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Attorney General Joins ‘Cast’ of Opera Drama

The San Diego Opera will stage a 2015 season, yet the drama that nearly sank the performing arts organization continued last week when it disclosed it is being audited by the state attorney general’s office.

Opera officials, who recently rescinded an earlier vote to disband the organization and voted to put on its 50th season starting in January, said it is cooperating with the audit of its financials.

“We welcome the opportunity to open our records to [Attorney General] Kamala Harris’ office, as doing so will assure the public of our promise of transparency and good governance,” said Keith Fisher, the opera’s chief operating officer and titular head.

According to the opera, the nonprofit group was notified of the audit by former board president Karen Cohn, who resigned in April along with dozens of other board members in reaction to efforts to continue operating. The Attorney General’s Office requested that the opera turn over “certain records and retain all existing documents,” the opera said.

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The company will work through this period and “emerge a fiscally responsible, energized opera company deeply rooted in the community and focused on the future,” Bruce Ross, a lawyer representing the opera, said in a news release. A call to Ross for further comment wasn’t returned.

$4.5 Million Raised, $6 Million to Go

When the opera board voted in March to disband, it was told by longtime CEO Ian Campbell that the company faced “an insurmountable financial hurdle” and that it had a choice of “winding down with dignity and grace … or inevitably entering bankruptcy.”

The board initially accepted Campbell’s argument, but after hearing an emotional outcry from opera employees and supporters, a newly constituted board — of 22 directors — delayed the closing until it explored possible alternatives.

The board on May 19 approved moving forward with a 2005 season after supporters raised about $4.5 million in new donations, including $2.1 million from a crowdfunding campaign.

That campaign generated donations from about 2,500 contributors, ranging from $100 to $50,000. New board president Carol Lazier also pledged $1 million to the cause, and the remaining $1.4 million came from several larger gifts from existing and new donors, opera spokesman Edward Wilensky said.

With the new donations, the opera still needs about $6 million to make its budget for 2015 season of $10.5 million. That is down 40 percent from a planned $17 million budget next season. Most of the remaining funding should come from ticket sales, which got off to the best start in the company’s history last week, Wilensky said.

Pay Cuts Part of Plan

The company’s season — starting Jan. 24, 2015 — will have three operas: “La Boheme,” “Don Giovanni” and “Nixon in China.” It doesn’t include Wagner’s “Tannhauser,” which had been planned to conclude its 50th anniversary. That production was the most labor-intensive and expensive; savings from that opera alone will be about $900,000, Wilensky said.

The board expects to take other cost-cutting moves, including an agreement by staff and some 400 contracted artists and workers to take a 10 percent pay cut. While there is nothing signed yet, the unions representing the artists and stage workers, and the opera’s 40-person staff have expressed a willingness to reduce salaries, Wilensky said.

In addition, the company will be able to save an average of $60,000 per opera by obtaining the necessary sets and costumes from other companies that put on the same operas, he said.

The company has severed ties with Campbell, who earned about $508,000 in 2011, according to the most recent tax records available. His former wife,

Ann Spira Campbell, who served as the opera’s director of strategic planning, was paid about $282,000 in 2011, according to the same tax report.

“Ann and Ian Campbell are no longer on the opera’s payroll as of May 15,” Wilensky said. The organization is trying to negotiate a settlement on their contracts that run through 2017. Wilensky said that none of the recently raised funds will be used to settle payments to the Campbells.

The company is hiring a new artistic adviser, who will be announced June 1. The person “has had a long career with a well-known and well-respected opera company,” Wilensky said.

Optimism Abounds

In another development, the company is moving out of its pricey, 18th-floor offices atop the San Diego Civic Center, which will reduce its leasing cost by about $400,000.

The San Diego Symphony also agreed to donate the rental of the Jacobs Music Center for two scheduled gala concerts April 18 and 19 that include soprano Lise Lindstrom.

Whether all these moves will be sufficient to keep the embattled company alive is unclear, but despite the recent audit news, the over-riding feeling among opera staffers and supporters is unabashed optimism, Wilensky said.

“It’s business as unusual here,” he said. “We have reinvented how we work, reinvented how we think and reinvented how we operate.”


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