Off-Ramp

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San Diego Opera closing a dismal sign for the city

The San Diego Opera in action. The company recently announced that this season will be its last.
The San Diego Opera in action. The company recently announced that this season will be its last. San Diego Opera

The San Diego Opera is closing

“After nearly 50 years as a San Diego cultural cornerstone providing world-class performances, we saw 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." — San Diego Opera CEO Ian D. Campbell

I suppose we should have seen it coming months ago.

That’s when the opera, going on 49 years of operation, quietly dropped plans for a 2015 50th anniversary celebration.  That would have been, really, when management determined that California’s third largest and second-oldest opera company, probably wouldn’t be alive at that time.

In any case, when the opera’s board decided by an almost unanimous vote Wednesday to close the curtain on music drama on the Civic Theater stage, it took the classical music world by surprise.  Opera companies in major cities including Baltimore, Boston and San Antonio have closed in the past decade. Even the New York City Opera, which was long both a scrappy competitor to the world-famed Metropolitan Opera and the ladder to the top for a myriad of great singers, was recently forced into bankruptcy.

It took me by surprise, too, because unlike some of the other newly defunct opera companies, the San Diego seemed to be so deeply rooted in its community. In addition to its paid staff of 117 (as of this month), it relied on hundreds of opera-adoring volunteers: assistants, docents, people who offered their spare rooms on a regular basis to house visiting opera singers at no charge.  James Conlon does a brilliant job with his Upbeats Live before the Los Angeles Opera’s performances, but San Diego Opera director Ian Campbell’s pre-performance lectures more resembled large family gatherings, where everyone seemed to know one another on a first name basis. They didn’t just come to enjoy the great music. They came to share love.

You felt that the entire community stood behind the institution. Of course, what you were seeing was not San Diego entire. It was a community of its older people, most of them still-active retirees. Some were extremely well off, others just comfortable. Campbell did his best to spread the opera gospel among the young, sending singers into the local schools to show the students just how wonderful opera could be. With what success I do not know. This company will not be around when most of those kids grow old enough to be able to afford (increasingly costly) opera tickets.

In the early 1980s, when I discovered San Diego Opera, opera seemed to be undergoing a revival in America. A brilliant new generation of singers was coming onto the scene and the arrival of the CD sparked a mini-boom in classical recording sales. Opera companies were forming (or reforming) all over the world. Soon Los Angeles Opera would open with an abundance of adventuresome programming.  Younger people were discovering opera and enjoying it. 

A generation later, you wonder what happened.  Of course, opera is costly, very costly, and there’ve been two big economic declines since then. And of course the older, opera-loving fan base began to die off.  I can remember standing in line for the men’s room at the San Diego Opera where most of those ahead of me, discussing Bizet in the near-regulation tweeds of retired Point Loma naval officers, looked old enough to have commanded destroyers in World War II. At the time I thought that I needn’t worry, everyone is getting older all the time. But the people getting older now were not brought up on the idea so current even in mid-20th-century middle class homes that classical music (and opera in particular) was a uniquely fulfilling cultural experience. Or maybe they just prefer basketball.

Whatever the cause, San Diego’s opera was plagued with declining ticket sales. This diminished the company’s resources to the point that it had to cut back from five to four productions a year. But now ticket receipts, which had once covered more than half of the annual expenses, only covered a third. This meant that the opera’s fundraising had to get much more aggressive.

But in this it was not successful.

Iris Lynn Strauss, an opera board member, told the San Diego U-T: “We have tried everything. I’ve gone to so many people (for money) that I don’t have any friends left.” There is wide agreement that the opera’s demise has left a huge smoking crater in San Diego’s cultural community. And that nothing seems likely to come along to fill it.

A friend of mine who volunteered at San Diego Opera for decades points out that the opera’s closure “will have a domino effect on the city’s entire musical and cultural scene.” It is likely to put the opera company’s professional chorus out on the street and cut back the earnings of the San Diego Symphony, which accompanied the opera. This will make it harder for that orchestra to recruit first-rate musicians, my friend said, and may endanger its future. The orchestra has had severe problems staying alive in the past, and if it founders after the opera closes, San Diego will have lost two of its three major cultural attractions, with only the Old Globe theater left.

And a lot of Los Angeles music mavens will have little reason left to drive to San Diego for a weekend. More San Diegans, on the other hand, are going to start showing up here.

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