San Diego rides again


Zandra Rhodes’s “Aida” at the San Diego Opera in 2013: the opera announced its closure in March, but will now, thanks in part to huge crowdfunding response, stay open. Perhaps smaller-scale productions are a key to its successful future?

The San Diego Opera is dead. Long live the San Diego Opera.

This afternoon, the news came across my radar that the San Diego Opera, which two months ago unexpectedly announced that it would be closing for good at the end of April, has figured out a way to stay open.

A lot of the dire music-organization case studies that have emerged of late have been a result less of the economy than poor management, and San Diego Opera’s closure – attributable to “dwindling audience and decreased donations,” said the company’s artistic and general director, Ian Campbell, in March – seemed to be one of them. I am perfectly willing to buy the assertion, on the part of San Diego and other opera companies (like the Metropolitan Opera) that there is no longer the same kind of fan base and public interest in opera that there used to be. But it’s a company’s job to figure out how to roll with those particular punches.

If BMW announced that it was closing up shop because that there was no longer the market for luxury cars that there once was, people would laugh, and say that it served them right. It’s part of the nature of doing business to figure out ways to keep up a market share in changing economic and social circumstances, and, if old products are no longer appealing to the public, to modify them or come up with new ones that do. Some opera companies and orchestras, however, seem more prone to pining for the models of yesteryear than developing the ones of tomorrow.

Yes, the San Diego Opera and the Met and other companies have to deal with the huge costs of mounting productions. But I am only sympathetic to a degree. It costs a lot to mount full-scale grand opera, but there are ways to streamline while upholding quality; and this is something that opera companies have been dealing with for years (remember those spare John Dexter productions at the Met in the 1970s, some now regarded as enduring classics?). The Long Beach Opera manages to mount a full season of four interesting, fully-staged operas on an annual operating budget smaller than the cost of a single production in San Diego. (Cue, here, a flurry of reader e-mails pointing out the differences in quality, caliber of singers, union fees or lack thereof, and what have you.)

For its shortened 2014-15 season, San Diego has cut its budget by about 40% and eliminated one of the four operas it had already announced (note: paying off the singers, who were already under contract, will take some money as well). It will offer “La Boheme,” “Don Giovanni,” and “Nixon in China.” It has also gotten a new board president and lost a bunch of board members as well as Campbell himself.

In not unrelated news, Alexander Pereira has just been terminated before he began as director of Milan’s La Scala, informed that the end of his maiden, 2014-15 season will also be the end of his contract. Big-name administrators no longer represent a company’s salvation (see: New York City Opera and the late Gerard Mortier).

Whatever the future of opera and classical music may be, it looks like it favors the smaller, more flexible, more spontaneous, more visionary, and may look bad for the monumental and the status quo. I fail to see how that’s a bad thing. Do audiences want this? The San Diego Opera was saved in part because the opera was able to raise some $2 million in donations in an online crowdfunding drive. The people have spoken.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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