San Diego Opera, one of the largest opera companies in North America, has developed a new reputation in recent weeks. It’s now the hot new cautionary tale in the world of performing arts, a burning example of the past failing to embrace the future.
“The Southern California institution is on the brink of becoming a cultural mastodon,” reported The Washington Post. In the New York Times, a reporter with a flair for the dramatic described “a three-week battle that convulsed the community here and subjected its once revered opera company to widespread derision and accusations of mismanagement.”
Other operas are facing similar challenges, from dwindling audiences and dying patrons to the high costs of paying well-heeled executives and putting on elaborate productions. But some, like the Lyric Opera of Chicago, are succeeding despite the trends.
The Lyric Opera of Chicago has taken risks — and raised some eyebrows — by embracing Broadway musicals like “The Sound of Music” and “Show Boat.” The opera devotes itself to reaching out to the community to encourage a love of opera, even enlisting the Second City comedy troupe to help out. It plans to continue pushing boundaries by commissioning a Jewish folk opera and an adaptation of a Ann Patchett novel.
In an interview, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s general director Anthony Freud talked about the challenges facing opera companies today, his perspective on San Diego’s troubles and the best ways to move forward.
Are the San Diego Opera’s problems unique in the opera world?
The challenges of finding relevant cultural and business models are universal through the performing arts. Performing arts organizations and opera companies around the world have been guilty for too long of looking inwards rather than outwards.
There needs to be a general awareness that life is changing, and things can’t continue as they’ve been up until now.
We won’t thrive if we exist within hermetically sealed bubbles. The challenge is to find a way to ensure that we relate to our cities in the most relevant way possible, reaching the largest, most diverse group of people possible.
Did these troubles for performing arts organizations start with the recession?
The recession was more the catalyst than the cause.
What are the specific challenges facing opera?
We need to break down the misconceptions that exist around our art form and get over this sense that some people still have that opera is a 400-year-old European art form with no relevance to a contemporary U.S. environment.
If you distill opera down to its basics, it’s telling stories through words and music. That’s a tradition that’s utterly universal and transcends cultures, centuries and continents.
What sorts of unique approaches are you trying at your opera in Chicago?
We’ve broadened to draw more people. For example, last week we opened a new production of “The Sound of Music.”
That will bring a lot of new people into the opera house. During last year’s production of “Oklahoma!”, 50 percent of the audience had never set foot in the opera house before.
We’re also forming partnerships with community, cultural and educational organizations.
We worked with the Second City comedy troupe to break down preconceptions by creating a Second City Guide to the Opera. Now, we’re commissioned a new opera, known as klezmer opera — traditional Jewish folk music with Eastern European origins that’s akin to mariachi music.
Ian Campbell, the general director and artistic director of the San Diego Opera, told us that too many donors are dying off and not being replaced.
Is that a problem across opera companies?
It’s a challenge we all need to respond to. But I don’t see it as insurmountable.
One of the preconceptions about opera is that opera fans tend to be elderly and wealthy, neither of which are accurate. Companies have to work hard in order to broaden the appeal we have for a broader demographic.
We have a number of different strategies specifically designed to broaden the range of people that we reach, like a youth opera council, a group of 22 high-school-age opera lovers who are learning more about opera and involving more of their friends.
We have discount tickets for young people and held a matinee performance of “The Sound of Music” entirely for Chicago children.
Price is a significant factor. We have to be conscious of the range of choices confronting people and that the way they can spend their leisure time is changing. We need to ensure that price is not an insurmountable barrier.
What about the salaries of executives and opera workers?
Opera is labor-intensive. Unlike spoken theater, where there are a number of extremely popular pieces with two actors, popular operas are — generally speaking — large scale with an opera, chorus and orchestra.
If you have a large organization and large overhead, the important thing is to be as productive as possible, to reach the right quality and range of activity.
Where do you stand on the debate about the role of contemporary opera?
Every major opera company has a responsibility to maintain the vibrancy of the art form by doing new work. We’re working on adapting Ann Patchett’s novel “Bell Canto.” Hopefully, it will be a real popular piece and generate a lot of excitement.
We’re finding that in terms of support, in terms of sponsorship, the less well-known pieces and new pieces are generating more excitement than the tried-and-tested repertory productions.
How do you balance the old and the new?
For an opera company to succeed, it has to offer the right balance of activity. If all we did was offer the Traviatas and Butterflies of this world, then we would bore our audiences very quickly.
On the other hand, the most popular repertory operas are part of our responsibility.
What advice would you give to the San Diego Opera?
Be nimble and have in your mind the utopian scenario of building audiences who demand to be stimulated, demand to be excited and demand to be made to think.