America’s second opera crash indicates a loss of will to live

America’s second opera crash indicates a loss of will to live


norman lebrecht

March 20, 2014

There is no soft way to break bad news.

The first word came out of the rehearsal room:

Someone just said, “rehearsal was just halted so they could announce this to us. What a sad time. The San Diego Opera is closing it’s doors after the next production of “Don Quichotte. 

Hours later, the board of San Diego Opera voted 33-1 to cease operations next month. The company will have sung and played for 49 years.

Ian Campbell, San Diego’s general and artistic director and CEO, said in a statement: ‘We faced an insurmountable financial hurdle going forward. We had a choice of winding down with dignity and grace, making every effort to fulfill our financial obligations, or inevitably entering bankruptcy, as have several other opera companies.

‘Our board voted today to take the first choice.’

Campbell, hired from the Met, has run San Diego since 1983. The company had a $15 million annual budget.

Its closure, coming in the same season as the collapse of New York’s City Opera, is a vital indicator of the frail health of opera in America.

Closures in 2014 cannot be blamed on recession; we’re over that. It reflects a lack of will to sustain an expensive art form.

On top of this season’s two corpses, Houston is cutting back. Insiders are starting to ask, who’s next?

And why the rush to shut down?

beczala san diego

photo: Krassimira Stoyanova and Piotr Beczala in San Diego Opera’s recent Ballo. Photo: Ken Howard


  • peter thwarp says:

    Good that Houston is cutting back, how reckless for an opera company to hire world superstars abd pay it’s chief exec $500,000 a year. Surely it is the music that has to survive, not these over paid twerps. Silly and selfish.

  • I was thinking the same Peter Thwarp about hiring superstars… Krassimira Stoyanova and Piotr Beczala as in the picture are superstars too in San Diego.

    I am 100% sure that all these roles could be filled with excellent American singers who don’t get a chance and would only cost 5% of what they pay for the superstars….

  • RalphW says:

    $15.000.000 annual budget and they tanked? Where did that money actually go…

  • Opera America describes San Diego as among the top ten companies in the USA, but it ranks 296th in the world for opera performances per year. This in spite of the city’s enormous wealth and population. UCSD is ranks as the 13th best university in the world, but the city can’t maintain an opera company. Even the San Diego Symphony went through a bankruptcy.

    These problems all relate to America’s dysfunctional arts funding system by the wealthy. We are the only developed country in the world without comprehensive public funding systems for the arts.

    The funding by the wealthy also helps explain why our companies often only do a handful of performances per year, but with the most expensive singers and elaborate productions. The wealthy do a few lavish performances for themselves and neglect the rest of the community that could be served with a longer run of more economical productions. Our opera companies tend to be cultural country clubs for the rich.

    • Marcus Overton says:

      And at this point on the morning of the day following the announcement, not a single word has been uttered by any member of the City Council nor the Mayor. Nor has a single major funder of the company stepped forward even to say a word of regret or to offer help. Nor is there any evidence that the company ever considered re-thinking and/or re-inventing the company’s artistic approach to maintain quality while revising its production practices (smaller, less-massive settings, less expensive costumes, etc.) Nor any indication that the company ever considered re-locating its offices from the top floor of a downtown highrise, or closing its full-time scene shop, or that the General Director ever considered reducing his own half-million dollar salary.

      Saddest of all, though, is the lack of any response from the city council or any other high-ranking official; no response from the local arts commission. And all this follows on the heels of the collapse of Lyric Opera SanmDiego – the city’s smaller-scaled English-language opera company – through the mismanagement and unethical business practices of its founders (now in hiding in New Mexico). How will Mr. Campbell (SDOGeneral Director) be greeted at tonight’s Verdi Requiem performance? with at least a few boos, one hopes.

  • Leslie says:

    I am devastated at what is happening to the opera companies and symphony orchestras, all happening because the wealthy on the boards, make it happen.

    Look at all the billions of dollars going to political campaigns, and in lobbying politicians. All that money and none of it for the good of our humanity. None of it for schools. None of it for infrastructure. None of it for health or the most human activity of all, The Arts.


    • Greg Hlatky says:

      Spending on political campaigns in 2012 was about 6.2 billion dollars. Spending on sinus medication was about 5.8 billion dollars.

    • Dave T says:

      About $665 billion is spent on public schools (K-12), about $306 billion on higher education. Another $36 billion is spent across various and other categories of eduction. That totals of a trillion dollars… per year. Not nothing.

      Healthcare spending totals $2.8 trillion. That’s trillion, with a ‘t”, per year. Again, not nothing.

  • Clarionreed says:

    Why not do opera in concert version until the arts are subsidized by the Government as in Europe?

    How many important opera houses have folded in Europe as a consequence of the recent economical depression?

    The concert format will put out of businesses the producers and reduce the overhead costs next to nothing.

    • Henry Rosen says:

      Overheads to nothing as orchestras come for free?

      • Marcus Overton says:

        San Diego Opera has a current contract with the San Diego Symphony. There should have been no reason in the world why the company could not have re-arranged its 2014-2015 season to comprise, let’s say, two fully-mounted productions and two operas in concert. Washington Concert Opera, has achieved great success from its careful and prudent beginnings to the multiple-performance status it enjoys now. The Opera Orchestra of New York is acclaimed internationally.

        With its San Diego Symphony connection, the company would have had the services of a high-level metropolitan ensemble, something that most opera companies in America’s regions look at with considerable envy. In addition, the company could even have included at least one major choral work in each season: low cost to produce and a guaranteed revenue generator.

        Campbell adroitly misleads the reader when he trumpets that the cause of the closing is all due to a “revenue” problem. Nonsense. There were a dozen ways in which the company’s expenses could have been pared without compromising production quality, and both he and his board know it. But neither he nor they considered the company to be a part of the community. Apparently the city council, the mayor, the city’s movers and shakers and feel the same way for their silence is deafening. Tonight’s performance of the Verdi Requiem will be suffused with a bitter irony, especially since Campbell and the Board have known for almost three years that they planned to strike this blow.

        • Galen Johnson says:

          Campbell must be close to or beyond retirement age–perhaps he considers himself irreplaceable, and that only shutting down the company without debt will preserve his pension fund.

        • Leslie says:

          As I said before, this has to do with priorities. The humanities do not hold sway over money as big oil and the other large corporations which are keeping the rich, rich. All money is going into swaying politicians, to, as I see it, kill our world, our Mother Earth, as we know it.

          The arts, only show us what our world looks like, it doesn’t make anyone rich.

          Look at this year’s Prince Igor, at the Met. As fine a condemnation of war as it was, will anyone take the hint?

          Mr. Cambell and his board, blast the 33 of them who voted for this, wanted no more of spending money on art.

  • Hasbeen says:

    Regarding Campbell; Don’r blame the messenger. He serves at the pleasure of the board and follows their direction.

    • Galen Johnson says:

      Having both been on boards of–and served as an executive director for opera companies and orchestras–that is flat wrong.

  • Hasbeen says:

    I think you should familiarize yourself with San Diego before saying ‘flat wrong’.

  • robcat2075 says:

    The recession? We’re not “over that”.

  • music_lover says:

    Not naming names, but, some Executive Directors who have incredibly overinflated egos, only allow people on the board who see things exactly as they do. Nobody would be on a board with a megalomaniac unless they fell for the act.. They heard his heartfelt plea to close down and fell for it. Hasbeen is indeed, Flat-Wrong

  • Fred Friend says:

    “. UCSD is ranks as the 13th best university in the world,”

    LMAO. Pure fiction.