A warhorse carries embattled soldiers out of a morass. In opera, a warhorse is a popular work performed so often it has become hackneyed — in snobs’ eyes, anyway.
San Diego Opera, which almost died in 2014 and has struggled to get back on its feet, is astutely turning to warhorses for its 2018–2019 season. It will do three old-time favorites at the San Diego Civic Theatre: Marriage of Figaro, Rigoletto, and Carmen. In smaller venues, it will do a new work by composer Jake Heggie; a children’s production of Hansel and Gretel (a warhorse, too); and a concert of arias by Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Powell, who are likely to sing familiar arias from familiar works. Warhorses predominate, and that may be the company’s salvation.
I have interviewed David Bennett, the opera’s general director, along with people, including critics, long involved with the organization. The consensus: “These productions will be good for balancing the budget,” says John Patrick Ford, who was the second president of the organization, in the late 1960s. At the same time, the opera has slashed expenses: “You have to respect David [Bennett] for keeping this company afloat.”
Because so much of Bennett’s career had been tied up in experimental opera, he was not the first choice for the job. But he has hit upon the right formula: do the crowd-pleasers at the Civic and the experimental works at the smaller venues, such as Balboa Theatre.
The previous management under Ian Campbell had failed in its attempt to make hits out of newer works. In the early 1990s, Campbell wangled a large grant to do 20th-century operas. The company presented several of them in succeeding years, to disappointing audiences. This hurt the bottom line. The problem: the works were presented at the Civic, which seats almost 3000 persons. There were a lot of empty seats.
“The Civic Theatre is a terrible place,” says Garrett Harris, Reader critic who also performs with San Diego Opera. “It looks like Soviet-era architecture and lacks any redeeming acoustic.”(An attempt by Campbell to raise money for a new opera house failed — mercifully, because within a few years the company was severely ailing financially.)
Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes was one of the 20th-century operas performed in the Campbell era. “Peter Grimes is by far the greatest opera I have ever been in,” says Harris. However, “It was a poorly attended 20th-century opera.” Two other Britten operas were not box office hits: The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring. The same was true of modern operas based on great themes of literature: A Streetcar Named Desire and Of Mice and Men. They were appealing visually and emotionally, but flat musically. Generally, San Diegans dislike dissonant modern music. Campbell was told that, but he didn’t listen. He later admitted his error.
“We’re looking for operas done many times — titles everyone knows but haven’t been done for a while,” says Bennett. For 2018–2019, this is true for all but Carmen. The opera has cut yearly expenses from a peak of $18 million to below $10 million. Still, “we are not out of the woods,” he says. “We have to save ourselves every year. We are finding a mix of repertoire that will engage a lot of people. We hope to end the year with income that matches expenses, but we have a lot of work to do.”
From 1976 to 1983, the opera was headed by Tito Capobianco, who put on many great performances featuring stars such as Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland. But Capobianco was autocratic. “I was chairman of the production committee and Tito wouldn’t tell me what he was planning,” recalls Ford. “He was a one-man show; the board was superfluous.”
One president saw that he was spending too much money, particularly on the summer Verdi Festival. The two battled fiercely. Capobianco abruptly left in a huff, and Ford headed the search that landed Campbell.
Campbell, in the saddle between 1983 and 2014, slashed the budget deeply and rebuilt the company. Under Campbell, there were many superb opera performances. And early on, he won a reputation for financial tightness. However, in later years, he began spending entirely too lavishly. The opera would pick up the tab for his summer trips to Europe, purportedly scouting out talent. “That was a lot of money that could have been spent elsewhere,” says Sandra Pay, who was president right after Capobianco departed. The talent Campbell imported was too expensive, and the company began eating into reserves, while still claiming it was balancing the budget.
Campbell and his then-wife Ann, the fund-raiser, were grossly overpaid — $1 million between them in one year. Ann Campbell then made what Ford describes as a “terrible mistake.” Before she arrived, the company had eight guilds, and board membership was spread all around the county. Ann Campbell shifted the fund-raising emphasis to the Beautiful People of La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe. The guilds dried up.
Campbell, too, was autocratic. Staffers wanted an investigation of the imperious management and board clique running the company. One astute board member began asking tough questions about Ann Campbell’s activities. That person was secretly given the boot. The state attorney general’s office promised to do an audit of the company. I tried four times, unsuccessfully, to get the office to say what has happened to that audit.
In 2014, Campbell and a small coterie of board members decided the money had run out and the opera should close down. The Beautiful People weren’t coughing up more. Mudslinging was ubiquitous. The board initially voted overwhelmingly to close down, but then a small group rebelled and led the revival. They succeeded, but one former top official warns, “They have not raised the kind of money they had hoped. They have not replaced the big givers,” the Beautiful People. I suspect that this crowd has an ego stake in seeing the opera fail.
“The primary duty of a large arts organization is to stay in business,” says Welton Jones, retired critic. “Unfortunately, [warhorses] are what an opera company has to fall back on.” Still, Jones says that the many staffers he knows “are much more engaged, much more enthusiastic than in decades.”
A recently retired higher-up staffer agrees: “Everybody realizes we have to do grand opera — warhorses at the Civic.” However, he warns that opera, and all classical music, is declining in the United States. “Opera is a crapshoot.”