What’s the Matter With San Diego, and a Deadly Impostor

EVEN in an arts world familiar with groups going belly-up, this one surprised people: The San Diego Opera’s board voted last week to call it a day, effective at the end of the current season. No pleading with donors or subscribers to pitch in, no Chapter 11 filing, just an abrupt, “Closed For Business” sign. Now the group’s director, Ian Campbell, has begun to speak publicly about what happened. This crisis was a long time coming, he says, telling Music News:170px-Rheingold_(Ferdinand_Leeke)

We are not bankrupt, owe no money, and have no creditors we believe we cannot pay if people honor pledges they made for past-season recognition, but payable over several years. Some will take it as an opportunity not to pay, I am certain, even though they have an ethical obligation to do so.

It is not an expense issue. It is a problem on the revenue side. Drops in both sales and contributions over several years now mean that we doubt we will be able to complete the next season. We will not take money from anyone we expect we may not be able to pay back, so we are not taking subscriptions and are winding down, gracefully, I hope.

The tough economy, and the fact that the opera does not have a building that allows large donations with naming rights, made it impossible to keep going, apparently. The group, by the way, had balanced its books for decades.

We’ve lost opera companies in Cleveland, Baltimore, Hartford, Orange County and elsewhere over the last few years, so in one sense this closing isn’t surprising. But San Diego is a big, rich city with more cultural life than my fellow Angelenos typically acknowledge. Even with the fuller report, a lot of us are still scratching our heads. (I’m wondering what role the city or county — famously conservative and tight-fisted for anything but the military — could have done to save this, for instance.) Stay tuned.

ALSO: Despite being a dedicated fan of noir novels, I don’t think I’ve read a “true crime” book since Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. But Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out, a memoir of sorts about the author’s longstanding relationship with the truly odd cat who called himself Clark Rockefeller, is can’t-put-down good. Part of its strength comes from the Rockefeller character (a small-town Bavarian who “reinvented” himself many times) and his simply oddness.

But part of what’s fascinating is the way Kirn struggles to explain (to himself, in part) how he could fall for a homicidal liar. He’s not the only one, of course, but Kirn sees himself as a smart guy, a skeptical journalist, etc. He turns out to be screamingly insecure, especially on issues of social class: I’m not sure I can remember a memoir in which the author is so hard on himself. And while it could have come across as strained, he summons strains of The Great Gatsby, as well. I must admit, I found the author’s profile-of-himself in Sunday’s New York Times a bit too postmodern for me. But Blood Will Out is a smart, grim good time.

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  1. says

    The San Diego Opera is described as among the top 10 American companies, but it ranks 296th in the world for opera performances per year. The facade of fraud that is opera in America.
    Houses in European cities with the size and wealthy of San Diego run about 150 to 200 performances per year . The SDO averaged 15 performances per year, about 1/10th the amount, so the loss of such a small time operation isn’t that big a deal.

    It’s rich to read the implication that Angelinos sort of look down their nose at San Diego. L.A. has the 3rd largest metro GDP in the world, but ranks 180th in the world for opera performances per year. European cities with populations of only 120k outrank LA by over a hundred positions. In terms of opera, San Diego and LA are barely even parochial.

    To improve things, we’ll have to begin with a more honest look at how we stack up in the world.

  2. says

    It’s true, as Ian Cambell notes, that naming rights can’t be granted if a company has no building. But perhaps there are other options. Why not incorporate name plates and corporate decals on the singers’ costumes, something like those logos plastered all over the asbestos suits race car divers wear. That way the donors’ names would be inescapable throughout the entire performance. Don Giovanni could have a big logo for Verizon across his cape, or Brunhilde could sport Goldman-Sachs on her breast plates. Really big donors could get the forehead rights. Just imagine the prestige of having your name in large, day glow letters across Renee Fleming’s upped facial area.

    Of course this would have to be done with a certain discretion and good taste. One of the biggest donors in American history was Ima Hogg. You wouldn’t want to have her name stitched in large letters across a portly tenor’s ample behind. This could distract from the performance.

    I notice that many arts institutions offer prestigious gala dinners where the biggest donors get to sit closest to the opera stars. It’s scaled all the way down to the small timers who have to stand outside and watch the event on a movie screen. Some really big donors even get special house concerts and other artist services. Perhaps they could even have little booths at the galas where for a donation of $10,000 or more, a donor could take one of the artists inside for 15 minutes and do whatever he or she wanted.

    So who needs a public funding system for the arts like Europeans have? As we see, it’s true entrepreneurship like naming rights that will save the arts in America.

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