by Angela Carone | KPBS
edited by Lorie Hearn | inewsource

The former general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, one of the premiere opera companies in the country, will serve as a temporary artistic advisor at San Diego Opera for the next six months.

William Mason came out of a well-earned retirement – he spent over 50 years in the opera business – to guide the troubled opera company towards stability.

“I’ve had such a wonderful career in opera, it was a chance to give something back,” said Mason.

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Mason says he was interested in the gig because it was not just about helping on the artistic side, despite the title. He says he realized the company needed someone with general director experience as well.

In addition to helping flesh out the 2015 season, the opera’s 50th anniversary, and offer direction on the operas already booked for 2016, Mason will advise the board on how to govern the newly organized company and weigh in on financials and fundraising until a new general director is appointed.

That person, says Mason, needs to have a fresh outlook.

“They need somebody new,” Mason explained. “I’m 72 years old. I have no new ideas, and I’m not trying to formulate any.”

His old ideas worked well for the Lyric, which remained in the black throughout Mason’s tenure, without sacrificing quality, says Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, a national umbrella organization.

Scorca says Mason’s experience and popularity in the opera world will send a message internally and to the outside world that the ship has been righted.

“I think Bill will not only provide continuity in many ways but he’ll also provide a different leadership style that will win new friends for San Diego Opera,” said Scorca.

Mason’s salary has not yet been determined. Right now he’s being paid expenses while he and the opera assess the scope of his duties. Mason says transparency is important and as soon as they decide a figure, “I have no qualms about that being out in the open.”

The salary of former general and artistic director Ian Campbell was a flashpoint in the turmoil surrounding San Diego Opera during the last two months. The company was on the brink of closing in March. Campbell is no longer with the company, half the board resigned, and the state attorney general is conducting an investigation into the company’s finances.

But Mason says the challenges facing San Diego Opera were part of what made the new post appealing enough to draw him out of retirement. He also liked the idea of helping the company’s newly configured and much smaller board find better ways to govern. “They’re energized and committed,” said Mason.

“The old board had not provided the oversight a board should, otherwise the company would not have found itself in the situation it did,” Mason said, referring to the former board’s decision to close the opera company in the face of dwindling financial resources. The board members who have resigned say they believe the honorable path was to close down and pay off the company’s debts. Mason disagrees.

“The honorable thing to do would have been to plow forward and find a way to stay open,” said Mason. “Maybe you fail, but that would be much more honorable than throwing in the towel.”

Opera board president Carol Lazier, who was also on the board when it voted to close, proudly announced Mason’s appointment. “Bill Mason’s reputation in the world of opera is second to none,” she said in a statement.

“His knowledge of opera production and staging, his skills as an administrator, and his deep love of the art form, assures that the artistic quality San Diego Opera is known for will continue unabated.”

Mason’s tenure at the Lyric was governed by fiscal caution and, towards the end, artistic conservatism, according to Chicago Tribune classical music critic John von Rhein who wrote of Mason’s stewardship in 2012:

“It’s entirely possible for an opera company such as Chicago’s to be artistically bold while maintaining a healthy balance of repertory and living within its means. Recent Mason seasons have found Lyric in retrenching mode, showcasing a handful of star singers in safe, conservative productions of safe, conservative repertory. This won’t do for a leading company bent on convincing new and younger audiences to give opera a tumble.”

The Lyric has an envious endowment, more than $150 million, and Chicago is home to a committed opera-loving audience. The city also has more corporate headquarters than San Diego, which helps with fundraising and sponsorships.

“A lot of companies are still managing to survive that aren’t the size of Chicago,” said Mason. “I see no reason why San Diego can’t.”

Mason says San Diego Opera should be adventurous. “It’s a new company at this point, with a new board,” said Mason. When asked about staging operas outdoors in new locations, he replied, “why not?”

While at the Lyric, Mason did present classic American musicals like Oklahoma! and Show Boat, outside of the regular opera season. He said he would love to see something like that happen here.

“The problem with things like Gilbert and Sullivan,” said Mason, “is so many have seen it done badly by their local high school or something. But if you don’t fuss around with it and you do it with voices who can do justice to the music, these are marvelous works.”

Mason, who retired from Lyric Opera in 2012 after 57 years with the company in various roles, will keep his residence in Chicago and spend a week every month in San Diego.

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