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Arts & Entertainment

New hope for the supposedly shuttered San Diego Opera

San Diego Opera senior docent Kathleen Kay O’Neil, protesting the decision to close the opera company.
San Diego Opera senior docent Kathleen Kay O’Neil, protesting the decision to close the opera company.
Missy West

UPDATE 9:43pm 4/24/2014:  There's another potential legal obstacle to the shutdown of the San Diego Opera.  Hope Singer, an attorney for the American Guild of Musical Artists, says the guild is seeking a temporary restraining order against the opera company in San Diego Federal District Court. The  union represents solo singers whom the opera already contracted for performances in the upcoming season, and the TRO would require the opera to put up $1.75 million in assets to pay the contracted singers, even if the company shuts down as proposed. ''The singers have to get paid anyway, whether they get to sing or not," Singer said. 


On what was supposed to be the final Friday night performance of the San Diego Opera - its longtime director had just announced there would be no next season - senior docent Kathleen Kay O’Neil was having none of it. As ticket holders milled in the forecourt of the Civic Theater, she stood out among the large handful of protesters in her black jump suit and a home-made skull mask. And she carried a big sign: “Please Don’t Let Our Opera Die.”

And right now, it looks like California’s second-oldest opera company might have a second chance—no thanks to the SDO leadership. On April 28, there's a special meeting of a grassroots 800-member panel called the San Diego Opera association, which is expected to weigh in on the board of directors’ vote to close the opera, and whether the SDO has a future.

Last week, KPBS reported that both state law and SDO bylaws required its directors to get the association’s permission to end the SDO, suggesting their earlier action was not lawful. Meanwhile, at a subsequent fevered board of directors’ meeting, board president Karen Cohn, who strongly backed the decision to close, resigned, along with 13 other directors. Carol Lazier, a strong supporter of keeping the opera alive, is the new board chief.

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In the days after the directors’ abrupt March announcement, there was widespread resignation: opera companies are failing elsewhere in America; why not in San Diego? Then came the sharp reaction of the city’s cultural community, declaring it had been betrayed. The reasoning: if SDO’s management really had seen this disaster coming 5 years ago, keeping it to themselves amounted to dereliction of duty. As one listener put it to KPBS, “How about telling your employees and your donors 5 years ago when you 'saw this coming' so that they could help?’’

There was also apparently no sympathy for 30-year, $508,000 per annum company director Ian Campbell, whose generous pension arrangements seemed guaranteed by his shutdown plans. The musicians’ unions were enraged that no attempt had been made to negotiate down their salary contracts—which, facing an emergency, they said they would have been willing to reduce. Campbell was booed when he came on stage the night “Don Quixote” opened, a turnaround for the director, who went from being one of San Diego’s most popular public figures to one of its most despised.  

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Local media, the city and county government, and thousands of others all made their displeasure known. More than 20,000 signatures were gathered to support the opera’s salvation. Young opera goers I spoke with that Friday said they desperately hoped the company could be saved, but had no idea how that might happen. Asked why they hadn’t attended the opera more, they cited rising ticket prices and fewer productions ... actions Campbell claimed were taken to save the company that could no longer attract younger audiences.

At that "final" Friday, though, more than half the audience looked Gen X and younger — some a lot younger. Many wore “Save San Diego Opera” stickers. The men wore hipster beardlets and the women some really short skirts and many couples brought their children. There they were, the very people Campbell said that opera didn’t attract any more, packing the house for what Campbell intended to be his company’s last production. Docent O’Neill said that on the contrary, SDO’s community outreach had brought as many as 2,500 young people to each production’s dress rehearsal.

A fine production this one was, too. Ferruccio Furlenetto owns the role of the Woeful Don in an opera that the SDO has made its own; Anke Vondunga was a sprightly and thoughtful Dulcinea; and resident conductor Karen Keltner had her band playing like there was no tomorrow, which perhaps there wasn’t. Eduardo Chama brought substantial acting as well as vocal skills to the integral part of Sancho Panza.

If the SDO must close, this “Don Quixote” would have been a suitable swan song. But much of San Diego seems now to be saying that its loss is not to be borne. And San Diego, for one, doesn't seem to be prepared to bear it.

NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the TRO had been secured.