On Saturday at an outdoor amphitheater at a strip mall next to the trolley tracks in Santee, the San Diego Opera kicked off Opera on Track. The series of shows at and around trolley stations across the region features a 30-minute sampling from Gioachino Rossini’s “Cinderella” opera.

About a half dozen excited little girls wearing Cinderella dresses and one woman with a Cinderella tattoo on her arm were among the first to show up for front-row seats to see the free opera.

The program is part of San Diego Opera’s ongoing transformation from a more traditional company focused on grand (read: expensive) opera to one with more diverse offerings. After its near death experience in 2014, the opera’s new general director David Bennett has been working to create a more financially sustainable arts organization that serves more people.

The change hasn’t been as quick and obvious as some might have expected. That’s because the opera isn’t completely free of its previous contractual obligations for productions until the 2017/2018 season.

Meanwhile, Bennett has been out talking to the community, adding different types of programming and working to redefine what the company is and what it does. The Opera on Track shows, which continue through Oct. 9, are the most visible departure from the company’s roots so far.

Questions about Bennett’s ability to reshape the San Diego Opera into a solvent arts company arose last year when Gotham Chamber Opera, the company Bennett used to lead, announced it would be closing and Gotham’s board pointed fingers at Bennett for playing a role in its demise.

Last year, the San Diego opera ended its season with a small deficit. Bennett said that was expected since lots of larger, one-time donations to save the company came in the year before and weren’t repeated. He said despite the slight dip into red, he’s feeling confident.

“Gifts in the $5,000 to $10,000 range are really stepping up, which is good,” he said. “And I think that’s because we’re starting to have resonance with people who are interested in supporting us as not just a performing organization, but an organization that’s more wedded to the community.”

The opera also just hired a new director of development, and Bennett said outreach programs like Opera on Track open the company up to grant opportunities that didn’t exist before.

And then there’s the company’s new revenue stream: The opera’s scenic studio crew is getting paid to build sets inside a new adult day care facility in Chula Vista. The opera crew will be making replicas of historic San Diego storefronts and other scenes from the 1950s as part of the facility’s “reminiscence therapy” approach of using tangible prompts to treat patients with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other memory impairments.

It’s the first partnership of its kind in the opera industry.

Bennett has said often that in coming seasons, the San Diego Opera will be commissioning newer operas on edgier subjects. But paying people to create new work is super expensive. The San Diego Opera actually lost money on its production last year of “Great Scott,” a new work the company commissioned with the Dallas Opera.

“Great Scott” cost the company over $2 million, and while Bennett called the show a “major artistic success” that the opera doesn’t regret investing in, he said it proved hard to market to folks in San Diego who are more used to traditional operas. He said moving forward, he plans to commission different kinds of opera, stage them in venues other than the Civic Theatre and better market them to audiences who will appreciate them.

“I’m trying to find ways where I mitigate the risk to some degree,” he said. “So we’re talking about doing commissions, but we’re talking about doing commissions that will probably appear at other spaces where the financial risk is less – smaller works, smaller spaces.”

The opera’s reinvention might challenge some fans of traditional opera, but Bennett said one of his jobs is to show San Diegans the various sides and shapes opera can take.

“It’s training an audience about what contemporary opera can be,” he said.

You’re reading the Culture Report, Voice of San Diego’s weekly collection of the region’s cultural news.

Barrio Logan Artists See Red Flags in a New Stadium

Artists and activists are worried that if a new football stadium and convention center annex is built in the East Village, nearby neighborhoods will quickly gentrify, destroying the flourishing art scene in Barrio Logan and Logan Heights.

Photo by Brent Beltran
Photo by Brent Beltran

In episode four of Culturecast, VOSD’s podcast covering the intersection of arts and gentrification in Barrio Logan, I talk to some of the folks concerned about the neighborhood’s future. I also have a conversation with a few people who think the Chargers’ unofficial promise to mitigate the negative effects of an East Village stadium on nearby communities will help neighborhoods that really need it.

The podcast also checks in with people behind some of the newest projects on Logan Avenue, a block in Barrio Logan that’s seen an explosion in growth and redevelopment over the past few years.

• I’m planning on wrapping up my time in Barrio Logan in the next two episodes and I’m actively looking for a topic for season two of Culturecast. I could focus on anything culture-y – from food to fine art. Send me your thoughts.

No, Seriously: Barrio Logan’s Art Scene Is Blowing Up

If you’ve yet to explore Barrio Logan’s art scene, this weekend is a good time to do it. Two new galleries mentioned in Culturecast, basileIE and CM Curatorial, will be open for the Barrio Art Crawl, happening from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday. San Diego artist Philip Petrie’s work will be showing over at Low Gallery in Barrio Logan Saturday night as well.

And over at Bread & Salt in nearby Logan Heights, all kinds of arts exhibitions and events will be happening. The warehouse’s current artist in residence Thomas DeMello will be showing drawings, performance artist Max Daily will be doing something creative inside the warehouse’s Not an Exit gallery and legendary art provocateur Bob Matheny says he’ll be burying a real Willem de Kooning painting in the interior courtyard of Bread & Salt.

Photo by Michael James Armstrong
Photo by Michael James Armstrong

At Ice Gallery inside Bread & Salt, Saratoga Sake is paying homage to the history of graffiti in a full-gallery installation that includes a display of vintage spray cans, an outdoor mural and a custom-made, quarter-size replica of a New York City subway car.

“I never actually got to paint a subway car, so I guess this was my chance,” said Sake, who’s one of the San Diego region’s first graffiti artists.

Sake has a wealth of obscure graffiti history bouncing around in his head. He said after the show at Ice Gallery is over, he hopes his painted train travels to places like Art Basel and eventually lands at a museum that will help communicate the subway’s important role as a rolling canvas that helped turn graffiti into an important art movement.

North Park Art Mystery Solved, Portea Gallery Pops Back Up and Other Arts and Culture News

Unique street art and installations have been popping up in North Park. The U-T’s Karla Peterson has the story on the creative, 54-year-old artist behind the work.

• Artist Doris Bittar opened Protea Gallery in a dilapidated storefront in North Park in 2012. A year later, the block she was on experienced a renaissance. Several new businesses opened nearby and Bittar said her landlord wanted to start charging her $500 more a month in rent. She closed instead. On Saturday, Bittar is bringing Protea Gallery back as a pop-up exhibition inside her North Park studio at 3026 Granada Ave. Bittar will show some of her work, Wick Alexander will show new paintings and Robin Brailsford will share her handmade jewelry.

It’s national Arts in Education Week, which makes it a good time to read this CityBeat story about Chicano Park muralist Hector Villegas’ new gig at King-Chávez Preparatory Academy in Grant Hill.

San Diego Magazine put together a listicle of 27 secret spots in San Diego. Your jaw will drop when you read No. 14. Just kidding, no jaws will actually drop but the roundup’s still worth a gander.

• Shinpei Takeda might be best known locally as the founder of the AjA Project nonprofit that teaches photography to refugee and immigrant youth, but here’s an intimate look inside the artist’s Tijuana studio and a peak at some of the work he’s been making lately.

• Steven Schick will stick with the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus for at least six more years. (U-T)

• Colombian artist Camilo Restrepo opens the Lux Art Institute’s 10th season of hosting resident artists from all over the world and commissioning new work.

San Diego artist Susie Ghahremani says the chain store Francesca’s sold unlicensed copies of her work and the work of more than 20 artists.

The Horrible Imaginings Film Festival is happening Sept. 7-11 at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. (KPBS)

Art thieves are the worst.

Malcolm Leland’s “Bow Wave” public art sculpture has been undergoing some much-needed repairs. A city spokesperson said the conservation project is expected to be completed by the end of this week and the updates to the sculpture cost approximately $75,000.

It sounds like this young lady sure can sing. (Encinitas Advocate)

• Artist Doron Rosenthal’s history in San Diego is now set in stone. (CityBeat)

A graffiti art yard in southeastern San Diego will be the backdrop for the re-staging of one of the most talked-about productions from the La Jolla Playhouse’s 2015 Without Walls Festival. (KPBS)

The South Bay Pride event is happening this weekend.

Food, Beer and Booze News

This blog post by Modern Times brewery about what “selling out” to big corporations is actually about was in such high demand, the brewery’s website crashed for a few hours.

• Modern Times, by the way, made it on this list of 25 Breweries on the Rise. So did San Diego’s Toolbox Brewing Co. (Draft)

• Small Bar in University Heights wants the city to let it reopen its front patio.

Butchers are back and the Reader’s Ian Anderson says that’s a good thing.

Goodbye, Red Sails Inn. This writer blames the Port of San Diego for the restaurant’s demise.

Hello again, Craft & Commerce. (San Diego Eater)

Here’s a closer look at San Diego’s new tiki bar everyone’s talking about. (San Diego Magazine)

Eat food with eyes, says San Diego Magazine’s Troy Johnson.

Kinsee Morlan is the engagement editor at Voice of San Diego. Email her at kinsee@vosd.org. Want to recommend this culture newsletter to someone? Share this sign-up link.

Kinsee Morlan was formerly the Engagement Editor at Voice of San Diego and author of the Culture Report. She also managed VOSD’s podcasts and covered...

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