Tito Capobianco, the autocrat who brought San Diego Opera — and the late soprano Beverly Sills — to prominence, died September 8 at Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Florida, to which he had retired in 2000. He was 87. His wife Elena (called “Gigi”) died in 2011. She had choreographed many of the operas he produced in San Diego. He headed the local company from 1976 to 1983, when he left abruptly.
I know. I was on the board’s subcommittee that was working on his future contract. I was on the advisory board then, not the board, but had been placed on the committee because while on the board I had been such an ardent supporter of him. We were prepared to offer him a good salary for a general director at that time — something around $145,000 a year, as I recall. We had made small demands tied to the contract, such as the hiring of a marketing director.
While negotiations were ongoing, I got a call from Don Dierks, the San Diego Union music reviewer. Capobianco had resigned to take the top post in Pittsburgh, said Dierks. I checked and found it was true. I knew that Capobianco had been tangling with Elsie Weston, the president, who had a background in accounting. She was rightfully concerned about a budget deficit reaching $150,000.
Capobianco had expanded the season from five operas to eight. He had launched the Verdi Festival. Each year in the summer, the company put on two operas by Giuseppe Verdi, Capobianco’s favorite composer. (I remember him saying haughtily that another 19th century composer, Richard Wagner, “wrote about gods” while Verdi “wrote about people.”)
I regret my own stupidity. I would brag that San Diego was putting on almost as many operas as Chicago’s Lyric Opera. I wasn’t taking into account that Chicago’s metro area population was three times larger than San Diego’s.
The story I heard was that somebody in Pittsburgh phoned Capobianco to ask if he knew a candidate to be general director there. He stunned Pittsburgh by saying he would take the job. Thrilled, the city named a street after him. I went to dinner with Elsie Weston, who told me what an ordeal it had been. After the blowup, the board wouldn’t give her a second term. Capobianco had criticized her on television, upsetting some board members who might have backed him. Learning that I had deserted his camp, he called me on a Sunday. He claimed that he was a victim of water torture — “drip, drip, drip,” he said. I wasn’t buying it and the conversation ended.
Capobianco put on some great productions in San Diego: La Boheme that was nationally televised, and Die Fledermaus featuring Sills and Joan Sutherland, although both were fading at the time. Beginning with Handel’s Julius Caesar in Egypt, Capobianco was generally held responsible for popping Sills’ career. Capobianco was replaced by Ian Campbell, who cut the budget sharply, but, he, too, spent too much and abruptly left the company, trying to close it down in 2014. He was unsuccessful in that.