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City funds for San Diego Opera cut, revised plans for 2015 underway

City funds for San Diego Opera cut, revised plans for 2015 underway

by Angela Carone | KPBS

San Diego’s arts commission is urging the City Council to continue to fund the troubled San Diego Opera but recommended the group’s funding for fiscal 2015 be cut substantially.

The commissioners, an advisory group appointed by the mayor, said the 49-year-old opera company is unstable. Over the past several weeks, the group’s board has voted to close and then stay open, and more than twenty board members have resigned.

Even so, the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture voted 4-2 last week to recommend the council give the opera $160,000 for the next fiscal year, which is less than half of what the company was set to receive.

Commissioner John Venekamp, who came up with the $160,000 figure, pointed out that the opera is vying for funds against other arts organizations “that have worked hard and do strategic planning and are managed well.”

opera-small02Read stories from our continuing coverage of the opera by clicking here.

Based on the application the opera submitted to the commission in January, it would have been awarded $383,322. When the opera board voted March 19 to close, then reversed course days later to postpone closure, it became clear the application would need to be reconsidered, explained a commission staffer.

Reducing the award to $160,000 means the remaining $223,322 will be distributed to other arts organizations.

Commissioner Laurie Mitchell, who voted to fund the opera, said she personally wants the opera to succeed but has questions. “What will the opera be past this season?” she said. “I think we should fund at some level, but we almost need to look at it as a new organization.”

The council is scheduled to take up the recommendation Wednesday.

A day after the commission met, Mayor Kevin Faulconer verbally pledged support for the opera.

“The opera is important,” Faulconer said at a news conference. “And it will have my full support as people come together and determine what kind of changes they need to make sure it is sustainable and viable and I think something all San Diegans can be proud of.”

The vote by the city’s arts commission came after representatives from the opera presented a 2015 transition plan with a budget slashed by 40 percent and a season line-up that allows the group to honor singer contracts already in place for “La Boheme,” “Don Giovanni,” “Nixon in China” and “Tannhäuser.”

Keith Fisher, the opera’s newly appointed chief operating officer, told commissioners the company hopes to raise $3.5 million by May 19 and to adopt new fundraising methods going forward. That includes a $1 million crowdsourcing campaign underway that has banked close to $700,000. Forty-one percent of those donors are giving to the opera for the first time, according to a company spokesman.

Fisher and others have been working furiously over the past few weeks to come up with a way to reinvent the company rather than close it. That has meant drastically cutting the budget and envisioning less expensive venues and productions.

The opera board’s March 19 vote to cease operations in April surprised many, although its declining ticket and philanthropic support were well known. The closure date was later postponed, but in the weeks that followed more than half the board resigned, including the contingent that pushed to close. The board has elected new leadership and is strategizing for the future. Ian Campbell, the opera’s longtime general director, has been placed on paid leave.

The commissioners also restricted how the opera could spend the money it was awarded, noting it could only be used for strategic planning, education or the employment of local musicians. The opera is tasked with making a proposal for how the money would be used in one of those areas.

“The funding recommendation relates to the proposed size and scope of the organization going forward,” said Robert H. Gleason, chairman of the arts commission. “And a desire to, on the one hand, provide some support to an organization in transition but on the other hand, keep both eyes open to the possibility that there will be further rocky times ahead.”  Gleason voted no on funding the opera at $160,000. He thought they should be awarded a higher amount.

The vote to reduce funding was a tough break for the opera staff and board members who are working on new ways to raise funds and to mount a 2015 season, which would be the company’s 50th anniversary.

“I feel it’s a little unfair yet it’s understandable given recent events,” said the opera board’s new executive vice president, Courtney Anne Coyle.

“It’s unfair because the commission members stated no concerns about artistic quality, the 2015 transition plan that was presented to them, our educational programs or our grant paperwork. We have no debt and no lines of credit,” said Coyle, who has been on the opera board for three years and was an arts commissioner for eight.

The commission’s recommendation will be presented to the City Council as part of its annual report recommending how the council and mayor should allocate transient occupancy tax funds to local arts groups.

The tax is collected by hotels on behalf of the city to fund services that attract more visitors to San Diego.

The 2015 plan Fisher outlined for the commission breaks with the opera company’s tradition in a number of ways. The opera board has yet to approve the plan but is seriously considering it, Coyle said. Some of the options being considered include:

  • Houston Grand Opera and the LA Opera have offered free rentals on sets and costumes for two of the productions, which makes staging them cheaper.
  • The group is exploring venues other than the Civic Theatre to stage some of the operas.
  • Soprano Ailyn Pérez and tenor Stephen Costello, the couple who starred in “Romeo and Juliet” at San Diego Opera in 2010, have agreed to perform at an opening recital at no cost to the opera. The ticket prices for that recital would be as low as $20, a price point the opera hasn’t offered in 20 years.
  • The budget includes reducing staffing across the board, moving to cheaper offices and eliminating the donor tent in which major donors can have wine before a performance.

Coyle said the company is trying “to balance grand style opera with [offering] new works in new ways better suited to our community.”

“We’re not going to be able to import what Dallas or other places have done. We’re going to have to find the sweet spot for San Diego,” she said.

After the presentation, Commissioner Dea Hurston asked, “Why couldn’t some of this been done before?” Hurston was the other “no” vote. She thought the $160,000 figure was to high.

Fisher responded: “Given our leadership structure, we were unable to.”

Fisher appealed to the group, acknowledging that the opera is not the most financially unstable organization in town. “We have had a change in leadership, yes, but we have the ability to emerge into a stable company.”

He added that there will be “no more fat cat salaries or company cars,” referring to the compensation packages the opera has paid Campbell and his ex-wife, Ann Spira Campbell, who is the company’s deputy director. She also is on paid leave from the organization.

Hurston was unmoved. She said she still has questions about how the group got to a place where suddenly declining ticket sales and lack of donations meant rapidly shutting down. “Ian (Campbell) has said this has been going on for three to four years. I don’t understand how this could have happened,” Hurston said.

The opera board’s new board president, Carol Lazier, struck a contrite tone.

“We had a complacent board. Ann (Campbell, chief fundraiser) would pull a rabbit out of a hat and we’d have enough money to go on, but the strategy was always to go to the same small group of funders,” Lazier said.

She told the commissioners there is a large group of donors who have been ready for change and will now step up to support the opera.

Fisher also announced they are looking at bringing in an artistic adviser on a contract basis to help them through the transition. The person, said Fisher, is a “pretty big gun in the opera world.”

The commission, which is made up of 15 members and a small city staff, awards tax dollars to city arts organization by entering into contracts with them. No money is given up front, only as a reimbursement for expenses. The organizations also have to match city funds with money raised from other sources.

When an organization applies for funding, the application is reviewed and ranked on a scale of one to four, one being the lowest and four the highest. The commission only funds organizations with a ranking of three minus or better.

For many years now, the commission has consistently ranked the opera at a four.

On April 25, the commissioners voted to void the opera’s rank for 2015.

Gleason, head of the commission, said the opera discussion showed how commissioners have to strike a balance between two aspects of the advisory board’s mission.

“I think everyone sitting around the table is mindful of the role of the commission in funding, supporting and growing arts institutions in San Diego,” Gleason said. “At the same time, we are always aware that we are appointed representatives of the public and that we are dealing with public funds and that there is justifiable public scrutiny about how those funds are used.”

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