For a little while this year, Ian Campbell was the city’s greatest cultural villain.

We first learned from the San Diego Opera’s artistic and general director in March that his company might fold thanks to “an insurmountable financial hurdle,” and the public soon began to side-eye Campbell for mismanagement. He and his ex-wife’s “generous” contracts came under scrutiny – it struck observers as odd that the captains were rolling in cash as the ship went down, so to speak. Their salaries were later deemed appropriate according to industry standards.

Campbell and the board were criticized for the rolling out lavish productions even as financial problems became apparent. In his defense, Campbell said he’d tried to manage with less: “To reduce expenses we dropped from five operas to four in 2010, reduced the number of performances, reduced outreach programs we had offered for decades, and later reduced staff, with those remaining carrying a greater workload. It was to no avail.” An opera board meeting in April resulted in several members walking out. Shortly thereafter, Campbell was placed on leave.

The cultural institution’s turmoil – and Campbell specifically – forced San Diego to reckon with its state of the arts. Could we consider ourselves a world-class city without a functioning opera? Was the entire art form outdated? The city’s class divisions became all the more apparent: We heard from residents who liked the idea of supporting a long-standing tradition, but couldn’t swing the high ticket prices. The potential collapse of the opera also spurred some innovative brainstorming as the city’s arts community considered what could take its place.

In the end, San Diego’s opera enthusiasts stepped up to revive the organization with a shower of donations, and the board of directors rescinded its vote to close the company in mid-May. A recent audit revealed the company is back in the black. The 2015 season – the opera’s 50th – will go on after all.

Campbell’s leadership brought the company’s difficulties to light, or perhaps exacerbated them. Though he no longer holds his place of behind-the-scenes prestige, Campbell was the face of the city’s traditional, yawning monoliths. It was his company, his time holding the reins, that prompted San Diego to take stock and decide what kind of city it wanted to be.

This is part of our Voice of the Year package, profiling the people who drove the biggest conversations in San Diego this year. Check out the previous story, Nicole Tempel Assisi: The Voice for Charter Schools, and the next, Jane Doe: A Voice for Victims.

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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