Forum Offers Hope and Ideas for a Revitalized San Diego Opera

The unexpected plot twists and emotional torrents of the opera stage seem rather tame compared to the real time drama that San Diego Opera has experienced during the past month. While the San Diego Opera Board was imploding at a raucous meeting in La Jolla Thursday afternoon, over 400 opera subscribers, stagehands, chorus members, and company staff members gathered at Civic Center downtown for a forum to consider what makes opera companies successful in the current market.

Hosted by Nicolas Reveles, San Diego Opera Director of Education and Outreach, the 90-minute meeting featured presentations by Marc Scorca, President and CEO of Opera America, the giant umbrella organization for North American opera companies, and David Devan, the General Director of Opera Philadelphia, a company that has thrived on innovation and unconventional partnerships. At the outset, Reveles focused the discussion by observing that New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, the nation’s premier company, has unintentionally set the template for local companies.

“Over the years, San Diego Opera has presented opera on a grand scale like the Met, but really it’s more of a mini-Met done on a local scale.” Like the real Met, these mini-Mets have staged the heart of the traditional European opera repertory in a huge hall—San Diego’s Civic Theatre seats 3,000—but using a cast and physical production only as “grand” as the local budget would allow. And these mini-Mets offered far fewer operas and fewer stagings of each opera than the actual Met is able to offer.

Reveles and Scorca agreed that this mini-Met model was no longer financially viable in the U.S., and Scorca gave an impressive list of opera companies both large and small that are succeeding by forging new models of presenting opera to their communities. He made a strong case for opera companies to find smaller venues in addition to their grand halls, to stage newer operas with contemporary themes, to hire less expensive—i.e. younger—casts, and to engage in large events of public outreach to build up a company’s image in the wider community.

On Scorca’s list of companies that have made the return from financial disaster to fiscal stability, he cited Dallas Opera, a company of similar size and scope to San Diego Opera. A few seasons back, facing a mounting debt and having exhausted its lines of credit, Dallas reduced its number of annual opera productions from five to three. But then Dallas launched an innovative program to present opera in HD projection at Cowboy Stadium and engaged an entirely new audience for their product. According to Scorca, Dallas is now back to offering five opera productions per season. San Francisco Opera has also experienced success with live opera broadcasts in that city’s new downtown baseball stadium, A.T. & T. Park.

Scorca added that Fort Worth Opera, Dallas Opera’s neighbor company, changed its format to the festival format—presenting its offerings together in a single festival—to complement Dallas’ season long schedule rather than presenting a schedule in competition with Dallas.

Changing the scope of opera repertory is crucial for companies both large and small. Scorca noted that Chicago Lyric Opera, arguably the nation’s most prestigious company after the Met, added some 25,000 new audience members by presenting four weeks of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music and adding comedy nights—where opera and opera-goers are the humorous topics—on the Lyric’s own stage with Chicago’s renowned Second City comedy troupe.[php snippet=1]

Philadelphia’s Devan stressed that today’s opera audience is not monolithic, but made up of contrasting segments with different expectations. His company has structured three different “product lines,” a term he used without apology, to meet these divergent tastes. In addition to the usual traditional operas on a large scale given at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, the company presents its Aurora series in a smaller, 550-seat house, featuring contemporary operas that cultivate the typical playgoer’s expectation of dramatic intimacy and intensity.

The third track offers site-specific productions that take place in a variety of unconventional locations, sometimes presenting new works from Philadelphia’s composers-in-residence program, which features not one composer, but rather three pairs of composer-librettists in simultaneous residence. In the Q and A that followed the presentations, Devan noted that productions in the 550-seat venue were not necessarily cheaper than main-stage productions, but they attracted a different audience, new donors, and grants from foundations that would not otherwise fund the company. For Philadelphia’s innovative composer-in-residence program, for example, a local foundation that had not previously given significant funds to the opera came up with a grant of $1.2 million.

Devan stressed that he was not proposing that San Diego simply imitate Philadelphia. “You have to find your own ’right answers’ to your challenges, and San Diego’s plan will be different from Philadelphia’s.” Although the social and financial challenges to presenting opera in today’s constantly changing internet culture are great, “With opera, we have a lot of toys to present.” But he warned that “every company needs to be part of its city, not above it,” an observation that drew a significant round of applause from the attentive audience.

While the current leadership of San Diego Opera has bemoaned donor fatigue among its ranks, Devan talked enthusiastically about what his board chair calls “venture philanthropy,” the kind of new money that is given to support new ventures in opera presentation and repertory. Devan also stressed the need to engage in partnerships with other arts organizations, including conservatories and music schools, experimental dramatic and opera ventures, as well as museums and sports presenters.

“You have to leave your ego at the door when you engage in partnertships,” he noted, “but the rewards are worth it.”

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