Endangered Opera


Letter from San Diego

The fight to save the San Diego Opera.


Ferruccio Furlanetto in a publicity still from the San Diego Opera’s Don Quixote.

The half-ton red-velvet curtain fell for what may be the last time on a San Diego Opera performance in mid-April, to a sold-out matinée of Don Quixote. Before the show, patrons drank wine outside, talking about the sad turn of events and snapping photos to mark the occasion: funeral selfies, opera style. In the final minutes of the final performance, Ferruccio Furlanetto—as a lanky and, even by operatic standards, gorgeously expressive Don Quixote—collapsed on a cluster of boulders under a starlit sky, relinquishing his last breath, and with it, his perpetual quest for a better tomorrow.

In March, the Opera’s board of directors voted to fold the forty-nine-year-old company, citing financial problems. After the announcement, which surprised many, came a media storm with all the musical metaphors you could hope for. (Would the fat lady sing? Would there be a reprise?) There were social media campaigns and T-shirts; candlelight vigils; protesters, one in a death mask; a large, last-ditch donation, and a series of smaller contributions from first-time donors; and then there was a genius twist. Someone closely read the opera’s bylaws and discovered that everybody who donated at least $101 toward the current season was considered an association member with voting rights, which meant they could make decisions and recommendations. A second board vote postponed the closure to May 29 and bought some time for fundraising. For the past month and a half, problem solvers have been hunting for ways to keep the San Diego Opera running. Ditch the massive theater? Save the chorus? What is necessary, and what is sufficient, to create opera?

Some would have you believe that San Diego did not, does not, deserve a quality opera company. A few weeks before that final show, I had a drink at the downtown hotel piano bar, with its cream-paneled walls, where I sometimes go with my husband for après-opera cocktails and people watching. Word came around to the opera and why we thought it was folding. Low sales. High costs. Lack of donors. Mismanagement. “But it’s San Diego, too. You know how it is,” said Frank, the bartender, from Cleveland. The old “city of sun-kissed surfer-idiots” argument maintains that San Diego is simply not intellectual enough to sustain an opera.

This is the line that’s muttered by those who wish there were a thicker cultural life here: more bookstores, more challenging public art, a classical-music station that plays more than light hits and movie scores out of Tijuana and one that plays static-corrupted symphonies out of Los Angeles. The news satirist in our city’s alt-weekly, the San Diego Reader, photoshopped this message onto the Civic Theatre’s marquee, where opera names and dates are usually posted:

Good-bye you cretinous sun-addled troglodytes

Enjoy your crappy sports teams and their fancy new venues.

To the satirist, someone commented online: “The Opera isn’t the only ‘arts,’ ‘music’ or ‘culture’ in San Diego. There’s plenty of all three all over the city and the vast majority is self sufficient.” QED.

Another theory: Only New York, Paris, Berlin, and Milan deserve quality operas. For the rest of us, there’s the MOOC model to arts appreciation: via high-definition simulcasts, operas appear in cinemas across America, well within reach of the casual fan. But if you want to sit sixty rows away from someone’s real, live, quivering uvula, pay up and head to a major city. This is the essence of the argument floated by the San Diego Opera’s longtime general manager, Ian Campbell. He didn’t send people to the movie theaters or to New York outright, but he cited fundraising pressures and said grand opera can’t be done anymore, not in this city. “The demand for opera in this city isn’t high enough,” he told the Los Angeles Times. Operas are falling left and right. Orange County. Baltimore. Cleveland. Spokane. New York City. In San Diego, the opera was known to be well run, despite its closure; if even a competently managed opera can’t survive, can we trust our theaters and other arts venues to be viable in the long run? This is a chapter in a longer story, the same story that tells of the merging of language and classics departments into “humanities” departments, the adjunctification of academia, the focus on educational ROI over the intrinsic merits of studying, say, Faulkner. The question becomes not “how can we stop this,” but “which city will lose its opera next?” A headline in the Chicago Business Journal asked: “Could it happen in Chicago?”

A third section of the commentariat contends that San Diego was swindled. It deserves and desires an opera—as proved by the success of its grassroots fundraising and its citizens’ collective refusal to watch the opera go quietly—but greed has prevailed. After the company announced it was closing, reporters uncovered evidence that Campbell and his ex-wife, Ann Spira Campbell, a fundraiser, were receiving robust paychecks, bonuses, and contract terms, even during the economic downturn. Some say his pay and pension are a fair exchange for managing the company successfully for decades. Others see his flush contract as another nail in the coffin, and many people have blamed him in large part for the closure. Campbell refused to consider the possibility of carrying on the opera with diminished production values—the classic “claim artistic integrity to save your cushy retirement package” line. He’s stopped giving interviews, but I’m curious to hear his point of view.

San Diego has been in a similar situation before—in 1996, the symphony here went bankrupt. It was embarrassing. It was tragic for the city’s art lovers. But the symphony found two angel donors, in the form of the tech magnate Irwin Jacobs and his wife Joan, who brought the organization back to life in 2002. They’ve since donated more than $120 million. In its new form, the symphony takes some risks. They recently played with Megadeth’s David Mustaine, and while the combination didn’t sound pleasing, it was a vital step toward introducing people to the symphony and constructively challenging the mission of a metropolitan orchestra.

I remember what this city was like in 1998, two years into that bankruptcy. It was so boring I left. I believe I used to use the word “provincial”—I was that kind of teenager. I moved back from Cambridge in 2008, when I was almost done with grad school and able to submit chapters from afar, because several of life’s arrows pointed that way and I decided to follow them. I arrived to find a city strikingly attuned to culture, with a creative and artistic infrastructure that attracts and holds people’s attention. We have inventive, versatile theaters and classical music ensembles; bookstores, farmers markets, craft beer, bike lanes; and a newspaper that has, despite that industry’s contraction and the consequences thereof, continued to publish criticism and author interviews. I have not been bored a day since I got back.

At Don Quixote, as the curtain fell for what may be the final time—the message “We are not giving up!” burned into the supertitles—some, including me, wiped away tears. I sang with the children’s chorus in high school. I’ve covered the arts here off and on for a decade. For one story, the costume department made me up with a costume, makeup, and a wig. For a different project, I was embedded with them for two weeks, reporting from backstage on the action building up to the opening night of Faust. I talked with the set builders, the singers, the gentleman who raises and lowers that thick velvet curtain. I find it hard to believe the opera can’t be saved. And it’s harder, for me at least, to imagine a San Diego without the San Diego Opera.

If it closes, San Diegans will have to start driving 122 miles to the Los Angeles Opera; several hundred people will lose a significant chunk of income or their full-time jobs; chorus singers and symphony musicians may be forced to relocate, taking their creativity, their passion, their espresso-drinking and rent-paying dollars with them; and the citizens of this city will have one less venue for storytelling and community. San Diego won’t just be a city without an opera. It will be a city with private wealth—with tremendous intellectual and creative capital and a regional population of millions—which once had a great opera and let it slip away.

Roxana Popescu is a writer and journalist based in San Diego. Her articles and criticism have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Newsweek, The International Herald Tribune, The New York Times,, and elsewhere.