In March of 2014, Ian Campbell stepped onto the stage of the San Diego Civic Theater and addressed the orchestra, soloists, and chorus who were gathered for a dress rehearsal of Verdi’s Requiem. The company’s 31-year director explained that the company was not in debt but there was no more money to continue operating at its accustomed level. He said the board had voted to close the company down “with dignity.” All outstanding contracts would be paid.
Campbell’s actions created a firestorm of energy — T-shirts were made, websites were developed, crowds were sourced, and a deeper assessment of the company’s financials showed San Diego Opera was healthier than Campbell had presented.
The firestorm culminated in the hiring of David Bennett to be San Diego Opera’s new director, almost to the day a year after Campbell tried to raise the white flag. Bennett was the respected and admired executive of what people were calling “the little opera company that could.” New York City’s Gotham Chamber Opera produced great art on a budget, folks said.
But, while a deeper assessment of San Diego Opera’s finances showed the company was better off than Campbell said they were, a review of Gotham Chamber Opera’s financials by Bennett’s successor Edward Barnes showed a company mired in debt. Barnes told the New York Observer that he’d unearthed over half a million dollars of unpaid bills — including payments to artists — that were kept off of Gotham’s books during Bennett’s time. The extent of Gotham’s problems led the leadership to cease operations and it is out of business.
Had the situation at Gotham Chamber Opera been known, would the San Diego Opera have hired David Bennett? No one is willing to answer this question publicly. One executive from an unrelated opera company was willing to speak anonymously.
“I think that [Bennett] sold himself to everybody as someone who had created a sustainable model in Gotham and was then hired, based upon that, to do the same in San Diego. If [the financial situation at Gotham] was public, there’s no way San Diego Opera would have hired him, or at least I don’t think they would have. If the San Diego Opera board did know, then they were negligent in hiring someone who kept information off the books. The problem is, there’s no way to get the truth.”
Bennett released a statement regarding the situation at Gotham, after the company announced it would. “In the course of transitioning to new leadership, the board of Gotham Chamber Opera engaged in a deeper analysis of the company’s financial condition and finally grasped a reality that I and the dedicated shoestring staff of three employees faced every day; the company’s financial condition was more perilous than they had fully understood.... Ultimately, art is about taking risks. We took them and we were incredibly successful in taking them. But in the business of making opera there is always another side to taking risks; it is something that looms in the back of our minds every day.... [S]adly, Gotham Chamber Opera has decided it is a risk that they no longer wish to take.”
Perhaps it’s not a matter of whether or not Gotham wished to take risks. It simply couldn’t afford to take them, because there was more than $500,000 of debt and unpaid bills that weren’t on the books. There was a deficit in the official budget Bennett signed off on, but Barnes says it was closer to $100,000.
By phone, Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, a national organization dedicated to promoting the art form, went into more detail regarding the situation:
“Gotham was one of the more dynamic opera companies in New York regarding what it was putting on stage, in terms of the venues and the production styles. The company was doing very, very interesting work. I knew all along that the company was always on a financial edge. There were many times when David Bennett and the staff had to delay receiving their payroll. There were times when the board had to make personal loans to the company. There was no secret about that. It was a company that was like the Little Engine That Could in terms of putting on several productions a year of very high quality with virtually no staff and always, always on a financial edge.”
The Gotham Chamber board says they didn’t know about the debt. Bennett says they did. Bennett has said he expressed concern to the board and recommended that one of the upcoming season’s productions be replaced with a gala concert to raise funds. This is exactly the move that San Diego Opera took in 2014 by replacing the expensive Tannhauser production with a gala concert. The San Diego Opera gala concert was a success with the audience. San Diego Opera didn’t respond to queries regarding how much money the canceled Tannhauser production saved and how much money the gala concert raised.
Why aren’t opera companies more forthcoming about their operational situations? Marc Scorca again:
“A lot of the workings of an opera company are known to the inner circle. After that there is the art form of how does one communicate to the general public, how does one communicate to donors, to institutional funders?... Communication is the necessary art form to complement the art form of opera. How do we engage our stakeholders? How do we engage those who care about opera in the most effective way? The San Diego Opera closing was a total shock. No one knew what was going on. Then there was communication and people rallied. David Bennett and the board of San Diego Opera all knew, to some degree or another, about the precarious financial situation at Gotham. How was it communicated? Communication is a subtext to this entire issue.”
San Diego Opera may very well have known the extent of the problem at Gotham. They may agree with Bennett’s contention that canceling a production in order to make up for a deficit in the budget could have saved Gotham. However, no one at San Diego Opera is communicating that.
One of the unique elements that came out of the San Diego Opera crisis was the forming of what is called the White Knight Committee. The group took its name based on Ian Campbell saying that no “white knight” was coming to save the opera. The committee includes representatives from every segment of the San Diego Opera community. Veteran chorister and union representative Chris Stephens is a founding member of the committee. Asked about Bennett, Gotham, and San Diego Opera, Stephens responded, “Due to what occurred in the past with San Diego Opera, we have a board and employees who are hyper vigilant to make sure that everything goes right. Unlike Gotham, we have a board finance committee, a chief financial officer, and a chief operations officer who all work together with the general director to ensure that all finances are in order. What happened at Gotham is a shame. But SDO has made several operational changes, because of our fresh wound from the past, to make sure we head in the right direction.”
San Diego Opera board president Carol Lazier echoed this sentiment:
“After our own crucible of the last 18 months, San Diego Opera’s board has worked hard to ensure that good governance and strong internal financial controls are in place, which enable us to benefit from and support David Bennett’s strong, creative leadership. At San Diego Opera, David has considerable internal resources with which to monitor and report on financial operations down to the penny. The board’s finance committee meets monthly with the [chief financial and operations officers] and general director and reviews all expenditures and financial obligations. San Diego Opera is confident that its financial house is in order. The board is very pleased with the work David has done for us and stands 100 percent with him.”