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San Diego Opera on the brink of closure

28 April 2014

Ian Campbell has been relieved of his duties at San Diego Opera
Ian Campbell has been relieved of his duties at San Diego Opera(Photo courtesy of San Diego Opera)

Financial strains affecting music organisations 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 US$50m, announced it had succumbed to a dearth of sponsors and grants.

The SDO, which once attracted stars such as Plácido 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,’ said Ian D Campbell, the company’s general and artistic director. ‘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.’

The response from supporters of the company has been swift, including an online petition that has attracted over 21,000 signatories. SDO company members are also exploring the possibility of seeking an injunction to halt the closure, and board member Carol Lazier has donated US$1m to buy more time while another solution is sought.

Further signs of deep division within the company are continuing to emerge: the exodus of 13 board members two weeks ago was followed last Friday by the suspension of Ian Campbell and his ex-wife Ann Spira Campbell, SDO’s deputy director general. In 2010 and 2011 their combined salaries totalled more than $1m – a fact that critics of the closure have been quick to seize upon.

According to former SDO donor and advisory board member Don Bauder, however, the company’s plight reflects wider problems of ageing opera fans not being replaced by younger ones. He said SDO ticket sales fell from 41,353 in 2010 to an estimated 31,500 this season.

Prior to his removal last week, Campbell had been at the helm of SDO since 1983. The company achieved a balanced budget for the first 28 years of his tenure, but has posted significant deficits since 2010. San Diego Opera has been ranked among the country’s top 10 opera companies by Opera America and one of 13 ‘Cornerstone Arts Organizations’ by the James Irving Foundation.

The company is currently seeking $1m through crowdsourcing to support a proposed 2015 season. Board member Carol Lazier said: 'We are now very focused on reshaping the San Diego Opera and following a fiscally responsible path'. The crowdsourcing campaign deadline is 19 May.

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