New Strategies for San Diego Opera

William Mason [photo courtesy of San Diego Opera]

William Mason [photo courtesy of San Diego Opera]

In a recent radio interview, the newly appointed Artistic Director of San Diego Opera, William Mason, asked for suggestions from the local arts community to expand the vision and outreach of the local company as it charts its future beyond the 2015 season.

Here is how the resident critics of San Diego Story are responding to Mason’s invitation.

“Trolley dances with opera could be a fringe show with legs,” says dance critic Kris Eitland, referring to the site-specific dance programs choreographer Jean Issacs and her San Diego Dance Theater create every fall with the Metropolitan Transit System.“I envision historical and new programs with an edge. The dance organizations in San Diego could be helpful—they are experts at reinvention and collaboration. I encourage San Diego Opera to partner with our best dance and black box theatre companies.  Experiment with smaller venues and production models. Take the thrill of opera to unexpected places to glean new audiences.”

Collaboration is also the direction theater critic Bill Eadie mentions. “I would look to the thriving theatre scene here and do case studies of how local theatre companies have engaged audiences while at the same time cutting costs. I also think that the movement toward site-specific theatre and some of the co-production arrangements we’ve seen highlight the more creative tacks that theatre companies have taken.”[php snippet=1]

San Diego Story’s Mark Burgess believes that the younger generation of contributors to the opera needs to be given special consideration as the company looks for a wider circle of support beyond ticket sales. “Opera is seen as High Society for older people who can afford its high price. It’s the wave created for classical music and opera by class-conscious Europeans who arrived after World War I and II looking for their culture. Nothing has come along to replace that motivation for younger generations, and ten years of declining ticket sales testify to that. I think the company could create two levels of donors/ticket buyers and allow people to ascend to the higher level, but the lower level—with more affordable giving levels—would be restricted to those under 40, thus creating new leaders who see themselves associated with Opera.”

Music critic Ken Herman fuses these suggestions into the possibility of offering a series of new, chamber-sized operas

San Diego Opera will present NIXON IN CHINA in March, 2015 [photo (c) Ken Howard/Opera Theatre of St. Louis]

San Diego Opera will present NIXON IN CHINA in March, 2015 [photo (c) Ken Howard/Opera Theatre of St. Louis]

presented in conjunction with local theater companies. “What if San Diego Opera presented, say, three contemporary operas with local companies such as Cygnet, the La Jolla Playhouse and San Diego Rep, presenting a new opera with each company in its own theater, using directors and other staff from each theater. This could engage theater patrons and subscribers who have never ventured down to Civic Theatre for grand opera, but might sample an opera presentation in the familiar theater they know. The works chosen might be brand new or repeats of successful site-specific stagings done by Opera Philadelphia and the smaller Manhattan opera companies.”

In a forum sponsored by San Diego Opera in April, Opera Philadelphia General Director David Devan described at length the series of new site-specific operas his company has produced, and Opera America President Marc Scorca stressesd the importance of viable opera companies presenting in venues smaller than 3,000-seat multi-purpose halls.

“I also believe San Diego Opera could claim the audiences that attended Lyric Opera San Diego before its demise,” adds Herman. “That company proved there is an audience for operetta and light opera. I could see a series at the North Park Theatre that included a well-known Gilbert and Sullivan work, a classic Viennese operetta, and a Spanish-language zarzuela (which is simply an operetta in Spanish) with production values that would please both the former Lyric Opera patrons and the Civic Theatre crowd. While this programming proved too expensive for Lyric Opera San Diego, San Diego Opera already has all the organization and infrastructure in place to present operetta–that represents a huge savings.”

Talk, as the saying goes, may be cheap, but ideas are crucial as San Diego Opera charts a path for the 21st century that will be as daring and successful as the one that launched the company in 1964. San Diego Story hopes these ideas will spark wider discussions.


  1. Christian Hertzog on June 3, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    I’m with you on doing more Lyric Opera fare, Ken. There’s an audience that wants to see Gilbert and Sullivan and “light opera” that is no longer being served since SDLO shut down. They’d be foolish not to offer some G&S, Bernstein, Sondheim, or Rodgers&Hammerstein shows, and see how ticket-buyers/donors respond.

    They should look up the road at what Long Beach Opera, The Industry and Pacific Opera Project are doing, as well.

Leave a Comment