would have to make sharp cuts because of the economy. For the year ended in 2012, their combined pay had dropped to around $800,000, but many people I talk with say that is still excessive for a troubled company the size of San Diego Opera. In 2010, Ian Campbell justified his salary of almost $700,000 by saying he had two jobs that required 75 hours of work a week — administrative director and artistic director. (I am one of those who finds this defense rather weak. A lot of people wear two hats — or more.)
One of the big costs was that the opera paid $750,000 a year rent to the Civic Center, owned by the City. Several times the opera tried to get relief on that rent, but to no avail. I reminded her that the City will almost certainly give the Chargers $700 million for a new stadium. She sighed, "Don't even talk to me about that — the City makes more income from arts than from sports."
The late Joan Kroc gave the opera $11 million in 2004. Kroc said the money had to go to highest-quality opera. The Kroc money ran out this year. The company had planned a promising 2015 season, its 50th anniversary, but the money just wasn't there. Potential large donors weren't listening. Many who died did not leave San Diego Opera in their wills. The opera had formerly filled more than 80% of the seats, but that dropped to 75% last year, and will be 60% this year, although there is now a rush to buy tickets for the final opera.
San Diego corporations — particularly biotechs — are not good sources of money, she says. The board discussed declining attendance and donations over several years, but didn't want to face liquidation, always hoping an angel would show up.
She did admit one rumor: the vote on dissolving was not on the board's agenda when the vote was taken. There were 58 people who could have voted, but only 34 did. The reason dissolution was not put in writing was that management wanted the staff to be told before reading about it. That didn't happen. Another ugly rumor is true: the Union-Tribune printed it before the board even voted. Someone had called Jim Chute, arts editor, during the meeting, Cohn says. He was not to print it until the staff was told, but didn't wait.
The board did consider other options such as lighter fare (Franz Lehar, Gilbert & Sullivan, American musicals, for example), she says. However, the mission statement and Kroc bequest both discouraged popular fare. "We literally talked about Man of La Mancha, but Ian didn't think it would sell," she says.