Can Opera Become a Sustainable Art Form?

Courtesy of San Diego Opera.

OP-Art: Opinions and editorials about art, institutions, and the relationship between them.


The San Diego Opera board voted to cease operations, just one season short of its 50th anniversary. The decision, made behind closed doors on March 19, surprised everyone. Staff, artists, and the San Diego community question why a company that has continually posted balanced budgets and boasts an annual donor base of $10 million would throw in the towel. General Director Ian Campbell, who has led the company for 31 years, was reported to be the force behind the decision.

Following an onslaught of controversy and negative press, the board delayed the decision, voting on March 31 to undertake an additional two-week period of evaluation.

As the San Diego community and opera lovers throughout the region hold their breath, it is useful to step back and take a historical perspective on opera in Southern California.

For decades the only reliable opera offerings in the area were the Texaco radio broadcast from the Met and the occasional touring company. In the 1980s, there was an opera boom, both here and around the nation. Small and mid-sized cities supported the advent and growth of local companies; philanthropy and corporate sponsorship burgeoned; and surtitles that project English translation made the art form more accessible to new audiences.

In Southern California impresario Peter Hemmings launched the city's first permanent opera company, the L.A. Opera; Ian Campbell assumed the leadership of San Diego Opera and brought the company to national prominence; and Opera Pacific launched operations in Costa Mesa. These were halcyon days.

In 2000, however, the opera bubble burst. Numerous companies closed shop nation-wide, and those that did persevere slashed budgets, reduced performances, and eliminated work for choristers and costumers alike.

No company was unaffected. The Metropolitan Opera posted record deficits. Lyric Opera of Chicago scrambled to fill seats. New York City Opera left its home at Lincoln Center and then declared bankruptcy two years later. Washington National Opera merged with its landlord, the Kennedy Center, in order to stay afloat.

Locally, audiences saw the demise of Opera Pacific in 2008, and then feared the worst in 2010 as L.A. Opera amassed $30 million in debt, including a $15 million loan from the County of Los Angeles.

With so much bad news in the opera industry, is it a surprise that Ian Campbell declared opera an unsustainable art form?

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But to what extent is this a problem of his own making? Like many baby boomer arts leaders, Campbell finds himself losing a generational race. The breakneck pace of change in the marketplace demands agility, and leaders who are unbending will inevitably reduce their organizations to a hobble.

All art forms are faced with the same imperative -- to usher in a new era. This demands innovative solutions to reach new audiences, embrace new technology, diversify product and revenue sources, and chase the elusive goal of relevancy in an increasingly competitive landscape.

A number of Los Angeles arts leaders are setting an impressive pace in this pursuit -- the young Maestro Gustavo Dudamel at LAPhil and LACMA's powerhouse CEO Michael Govan for example.

With an infusion of young leadership, opera has seen a turnaround in the area as well. Shortly after Christopher Koelsch was named CEO of L.A. Opera, the company's debt was retired, and inventive productions like last season's "Magic Flute" drew big crowds. For the more daring opera patron, Yuval Sharon's upstart company, The Industry, is galvanizing some of the most creative forces in the region to produce site-specific productions of new operas.

The opera bubble burst more than a decade ago. It's time for the San Diego Opera Board to recognize that a new crop of leaders is poised to remake opera, both the business and the art form itself. There's no reason for the company to lower the curtain forever without first trying to adapt and innovate.

Without an opera company performing live onstage in San Diego, audiences there will face a long commute north on the 405. Alternatively, there's the Met's HD simulcast at a local movie theater - now that's innovation. San Diego Opera board, please take note.


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