Not Your Grandmother’s Opera Company Any More

“Five years from today it is my hope that San Diego Opera will be stabilized and financially healthy,

David Bennett [photo courtesy of San Diego Opera]

David Bennett [photo courtesy of San Diego Opera]

perceived as a true asset by the wider San Diego community because of its civic impact. It will keep audiences happy who appreciate traditional opera and engage new audiences with complementary offerings.”

David Bennett, the newly appointed General Director of San Diego Opera, offered his succinct vision after a serious conversation at the company’s downtown office on Thursday (March 12) where he fleshed out some of his specific plans for San Diego based on the successes of his experience as Executive Director of New York City’s inventive Gotham Chamber Opera.

Bennett’s calling card is his success with new and under-appreciated operas, especially those designed for venues smaller than the typical American 3,000-seat opera house. Marc Scorca, President and CEO of OPERA America—who came to San Diego last spring shortly after the company’s near-death experience under former General Director Ian Campbell and led informative community forums about the future of opera—praised Bennett’s work at Gotham Chamber Opera as “a reference point for the entire field in terms of repertoire diversity, innovative productions and groundbreaking partnerships with other cultural institutions.”

It is clear that how Bennett produces new opera is what sets him apart from the many artistic directors who merely toss in the occasional new work and hope for the best. He explained how a joint project between Gotham Chamber Opera and Philadelphia Opera on the life of American jazz saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker—Yardbird by David Schnyder—will engage the city’s black community and jazz aficionados long before the opera opens.

“Starting in June of this year we will sponsor walking tours in New York City taking people to the places Parker lived and played, sponsored by Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. There will be concerts of Parker’s music, and then in June 2016, the opera will open at the Apollo Theatre, where they will at last give Parker his star in their walk of fame.”

It is this level of cultural immersion and engagement in specific communities outside the traditional opera-attending enclaves that has expanded the Gotham Chamber Opera Company’s audiences beyond its traditional core, the folks who already attend and love grand opera at the Met.

In the summer of 2013, for example, Gotham Chamber Opera mounted Daniel Catán’s Rappacini’s Daughter (which local audiences know because San Diego Opera gave the U. S. premiere Catán’s first opera in 1994) in a reduced orchestral score by the composer.

“Since that opera is actually set in a garden, we thought it would make dramatic sense to stage it in a real garden, so we chose the Brooklyn Botanic Garden as our venue. This meant that all of our Manhattan audience came to Brooklyn, and the Brooklyn people who loved the Botanic Garden also came to see what an opera was like in their familiar space.”

For Bennett and Gotham, collaboration with other arts organizations has also provided the possibility of significant cost savings. “We recently mounted El gato con botas (Puss in Boots) by the Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge with New York’s Tectonic Theatre Project and their director Moisés Kaufman, in which we shared the costs 50-50.”

When asked what a parallel organizational collaboration in San Diego might look like, Bennett suggested, “I could see opera based on Shakespeare presented at the Old Globe, say in an outdoor venue.”

If at one time in San Diego’s cultural history such collaboration would have seemed unlikely at best, Bennett arrives in San Diego—he actually starts at San Diego Opera in June—at a time when cooperation among arts organizations is actually happening. Two examples come quickly to mind: last September both Art of Élan and the choral group Sacra/Profana performed at the Carlsbad Music Festival, and next weekend (March 21), a large number of the county’s choral organizations, including the San Diego Master Chorale, will present a 1,000-member massed choral concert at the Balboa Park Spreckels Organ Pavilion, the centerpiece of a daylong festival of shorter choral concerts presented by each of the participating groups.

Bennett also stressed the importance of engaging the county’s growing Latino community with opera that speaks to the culture, something San Diego Opera has begun with its mariachi operas. He mentioned the possibility of staging zarzuelas, the genre of Spanish-language opera with spoken dialogue that Placido Domingo has championed at Los Angeles Opera, as well as traditional operas on Spanish on themes that will resonate. He listed Catán’s second opera Florencia in el Amazonas, Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s Frida, about the life of the celebrated Mexican painter Frido Kahlo, which Michigan Opera Theatre (Detroit) is currently staging, as well as the Montsalvatge El gato con botas as viable possibilities.

What Bennett and the San Diego Opera Board intend to build—a varied season that balances some productions of grand opera in Civic Theatre and smaller-scaled operas in various venues across the county—has worked in other U.S. opera companies. He mentioned both Houston Grand Opera and Philadelphia Opera as companies that have pursued this formula successfully.

Announcing Bennett’s appointment as General Director comes at an auspicious moment, only days before San Diego Opera opens its first production of John Adams opera, Nixon in China, a work that celebrates the major change in 20th-century Sino-American relations. San Diego Opera is also poised on the cusp of a significant change. Bennett in San Diego, anyone?


  1. Geoffrey Clow on March 14, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    This is an exciting recruitment — directly from a growing and innovative NYC chamber opera company, highly regarded in the opera world, with demonstrated financial ability, imaginative community engagement, and a performance background in grand opera. It will be fun to see SD Opera and its offerings evolve over the next several years. Best of luck to Mr Bennett and the company, and congratulations to Carol Lazier and the Board for their continued renewal of the institution.

  2. KMW on March 15, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    Wonderful news. I was fortunate to ser these two operas in the Metropolitan Museum medieval galleries.

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