Financial strains affecting music organisation across the US have brought a surprise closure announcement from the San Diego Opera.
Less than a month before the end of its 2013-14 season on 13 April, the Southern California company, which has an annual budget of $50m, announced it had succumbed to a dearth of sponsors and grants.
The SDO, which once attracted stars such as Placido Domingo, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti and Beverly Sills, announced it would bring down the final curtain just short of its 50th anniversary with a one-week run of Massenet’s Don Quixote.
‘After nearly 50 years as a San Diego cultural cornerstone providing world-class performances, we saw we faced an insurmountable financial hurdle going forward,’ Ian D Campbell, the opera’s general and artistic director, said in a statement. ‘We had a choice of winding down with dignity and grace, making every effort to fulfil our financial obligations, or inevitably entering bankruptcy, as have several other opera companies. Our board voted to take the first choice.
‘It is better to go out with dignity, on a high note with heads held high than to slip into the night, leaving creditors and community in the lurch.’
Winding down the company would take ‘an indeterminate period of time ‘. The opera’s board reportedly voted 33-1 to close.
Earlier in the season, the 70-year-old New York City Opera filed for bankruptcy.
In its statement, the SDO pointed out that it was ranked among the top 10 opera companies in the nation by Opera America and one of 13 ‘Cornerstone Arts Organizations’ by the James Irving Foundation.
It recalled local critic James Chute’s recent commendation: ’If you had to identify a single opera that embodied the values and aspirations of the San Diego Opera, you’d have to point to its exceptional production of Verdi’s A Masked Ball.’
The chairwoman of the San Diego Opera’s board, Karen S Cohn, said in the statement that the decision to close was heart-wrenching, but unavoidable. ‘After 28 consecutive years of balanced budgets, it was clear that we could not continue. In spite of excellent financial management, the Opera faced increasingly higher ticket-sale and fund-raising hurdles.’
Ticket sales had increased steadily despite prices rising to as much as $280. But US arts organisations are heavily reliant on private donations and, despite South California’s concentration of wealthy residents, such funding has dropped from $9.7m in 2008 to $5.4m in 2012.
Some critics questioned the $508,021 salary of Mr Campbell, who joined from the Metropolitan Opera in 1983, and the $282,345 his wife, Ann, received as artistic director, but the company pointed out that this was in line with earnings at similar US opera houses.
Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed described the closure as ‘premature’ and ‘senseless’, recalling that the San Diego Symphony closed in 1996, returned two years later and ‘now thrives’.
- Update 27/03/14:
Chorus members launched an online petition (www.thepetitionsite.com/827/516/648/save-san-diego-opera/) calling for the closure to be staved off and within 48 hours it had attracted 12,000 signatures. A supporting Facebook page gained more than 5,000 ‘likes’ in the same period, more than SDO’s own entry on the social network.
Meanwhile, SDO company members are discussing with union officials seeking an injunction to halt the closure.
According to former SDO donor and advisory board member Don Bauder, writing in the San Diego reader, the company’s plight reflects wider problems of ageing opera fans not being replaced by younger ones. He says San Francisco has seen audiences drop ‘from 165,000 in 1980 to an expected 93,000 next year’, with the box office contribution to the budget falling from 58.7% to 32%. Similarly, he says, SDO ticket sales fell from 41,353 in 2010 to an estimated 31,500 this season.
Mr Bauder concludes gloomily: ‘The economics are simply against serious performing arts, in San Diego and everywhere.’
The drama has generated online speculation across the US, and from Chicago to Houston, about whether other opera companies will follow SDO’s fate.
- Update 8/4/14:
After the public furore, the SDO board reconvened and decided to delay closure until the end of April. Board member Carol Lazier then announced she was donating $1m to help the company avoid closure.