Opinion

5 Myths About the Opera

5 Myths About the Opera

File photo by Sam Hodgson

San Diego Opera cast members perform a dress rehearsal of "Turandot" in 2013.

The future of the San Diego Opera hangs in the balance, and there’s been no shortage of speculation on the causes and implications of such a loss.

Letters logoBut in reporting those circumstances, the media has helped perpetuate five myths, represented as facts. Let’s address them here, and dispense with them once and for all.

The San Diego Opera is world-class.

It is not. World-class opera happens in New York, possibly San Francisco, Chicago, various cities in Europe – perhaps two dozen places total. Then there are somewhere between 50 and 100 “first class” opera companies, from Houston to Lyon, Bratislava to Bucharest and Graz and maybe San Diego.

With its four annual productions and 16 performances, San Diego’s got to be the smallest of these first-class companies. Over the years, acclaimed singers have performed here. The pay is competitive and with only four performances during one month – one per week – the stress remains within limits. But let’s not kid ourselves with a tacked-on “world-class” distinction.

Closing the opera will result in 300-400 well-paying jobs lost.

Not really. Three hundred to 400 people may provide services in one form or another at various times of the year. But the vast majority of opera associates are part-timers.

Any job lost is a pity, but the statement of “hundreds of good jobs will be lost” is clearly an exaggeration. It’s not like Solar Turbines moving to Texas.

Ian Campbell’s salary is part of the problem.

No, the general director’s salary is not the issue. Campbell’s pay is well in line with those of other regional U.S. operas – the U-T has published good information on this.

Campbell has taken upon himself the double role of general and artistic director. With San Diego producing merely four operas on 16 evenings, the tasks between these two jobs appear manageable. Campbell should be compensated appropriately, considering both his dual title and industry standard.

The opera doesn’t have its own building, so there’s no space for a “hall of fame” to acknowledge benefactors.

Correct, our opera does not have its own building. But that’s no reason there couldn’t be suitable space made for donor recognition. We could reconfigure the area around the bar, or establish a small museum to display history, milestones and donors.

The real disadvantage of the opera lacking its own building is having to fill the Civic Theatre’s massive space. With its 3,000 seats, it’s simply too large to provide a top-notch opera experience. Part of the audience misses out on the ambiance of the performance while sitting so far from the stage. These are multidimensional, total works of art – live orchestra music, singing, acting, architecture, refined illumination and part fashion show.

Plus, the Civic Theatre’s stage features decades-old stage technology, which really is not on contemporary standard. The space for the audience looks worn, and the outside façade is most unappealing, not to say ugly.

The opera deserves its own theater, maybe in Balboa Park or Mission Bay. It deserves a more appropriate size – 1,000-1,500 seats – state-of-the-art technology, remarkable design both inside and out. It could be what the opera always should’ve been: a venue radiating wonderful vibes to become a destination itself.

Opera is a dying art form.

No, it is not. Some opera companies are failing, but others are emerging, and in some cities, opera is booming.

Whether it’s looking at a Rembrandt at the Timken or a Keith Haring work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, attending a drama by Shakespeare or Sam Shepard, experiencing live a Beethoven piano concerto or one by Elton John, “true” art is here to stay. Our city’s museums are doing well; we enjoy great concerts and the Old Globe operation is outstanding. Opera is the most complex art form demanding substantial investment. Not only financial, but in education, appreciation and patience.

But future achievements reflect the efforts of the past. Let the change start now.

Eduard Schmiege is an opera fan and civil engineer. He lives in Tierrasanta. Schmiege’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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14 comments
Pat McKemy
Pat McKemy subscriber

Many opera houses are closing and have closed in the last couple of years, the ones existing have reduced the number of performances. One reason for such a situation may be the decreased music education that kids at elementary schools are provided with.

Don Wood
Don Wood subscriber

"The opera deserves its own theater, maybe in Balboa Park or Mission Bay." Dream on. Why is it that when special interests want the city to give them a free building, they always want it to be built in the middle of a public park? That just adds insult to injury. Parks are for everybody, not just for ultra rich opera patrons. If every special interest who wanted to could fence off or build buildings in our parks, there would be no parks.

Erik Bruvold
Erik Bruvold subscribermember

COMPLETELY agree as to the overwhelming size of the Civic and its poor venue for Opera for a big chunk of the audience.  We tried.  We hated it.  We ended up 5 year subscribers to the beloved (but departed) Opera Pacific up in Costa Mesa.  It might not have had Ian's "world class singers" but the productions were fun, it was well produced, and occured in a space much more suited to Opera.

Carlynne Allbee
Carlynne Allbee subscriber

Thank you for a well written article that brings up good points.  There are two things I would have liked to have seen included.


First, when he says the Civic Theater is too large, it is too bad other theaters where we have seen musical events were not mentioned with their size for comparison, so we, the readers, could better picture the size he talks about.  For example, as I read it, I pictured the North Park theater, but have no idea what size it is.  I have attended operas at the Civic Theater and agree, it is too large.  We were in the back.


Secondly, I have heard the argument that opera's fans are dying out from old age.  Yet I hear of modern operas pulling in younger audiences in other areas.  I am not aware of San Diego Opera making this effort, as the Symphony has done with their Pops Concerts. 

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

A new theater for opera?  Four or maybe six operas a year?  I know, we'll put it next to the new Chargers' stadium!  Then, they can compete to see who has the most dark days annually.

Erik Hanson
Erik Hanson subscriber

Too many errors to grant this article official "mythbuster" status some issues:

The  Opera does not perform one show per week, there are generally two dark days between performances. 

It is not in the author's experience to state what qualifies as a job that would be lost. Many of the workers switch between the busy schedules of the Opera and the Old Globe, La Jolla Playhouse and other places. These three mentioned groups have evolved programing that put their busy times in different seasons. A person's "job" might be 50/50 between two theatres and with the loss of the Opera, this lifestyle becomes unsustainable and they must leave town for another job. I know several people personally in this situation. I know of another person who is able to live off this 6 month job, because they are able to live half the year frugally in a small town in another more inexpensive state, in a home bought years ago. The Opera is this person's job, and they won't be living here if it folds. 

As far as any question about the Civic Theatre's capacity or chance for donor displays, the question must be asked "Who told them that every show had to be in the Civic Theatre"? There were many missed chances to to smaller works at the Balboa Theater, the Spreckles, the Lyceum, Symphony Hall, or even out in the County that were not considered because "The Civic has always been our Home". The author's digs on the Civic are not factual. I've seen many things performed there that were more "technologically advanced" than what the Opera does (by this I do not mean more skilled or more beautiful than the Opera), and one's dislike for Mid-Century architecture does not need to creep in an article whose stated purpose is to factually break down myths. 


Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

If I may add one fact: The San Diego Opera had a balanced budget in fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2010 (years ending June 30) according to its tax returns. Then things went south. In 2011 it ran a deficit. That year the Opera spent $1.3 million more than the prior year and ended with a deficit of $2,333,476. In 2012 the Opera spent slightly less than in 2011, but ran a deficit of $3,239,641. The financials for 2013 are not available to me, but presumably were similar or worse. Members of the Board of Directors have implied that it was a big surprise to hear from the Director that the Opera was on an unsustainable course, but apparently it had been operating with major deficits for two and perhaps three years. I would presume it is the job of the General Director to maintain a balanced budget and to keep the Board informed when the current path is unsustainable. It is certainly the job of the Board to oversee the General Director and to keep apprised of the financial state of the organization. The suddenness of this decision is therefore rather baffling. 

Katzmann
Katzmann subscriber

@Bill Bradshaw  I agree. The opera season needs to become more substantial and longer, like 60 performances and half year season before thinking to build a dedicated building, where besides opera and ballet other events should take place. May be in 10 years?

William Smith
William Smith subscribermember

@Erik Hanson  I agree with you as to the importance of the jobs.  The chorus members and stagehands make a substantial income from these part-time jobs.  Not only that, but speaking with chorus members, they love them.  I think the article is too dismissive of the effect of losing these jobs.  I agree that the Opera could not afford its own theater.  I think the Civic will have to do, with possible performances of chamber operas elsewhere.  The greatest problem I see and hear from friends is the high price of tickets.  Even front balcony seats can be $100.  This needs to change.


Katzmann
Katzmann subscriber

@Erik Hanson  

(from Eduard S.) 

Thank you for the correcting remarks in regards to the performance frequency. However the point I want to make remains valid: a three month opera season is a myth. Reality is that there are four performances within 10 days, and there are four of these blocks within three months, 16 performances within 90 days.

About the jobs; I am aware of our local theaters sharing the workforce resource as I am aware that abolishing the opera would have severe impact on many workers' incomes, I understand and feel compassion. Nevertheless the statement that 300-400 well-paying jobs would be erased is a myth. A few dozen well-paying jobs may be lost, others compromised.

Generally, it's better for an opera organization to operate within one theater rather than venue hopping. I want to respond to the argument by board member/s that interest in donating diminishes because there is no "hall of fame" where benefactors can be honored. If this was the case: so come to an agreement with the Civic and build a suitable space for this purpose (what have you been waiting for?)

In an ideal world the opera would get a home which better suits its needs than the Civic, more compact and technically contemporary with revolving stage, sub-stage. Our regional opera has been featuring first class performances in an economy class venue.

I have followed the fate since more than 30 years; per my view, the outreach to potential new opera visitor, to the "average" Joe/Joan and the youth has been lacking since decades. Now the ramifications have caught up. By developing a healthy mix of audience, the opera may eventually reach the critical mass needed for a sound operation: a longer season, many more performances and a revived donor base. Board and management face a great challenge in the future. I am optimistic - we are in San Diego!

Carlynne Allbee
Carlynne Allbee subscriber

@Erik Hanson   Thank you for listing the other possible theaters.  I agree that sometimes the "we have always done it there" or "that is our home" becomes a problem for any organization.  We have run into it also with the horse show world.


Joe Jones
Joe Jones subscriber

@Jim JonesThe Met had a deficit of 2.8M last year on a budget of 327M. It balanced its budget the previous two years, meaning a 3 year deficit of 2.8M on a nearly 1B budget. Feel free to sustain your Platinum Codger status, always a fun read, but a little perspective, please.