Verdi's Rigoletto is one of the most frequently performed operas.
  • Verdi's Rigoletto is one of the most frequently performed operas.
  • Image by Ken Howard, San Diego Opera
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A warhorse carries embattled soldiers out of a morass. In opera, a warhorse is a popular work performed so often it has become hackneyed — in snobs’ eyes, anyway.

San Diego Opera, which almost died in 2014 and has struggled to get back on its feet, is astutely turning to warhorses for its 2018–2019 season. It will do three old-time favorites at the San Diego Civic Theatre: Marriage of Figaro, Rigoletto, and Carmen. In smaller venues, it will do a new work by composer Jake Heggie; a children’s production of Hansel and Gretel (a warhorse, too); and a concert of arias by Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Powell, who are likely to sing familiar arias from familiar works. Warhorses predominate, and that may be the company’s salvation.

Hansel and Gretel is a Humperdinck favorite 
that pleases both children and adults.

Hansel and Gretel is a Humperdinck favorite that pleases both children and adults.

I have interviewed David Bennett, the opera’s general director, along with people, including critics, long involved with the organization. The consensus: “These productions will be good for balancing the budget,” says John Patrick Ford, who was the second president of the organization, in the late 1960s. At the same time, the opera has slashed expenses: “You have to respect David [Bennett] for keeping this company afloat.”

Because so much of Bennett’s career had been tied up in experimental opera, he was not the first choice for the job. But he has hit upon the right formula: do the crowd-pleasers at the Civic and the experimental works at the smaller venues, such as Balboa Theatre.

The previous management under Ian Campbell had failed in its attempt to make hits out of newer works. In the early 1990s, Campbell wangled a large grant to do 20th-century operas. The company presented several of them in succeeding years, to disappointing audiences. This hurt the bottom line. The problem: the works were presented at the Civic, which seats almost 3000 persons. There were a lot of empty seats.

Garrett Harris, Reader reviewer who sings with opera company, says Civic Theatre is acoustically unsound.

Garrett Harris, Reader reviewer who sings with opera company, says Civic Theatre is acoustically unsound.

“The Civic Theatre is a terrible place,” says Garrett Harris, Reader critic who also performs with San Diego Opera. “It looks like Soviet-era architecture and lacks any redeeming acoustic.”(An attempt by Campbell to raise money for a new opera house failed — mercifully, because within a few years the company was severely ailing financially.)

Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes was one of the 20th-century operas performed in the Campbell era. “Peter Grimes is by far the greatest opera I have ever been in,” says Harris. However, “It was a poorly attended 20th-century opera.” Two other Britten operas were not box office hits: The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring. The same was true of modern operas based on great themes of literature: A Streetcar Named Desire and Of Mice and Men. They were appealing visually and emotionally, but flat musically. Generally, San Diegans dislike dissonant modern music. Campbell was told that, but he didn’t listen. He later admitted his error.

“We’re looking for operas done many times — titles everyone knows but haven’t been done for a while,” says Bennett. For 2018–2019, this is true for all but Carmen. The opera has cut yearly expenses from a peak of $18 million to below $10 million. Still, “we are not out of the woods,” he says. “We have to save ourselves every year. We are finding a mix of repertoire that will engage a lot of people. We hope to end the year with income that matches expenses, but we have a lot of work to do.”

From 1976 to 1983, the opera was headed by Tito Capobianco, who put on many great performances featuring stars such as Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland. But Capobianco was autocratic. “I was chairman of the production committee and Tito wouldn’t tell me what he was planning,” recalls Ford. “He was a one-man show; the board was superfluous.”

One president saw that he was spending too much money, particularly on the summer Verdi Festival. The two battled fiercely. Capobianco abruptly left in a huff, and Ford headed the search that landed Campbell.

Campbell, in the saddle between 1983 and 2014, slashed the budget deeply and rebuilt the company. Under Campbell, there were many superb opera performances. And early on, he won a reputation for financial tightness. However, in later years, he began spending entirely too lavishly. The opera would pick up the tab for his summer trips to Europe, purportedly scouting out talent. “That was a lot of money that could have been spent elsewhere,” says Sandra Pay, who was president right after Capobianco departed. The talent Campbell imported was too expensive, and the company began eating into reserves, while still claiming it was balancing the budget.

Under Ian Campbell, the opera staged some great performances, but ultimately spent too much.

Under Ian Campbell, the opera staged some great performances, but ultimately spent too much.

Campbell and his then-wife Ann, the fund-raiser, were grossly overpaid — $1 million between them in one year. Ann Campbell then made what Ford describes as a “terrible mistake.” Before she arrived, the company had eight guilds, and board membership was spread all around the county. Ann Campbell shifted the fund-raising emphasis to the Beautiful People of La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe. The guilds dried up.

Campbell, too, was autocratic. Staffers wanted an investigation of the imperious management and board clique running the company. One astute board member began asking tough questions about Ann Campbell’s activities. That person was secretly given the boot. The state attorney general’s office promised to do an audit of the company. I tried four times, unsuccessfully, to get the office to say what has happened to that audit.

Ann Campbell: Ian Campbell’s former spouse was paid too much, as he was, and steered fundraising in wrong direction.

Ann Campbell: Ian Campbell’s former spouse was paid too much, as he was, and steered fundraising in wrong direction.

In 2014, Campbell and a small coterie of board members decided the money had run out and the opera should close down. The Beautiful People weren’t coughing up more. Mudslinging was ubiquitous. The board initially voted overwhelmingly to close down, but then a small group rebelled and led the revival. They succeeded, but one former top official warns, “They have not raised the kind of money they had hoped. They have not replaced the big givers,” the Beautiful People. I suspect that this crowd has an ego stake in seeing the opera fail.

“The primary duty of a large arts organization is to stay in business,” says Welton Jones, retired critic. “Unfortunately, [warhorses] are what an opera company has to fall back on.” Still, Jones says that the many staffers he knows “are much more engaged, much more enthusiastic than in decades.”

A recently retired higher-up staffer agrees: “Everybody realizes we have to do grand opera — warhorses at the Civic.” However, he warns that opera, and all classical music, is declining in the United States. “Opera is a crapshoot.”

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Comments

swell March 21, 2018 @ 11:52 a.m.

"opera, and all classical music, is declining in the United States"

Easy to fix. Opera needs superheroes. That's what fills the movie theaters these days. People in sexy costumes that can leap tall buildings and shoot lightning from their eyes. The dumbing of America is rooted in the comic books that even adults are reading. Yes, I use 'reading' lightly due to the increasing illiteracy we are surrounded with.

Would a Captain America opera be so bad? Yes, of course it would, but numbers of Americans would gladly pay to see it.

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Don Bauder March 21, 2018 @ 12:12 p.m.

swell: Opera companies are putting on musicals such as "Oklahoma" and "The King and I." Symphony orchestras are putting on movie nights, in which the orchestra plays along with a movie. By some reports, movie nights are doing better than the standard symphony concerts. Chamber music is going that way, too: Aspen Music Festival and School will put on a show this summer in which a chamber orchestra (15 to 20 musicians) will play along with Charlie Chaplin movies.

As.a music lover, I deplore this trend. But as someone who has been involved in watching the business side of musical organizations, I favor it. If the public is dumbing down, so should the company, if it wants to succeed. San Diego Opera put on a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta this season. It was only moderately successful, but the company should try again in future years. It can always rely on operettas such as Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus, which have been popular in San Diego. For next year, I hope the warhorses will fill the seats. If they don't, then San Diego Opera has even deeper problems. Best, Don Bauder

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swell March 21, 2018 @ 12:24 p.m.

Don: I confess that I don't care much for most opera. I like certain lieder and individual opera songs, but the pomp of the entire opera weighs on me heavily. My friend the opera singer reminisces about her active performance days. She remembers the people, the excitement, the adoration … but mostly the costumes. Loved the costumes and makeup and the backstage drama. What is the best part for you?

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Don Bauder March 21, 2018 @ 2 p.m.

swell: My wife and I like the entire opera, seen live. We love the costumes: in Milan, next to La Scala, is a costume museum that is great. We love the drama in most operas, although some operas are pretty clumsy from a drama point of view.

The bottom line: 90 percent of opera is the music -- both the singing and the orchestra. We go to opera for the music, but always enjoy seeing an opera we haven't seen before, even if the music isn't that great.

If you want to see the backstage operation, go to Metropolitan Opera Saturday performances that are performed in HD in movie theaters. There are normally backstage interviews; often, you can see the amazing backstage mechanics and electronics that go into producing an opera. Best, Don Bauder

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OperaBuff March 22, 2018 @ 3:33 p.m.

I've attended nearly every opera these past few years (missed "As One" as I was traveling but saw the PBS video) and I would say the the opera has a new revived energy with younger audiences and some much needed diversity. I'd be more interested to read about where the opera is going instead of a rehash of events five years ago. Opera, after all, has been dealing with its impending death for hundreds of years. I'm less enthused about the warhorses this coming year, but my family and I will use it as a platform to bring friends and neighbors and maybe make some new fans. The old money in San Diego is going to fade and go away one day. The "beautiful people" will start to face their own mortality and establish legacy gifts at hospitals and universities, not the arts, in a grab for immortality. Perhaps the opera is ahead of the curve in replenishing that donor base. One thing I have noticed, the vocal quality of the opera has not diminished since David was hired. That's a good thing.

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Don Bauder March 23, 2018 @ 8:16 a.m.

OperaBuff: I don't know that opera has been dealing with its impending death "for hundreds of years." The 19th century produced wonderful operas that brought in crowds, and Mozart wrote four of the all-time greatest operas in the 18th century. It was in the 20th century that opera began to fade, as did symphonic and chamber music. Correct me if you think I am wrong.

But as you point out, the opera has to cultivate younger audiences. If modern, dissonant music does the trick, hurray. Best, Don Bauder

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shirleyberan March 23, 2018 @ 12:43 p.m.

Opera has been compromised. Downtown 3rd Ave ambience is not prepossessing. Then what's to enjoy about mediocre acoustics, or much of it, nose bleed seats? Should be at an olde proscenium stage or some other for the total theatrical experience.

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Don Bauder March 23, 2018 @ 2:51 p.m.

shirleyberan: We sat on the main floor in the 30 years we went to San Diego Opera performances. Around 2004 or so, I sat in the balcony for a wonderful performance of Handel's "Julius Caesar in Egypt." (I had already seen it from the main floor.) Ideally, Handel is heard in smaller theaters, as in baroque days. However, I really enjoyed hearing and seeing it from the balcony. Best, Don Bauder

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dwbat March 24, 2018 @ 11:18 a.m.

Ian Campbell was certainly responsible for San Diego Opera going "baroque." ;-) Pun intended.

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Don Bauder March 24, 2018 @ 12:58 p.m.

dwbat: Ian Campbell came in with a reputation for being a cost-cutter. However, he began spending heavily -- traveling abroad regularly on the company's dime, scouting out talent that was entirely too expensive, and staging operas that were too expensive. He and his former wife Ann were paid entirely too much. He and Ann stopped bringing in money from all over the county and concentrated on the La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe set. When the Beautiful People's money ran dry, there was nowhere to turn. That's why Ian, along with q tight clique of board members, tried to close the company in 2014.

Thank goodness, some saviors came along. We will see if they can pull it off. Best, Don Bauder

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dwbat March 24, 2018 @ 6 p.m.

Yes, I already knew all that. I followed the story closely at the time.

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Don Bauder March 24, 2018 @ 8:24 p.m.

dwbat: It's a story worth telling. I lived through much of it in my years as board member and advisory board member, 1973-2003, and a major donor (only because those to whom I gave a speech had to give $200 to the opera. I wasn't rich.) Some people think all journalistic efforts should concentrate on all-new material. I think historical perspective is often, not always, necessary. Best, Don Bauder

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