Stop Blaming Philanthropists for the Opera and 2015 Meltdowns

Stop Blaming Philanthropists for the Opera and 2015 Meltdowns

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Balboa Park

The other day, John Lamb at CityBeat wondered what happened to the San Diego Opera and whether it could be linked to what happened to Balboa Park Celebration Inc., the entity charged with putting on a grand party to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the 1915 Panama California Exposition.

Scott Lewis on Politics LogoWe investigated the 2015 meltdown here.

Lamb pointed to some fascinating data about San Diego’s philanthropic community.

That, he wrote, is what’s to blame:

The report found that “the overall philanthropic climate in San Diego is under-resourced as nonprofits are highly dependent — actually, disproportionately dependent compared to their counterparts throughout California and the nation — on government support and earned revenue.”

And the kicker: We’re not even close to as generous as San Francisco and Los Angeles. Lamb writes that the money being donated in San Diego is going too much to “medical wings or biotech centers emblazoned with the names of their generous benefactors.”

“Perhaps in today’s what’s-in-it-for-me world, such generosity has become endangered, leaning toward extinct,” Lamb wrote.

The data may back him up on this point, but it’s not why the Opera and 2015 parties failed.

I am actually becoming convinced that it would have been a disservice to just bail the Opera out and let it continue.

• The general and artistic director, Ian Campbell, wants to quit. The company is facing a daunting deficit, has depleted an endowment and is simply out of money. Attendance is plummeting.

Campbell does not want to reform — to downsize it into something he thinks would embarrass the institution. But he also doesn’t want someone else to pilot it.

Were he to quit, he may also relinquish part of his contract.

As has finally come clear, Campbell can now line up as a creditor to the organization as it initiates a fire sale, and he might get some part of what’s left.

• Had someone come in and bailed the Opera out with a giant, multi-year donation or endowment, I don’t think we would have concluded that San Diego was an exceptional city of great philanthropy. In fact, we might have derided the decision to simply preserve an institution in which the community was so rapidly losing interest.

I don’t agree that the measure of a community’s commitment to culture is in its willingness to bail out failing institutions whose leaders are dead-set against reform.

Organizations do not downsize easily. I think there is money for a dramatically different opera in San Diego, but we may never know how much.

If the board members and employees trying to orchestrate a dramatic rescue of the San Diego Opera do not succeed, it will not be because of San Diego’s philanthropic community. It will be because the people in charge wanted the Opera they had and would rather see the whole thing die than get a new version.

And they had the power to make sure that happened.

As for 2015, I’ve decided that the main problem is that nobody ever knew what it was going to be.

They started planning for a Super Bowl, but they didn’t have a Super Bowl.

They started trying to raise money to host the World Cup, but they didn’t have a World Cup.

Ultimately, they started to get something of a vision, but it was hardly clear and whatever it was, it was derailed by relentless turnover and political mismanagement.

And even when they realized it was probably not going to work, people like then interim-Mayor Todd Gloria let their emotions take over and continued to pretend like whatever was going forward still had a chance.

By the time we all woke up, it was a year away and we had nothing to show for it.

This isn’t a problem with philanthropists. Organizers never developed anything worth selling to philanthropists.

The city may indeed be crippled by a smaller civic sector intent on using its wealth to bolster our culture.

But that’s not what doomed the Opera or the 2015 celebration.

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Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis

I'm Scott Lewis, the CEO of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it's a blast!): @vosdscott.

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22 comments
Andrew Poat
Andrew Poat subscriber

Good analysis, Scott. (1) Even as a fan and past Opera ticket buyer, I think we may just be seeing the end of "grand opera" as an art form in all but a few cities around the world. (2) Balboa Park is more troubling to me - this was a big opportunity - some of which has been lost. I think the issue is "too little" - and most important, "too late". I actually discussed ideas with people 10 years ago about this big anniversary. We could have completed a project like the removal of cars from the Park - a major new institution - or some other grand accomplishment. Unfortunately, you can't have that conversation, make a decision, fund that decisions, and build something in California - all in 2 years. That left us with having a party - which is always fun - but never satisfying in the long run - or attractive to philanthropists looking for a lasting investment for the community.


Michelle Suzanne
Michelle Suzanne subscriber

I agree that what happened with both the Opera and Balboa Park situations were more complicated than a lack of private philanthropic support. Equally complicated are data about philanthropic giving in San Diego, so it’s important to provide some additional context for the information cited by Mr. Lamb and in this article.


A supplemental piece published by the USD Caster Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research last year titled “The Grantmaking Report” shows that foundation giving as a percentage of total assets available to give was 9.3%, compared to 4.7% in L.A., 8.7% in San Francisco, and 6.1% statewide. So it’s a little unfair to say that San Diego is "not even close" to being as "generous" as San Francisco and L.A. – though there's less to give, foundations gave more of what they had. Plus, this is foundation giving only, so it doesn’t reflect giving by individuals or businesses that don’t have formal foundations, for example.


San Diego has a very generous philanthropic community – including foundations, corporations and individuals – that gives to a broad range of causes. Yes, local nonprofits absolutely need more philanthropic investment, but again, and as Mr. Lewis points out, the reasons for the challenges at the Opera and Balboa Park were multi-faceted.

barb graham
barb graham subscriber

Operas are goofy. Like ballet, we had to go in school. If it were not as boring as watching paint dry, I would have gone back.


I like my opera just fine on my MP3 player, thanky very much.  The music's fine, it's all the rest of it that sucks. Going downtown. Finding parking. Sitting behind some guy who clears his throat every 30 seconds, and next to a guy trying to silently unwrap a candy bar. 


I swear, Wagner was my Gotterdammerung as far as opera goes. Hours and hours of having to sit still listening to some woman screech something unhummable in German.


Basically, I think many people agree with me. If you only have one Saturday night off, do you really want to spend it there?  



Allen P Hemphill
Allen P Hemphill

When the Director and his wife make more than $800,000 a year (and their perks and retirement are on top of that), the opera is doomed.

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga memberauthor

Philanthropists run the San Diego Opera through its board. Unless its decline was inevitable, they seem to bear blame for their failures of vision and leadership. 

William Smith
William Smith subscribermember

The view of opera as of interest only to the wealthy is false.  I started getting into opera by listening to recordings.  I attended opera in LA (NY City Opera on tour) when I was in law school.  I attended opera in San Diego on the salary of a government lawyer with a wife and two children.  Very middle class, but hardly wealthy.  Even with only 68% seats sold for Elixir of Love, this is still almost 2000 people per performance, hardly a small coterie.  Yes, opera like classical music in general, is not for everybody, but at its best, it is great art, and for that reason alone should be preserved.  I do think the opera should have done more to cut back sooner, like Dallas, which cut to 3 operas and is now back to 5.  Also, it is possible that cheaper methods of presentation may be needed for most operas, with an occasional full presentation, but the total death of opera in San Diego would be a tragedy.

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

Good, sensible article, Scott.  One of the commenters pointed out that people will pay a hundred bucks or more for a “concert”, presumably a rock group or pop star, but not opera.  I miss the big bands, but they aren’t coming back for the same reason the opera is terminal.  It costs too much to do properly for the revenue you can generate, at least in San Diego. 

The people talking nonsense about philanthropists and tax-dodging corporations are simply demanding public funding for something they like.  I’d rather fix the streets.

William Stensrud
William Stensrud subscribermember

I left the opera board several years ago because there was no willingness to reinvent and the trajectory was unsustainable. As life imitating art, the current situation is both a tragedy and a crime. Perhaps someone will create an opera about it someday. At this point, philanthropy cannot fix the opera. There was a time for that but the board and the leadership have used up all the runway. Even with new leadership and a new board I don't believe that the organization is salvageable. The structural costs and obligations would place such a burden on the ongoing operation that it would never recover. The only option is to let it die and to try to start again.

Paul Girard
Paul Girard subscribermember

The opera should be given a chance to survive or die of natural causes. This premature death (mercy killing?) is driven by people who don't want to lose out. Current assets are sufficient to put on more productions, and hopefully the economy will help attendance and philanthropy. But if the opera should go bankrupt, those assets might not be available to pay for extended contracts.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

" This isn’t a problem with philanthropists. Organizers never developed anything worth selling to philanthropists."

Seems to sum it up well Scott.

We should be thankful we have philanthropists Rather than demonize them.

The city certainly doesn't have the monies for these "extras".

bgetzel
bgetzel subscriber

Ok, we can all accept the fact that the public has largely lost interest in opera. Attendance is down - there is no denying that. However, I have yet to see a story describing what the SD Opera has done over the years to try and spur attendance. What has it done in advertising; what has it done in outreach to the community (especially to kids and young adults); what thought was put into opera selections (How about putting on late 20th and 21st century operas?); and what thought was put into innovative interpretations and set decorations? Perhaps, creative thinking may have saved (or at least helped) the opera!

Martha Sullivan
Martha Sullivan subscribermember

Thank you, Scott. San Diego continues to be crippled by business and political leaders who only see the potential for profit-taking and celebrate that by endowing vanity monuments to their business acumen. The reliance on large donors to fund community services -- cultural AND essential social services -- is a perversion of our democracy, with tax-dodging corporations and oligarchs dictating which community services get funded through their donations. This underscores the imperative to slash corporate welfare and return the decisions about spending on infrastructure and community services to our democratic process.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Mr. Dotinga: Interesting point. Are you suggesting that the Board of Directors is made up of philanthropists or that philanthropists could control certain actions of the Board by conditioning their donations on certain prescribed actions? Looking at their financials via their 990 tax forms, its really intriguing to note that in fiscal year 2009 and 2010 they essentially broke even, with a relatively small amount of income over expenses. Conversely in fiscal year 2011 and 2012, their expenses exceeded their income by $2.3 million and then $3.2 million. I don't know what the case was in fiscal 2013, but I have to wonder what the Board of Directors was thinking. Absent major reserves, you can't operate at a deficit like this endlessly, obviously. The time for the Board to raise red flags would have been during or after the end of fiscal 2011. Waiting until 2014 to figure it out seems negligent to me. 

Paul Girard
Paul Girard subscribermember

@bgetzel  I am not defending the process that is folding the opera, but addressing your queries that seem misguided.

(1) In advertising, I am inundated with emails from the opera.

(2) The opera has a very active youth program - http://www.sdopera.com/Company/Education/SchoolPrograms

(3) Opera selections, modern and diverse? How about Daughter of the Regiment(19th century), presented in Feb. 2013; Mariachi Opera, “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna,” 2010, presented in March 2013; Moby Dick, 2010, presented in Feb. 2012, Murder in the Cathedral, 1958, presented April 2013.

These are not the issues that are of concern; it is the expense of the production versus the revenue taken in. People are still recovering from the recession and are tight with their money.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Mr. Getzel: When did the (general) public have interest in the opera? This has always seemed to me to be an art-form largely of interest to the wealthy and priced accordingly.

shawn fox
shawn fox subscriber

@Martha Sullivan  No, I don't think so.  That is a highly subjective opinion.  First, our country is a constitutional republic.  Nowhere in the constitution does it say anything about government providing charity.  The perversion that has occurred is that people have discovered that they can vote themselves money out of the treasury, and use the force of government to take from one in order to give to another.  

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga memberauthor

@Chris Brewster  My point is just an observation that philanthropists tend to be the ones who run local charities. You have to look at the boards when charities fail, and that means looking at philanthropists who are on them. The opera's board seems to have been largely out of touch.  

bgetzel
bgetzel subscriber

@Chris Brewster  I think you are probably correct. Nevertheless, there was a time, perhaps 8 to 10 years ago, when the SD opera sold-out all performances fairly easily. As the older fans died-off, they were not back-filled with young people. These young people often pay $100 or more for concert tickets, but have no interest (or knowledge) in opera. Why not try to make it more attractive to them? Opera doesn't have to be stodgy! 

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Mr. Dotinga: I can't speak to whether philanthropists run local charities. Certainly not the one I'm involved with. We could use a couple! Regardless, it seems abundantly clear that the Board that has run the San Diego Opera failed miserably in its duties. That they could have been unaware of the fiscal realities of the opera until the last moment speaks to pure and abject fiscal negligence. The epitaph could be: Elitist artform dies due to profligacy of elitists.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Mr. Getzel: I basically agree. I oversee a national and a small international nonprofit, as well as acting as treasurer for a local one. I believe I have two overriding responsibilities: 1) Achieve the mission; and 2) Ensure long-term sustainability. If you look at the Opera’s 2012 tax form, they had $12 million in revenue and $15.3 million in expenses. This is a deficit of roughly 27%. They had a deficit of around 18% the year prior. Salaries and benefits for the top six staff members totaled about $1.37 million. I have no idea why the Board of Directors would be surprised that the director would state that this is unsustainable. They should have realized it themselves. What nonprofit organization can handle multiple years of deficit financing? I know nothing about opera, but if I had to cut the budget of the nonprofits I oversee by 27% to balance the books, it would be painful, but I’d be able to do it. 

Certainly this organization may have needed to do more outreach in the community to interest more (younger) people. I don’t know what they did in that regard. There is also a possibility though that opera just doesn’t appeal to enough people anymore regardless of how it is promoted.