Opera pays $1 million to pair who crashed the company

Opera pays $1 million to pair who crashed the company


norman lebrecht

May 03, 2015

Ian Campbell shut down San Diego Opera, saying it was no longer viable. Some members of the board rebelled and he was fired. Now the board has paid Campbell and his ex-wife Ann more than $1m to go quietly, according to tax documents made public on Friday.

The board said: ‘A friend of the Opera, who has chosen to remain anonymous, donated the funds with the specific instruction that they be used to resolve all issues with the transition in leadership so that no other donors’ funds would be used for this purpose.’

ian campbell san diego

For a shaprer view, here’s Nicolas Mansfield, director of Netherlands Touring Opera:

To us Europeans this is a wild and unbelievable story about a man who headed an opera company for 31 years (with his ex-wife), tried to close it down and moved to New York to start a new life. San Diego Opera gave around 16 performances (not productions) per year, for which his annual salary was around one million dollars. One anonymous donor funded his payoff and as cherry on the cake he gets free tickets for every San Diego Opera premiere for life.

Here’s wishing my friend and colleague, David Bennett, all the best in opening a new chapter for this fabulous opera company.


  • william osborne says:

    It’s a selective view to say that a company that only does 16 performances per year for a rich city of 1.35 million and a metro population of 3 million is “fabulous.” (Actually, the season is now even shorter.)

    Campbell and his wife were together making about 1.25 million a year, or ,000 per performance in a city where the cultural lives of millions of people are massively underserved due to a lack of funding.

    Nothing has changed. The company will remain an arts institution by and for the wealthy. Due to the shortened season, the new director will still be making around ,000 per performance. The tickets will remain three or four times more expensive than those in Europe, the cultural lives of the people in the city will continue to be neglected, and with no funding system whatsoever in the planning that will significantly reduce these problems. Nicolas Mansfield, as well as most Americans, have not even begun to see the “wild and unbelievable” aspects surrounding this “fabulous” opera company. The opera world needs a little less back-slapping among it buddies and lot more truthfulness.

  • william osborne says:

    And the new Director will make about $20,000 per performance. (Don’t know why the blog transfer deleted the numerals.)

  • Nicolas Mansfield says:

    Knowing David Bennett, I would imagine that his awareness of his responsiblity to stop neglecting the cultural lives of the people of San Diego is at the forefront of his mind. He will be judged by his ability to prove that things can change. I don’t call that back-slapping, but support and encouragement for a brighter future. Realism, always. Cynicism, never.

    • william osborne says:

      Yes, we can encourage him without saying the company in its current condition is “fantastic.” On the other hand, it is unlikely he will create significant change as long as the company has to rely on private funding. If he’s lucky, he will get it back up to American standards: a very small season, a pick up orchestra, and expensive star singers hired for a short period who will work in a rental facility. A third to half of the administrative costs will go to fund raising. Due to limited funds, outreach programs will be severely limited, while the number of performances will be similar to provincial European houses in small cities.

      Until we squarely admit and face up to these realities, we will not be able to change them. In short, David Bennett will no doubt be an excellent veterinarian for one-winged birds.

      • MWnyc says:

        For what it’s worth, the San Diego Opera doesn’t use a pick-up orchestra; it uses the San Diego Symphony Orchestra.

        • william osborne says:

          On the other hand, still a pick up orchestra in the sense that they still have only temporary contracts, no benefits, limited rehearsal, and are working outside their normal repertoire. That might be acceptable for a small place like Cedar Rapids or Little Rock, but not for San Diego. With virtually no exceptions, every European city that size has a full time opera company in a dedicated house offering full time employment to 500 to 800 people.

          • william osborne says:

            As if the ten or so performances per year currently planned would build an opera orchestra, benefits or not. Until we have a good funding system, things will not significantly progress.

  • Anonne says:

    All this is very mysterious to me. Why did Campbell have to be paid anything? HE apparently determined to shut down the company, ergo –by his own decision — there was no job for him to hold, so he could hardly sue anyone for wrongful dismissal, could he? What job did he fancy doing to collect his ridiculously inflated emolument? He should not have had to be fired when he himself eliminated the need for his work.

    • MWnyc says:

      What you say makes sense on an intuitive level, but it may not match the legal realities.

      We don’t know what exactly was in the Campbells’ contracts with San Diego opera, and we don’t know whether, under California or U.S. federal contract law, the company was still bound by those contracts when the board reversed the decision to shut down.

  • David Boxwell says:

    Rewarding spectacular failure at the top: this is how the One Percent of America rolls, and there’s sweet fanny adams the rest of us sans-cullottes can do about it.

    • MWnyc says:

      Don’t think of it as rewarding spectacular failure at the top.

      Think of it as ransom (because that’s what it is) – a payoff by a donor so that the company doesn’t have to spend several years, hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees, and G-d-only-knows how much staff time defending a breach-of-contract lawsuit that it could lose.

  • Brian says:

    This is a perfect illustration of music critic B. H. Haggin’s First Law: You can’t keep a bad man down.

  • Marg says:

    As usual it’s an “only in America” event that leaves the rest of us shaking our head in disbelief.

  • Craig Verm says:

    The Netherlands Touring Opera Company is the Nationale Reisopera (National Touring Opera). They are a phenomenal opera company based in eastern Holland that takes opera productions on tour throughout the Netherlands. I have sung with them before, and it was top-notch. They are exceedingly lucky to have Nicholas Mansfield at their helm!

  • MWnyc says:

    Exactly what it sounds like: an opera company that tours the Netherlands, giving performances in cities too small to support resident companies of their own.

    Why do you ask?

  • MWnyc says:

    Read the linked article and you’ll see that this settlement isn’t quite as bad as it sounds.

    (Not to say it’s good, mind you.)

    Almost $600,000 of that $1 million came from Ann Spira Campbell’s supplemental retirement plan, and the company would probably have had to pay it to her even if she had been fired for cause.

    The go-away-and-don’t-sue-us money was a flat $200,000 for her and $276,000 for him.

  • william osborne says:

    The New York Times reports today: “The Wall Street bonus pool in 2014 was roughly twice the total annual earnings of all Americans working full time at the federal minimum wage. You read that right: Just the annual bonuses for just the sliver of Americans who work just in finance just in New York City dwarfed the combined year-round earnings of all Americans earning the federal minimum wage.

    • Anonne says:

      Any of your so-far undistinguished posse of would-be presidential candidates mentioning that sort of thing and what he/she would do about it?

      • william osborne says:

        Oh, sure they’ll mention it. In the speech announcing her candidacy, Hilary Clinton noted that “the average CEO makes about 300 times what the average worker makes.” She said she would work to change this, but just as with Obama, these promises are seldom carried through. Bernie Sanders, the only self-proclaimed socialist in Congress has announced his candidacy. He would change things, but he would never be elected. He might at least push the Democrats to act more like a progressive party. In short, nothing will change. Our system is not a democracy, but rather a plutocracy, just as our system of arts funding is. Change will only come slowly at a grass roots level, and by people with the integrity not to hide their identities…

  • […] Ian Campbell shut down San Diego Opera, saying it was no longer viable. Some members of the board rebelled and he was fired. Now the board has paid Campbell and his ex-wife Ann more than $1m to go quietly, according to tax documents made public on Friday.  […]