Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Interview with San Diego Opera’s Ian Campbell, Part II

February 21st, 2009

[Wm: This is the second part of my interview with Ian Campbell, the General and Artistic Director of the San Diego Opera, and the stage director of a new production of Massenet’s “Don Quixote (Don Quichotte)”.]

Wm: I understand that you became friends with Luciano Pavarotti in Australia in the 1960s.

IC: Yes, it was in 1965 that I first heard Luciano, this young Italian that Joan Sutherland and her husband, Conductor Richard Bonynge, brought back with them from Miami for a 14 week tour of Australia. There is a quite elaborate story as to how he came to end up in Australia with Sutherland.

Wm: Tell it.

IC: Pavarotti and his father’s chorale from Modena had performed in Ireland in 1957 when Luciano was 22. When he sought to establish a tenor career he secured a contract in 1963 to perform Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Dublin Grand Opera Society (now Opera Ireland). It was in Dublin, where the legendary agent Joan Ingpen, of the Ingpen and Williams agency, heard him. (Ingpen’s agency was not really a partnership. The Williams in Joan’s agency name referred to her pet daschund.)

[Luciano Pavarotti, age 27 in 1962, around the time of his “discovery” in Dublin by Joan Ingpen.]

Ingpen secured Pavarotti’s agreement to be available to cover Giuseppe di Stefano at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden.  Then di Stefano bowed out of most of his scheduled performances, providing Pavarotti the opportunity to be heard in London.

Meanwhile, Sutherland was to perform in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” in Miami with tenor Renato Cioni as Edgardo. Maria Callas at the beginning of 1964 agreed to make a comeback at Covent Garden as Tosca with Tito Gobbi as Scarpia. She insisted that Cioni be cast as her Cavaradossi. Pavarotti, after his London success, was engaged by Miami to replace Cioni, and obviously impressed Sutherland and Bonynge.

Wm: So Pavarotti became part of Sutherland’s entourage and they brought him to Australia.

IC: Yes. I bought a ticket to hear Pavarotti sing Nemorino in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”. It was such a gorgeous sound. I went backstage and met him and bass-baritone Spiro Malas.

[Below: Luciano Pavarotti is Nemorino, Dame Joan Sutherland is Adina, and Spiro Malas is Doctor Dulcamara in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”; edited image, based on Getty Images photograph.]

Soon I was invited to have supper with them across the road. Then Luciano said that he had tickets in the company box in Sydney.

He autographed and gave me a copy of a 45 rpm Decca recording on which he sings Puccini arias.

Wm: Having a 45 rpm record autographed by Pavarotti sounds like something that one would see on “Antiques Roadshow”. I’m sure there is a story there too.

IC:  Indeed there is, and, in fact, there is a picture of myself some years later with Pavarotti jokingly trying to get the record back from me. 

Wm: So, for provenance,there’s even a photograph to accompany your signed 45 record.

IC: Yes, there is. There is a story as to why this Pavarotti 45 rpm record exists. After Ingpen’s “discovery”, when Decca Records John Culshaw first heard Pavarotti, he talked him into signing for Decca, promising him a recording. Culshaw informed his boss, Maurice Rosengarten, head of Decca’s classical music division, and said he had found a great Italian tenor, whom he had signed.

Rosengarten reminded Culshaw that Decca had Mario del Monaco and James McCracken under contract and the company had enough trouble trying to keep those two tenors happy. But Culshaw said he had promised Pavarotti a recording, so Rosengarten said he could make a 45. Culshaw protested that no one can make money on a 45 rpm recording (Culshaw priding himself that Decca’s classical and opera catalogues actually made money over the long term), but a 45 was issued anyway.

By the time that Sutherland and Pavarotti were on their tour of Australia, the folks at Decca all agreed that  he should be Decca’s lead Italian tenor and the contract was signed that led to his great series of complete opera recordings with Sutherland and with Mirella Freni.

I personally regard Pavarotti’s artistry as the standard to which young singers should aspire.  I will often recommend that a young tenor listen to Pavarotti’s recording of Mascagni’s “L’Amico Fritz” to get a sense of the magic that one can hear in a properly trained tenor voice.

Wm: Do you find that some singers whom you audition have a different viewpoint on what roles they should be singing than you do?

IC: Of course, sometimes. But often when a singer is cast in a role that is clearly not right for their voice, it is the fault of the opera management. And sometimes it is not the singer at all, but the singer’s agent that is pushing the singer to take roles they should not be touching, at least at that point in their careers. There can be a conflict of interest between artists and their agents, with some agents preferring those artists under their management to sign onto the big, popular roles, which increase their opportunities for commissions.

I recall an argument that I had with an agent who wanted an artist cast as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s “Rigoletto”.  I thought that made no sense for him and suggested an alternate role that I thought would work. Later, I spoke to the artist about the matter, and the artist said that he agreed with me and wanted to do the role I had offered. He said he couldn’t believe what his agent was trying to line him up to sing.

Wm: And then there are artists that are so secure in the knowledge of their voices that they cannot be persuaded to take roles wrong for them.

IC: Oh yes, Alfredo Kraus was, of course, a legendary example. I had been friends with him at the Met. I was impressed with his recording of Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme”, and invited him to come to San Diego to sing that role. He said, no, he had sung it once in performance and it did not fit his voice. Just because he recorded something a piece at a time over several days did not mean that it was a suitable for him to perform in an opera house.  To give another example, I offered Richard Leech the role of des Grieux in Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”. He looked at it and said it would not be right for him.

Wm: What are your favorite operas?

IC: “Tannhauser” is at the top of the list. I have always found its theme of redemption appealing. In Australia I performed the part of Heinrich der Scheriber. It is one of the few Wagner operas that I still enjoy, along with “Lohengrin” and “The Flying Dutchman”.

I enjoy Puccini’s “La Boheme” if the singing is good. I love Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and like parts of his “Billy Budd”, but not as much as “Grimes”.  There really is not much from the 20th century that I listen to again and again.

Wm: San Diego Opera has demonstrated two trends that counter the destruction of intellectual capital and creativity that occurs when successful operatic productions are discarded and destroyed. You purchased the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of Puccini’s “Tosca”. 

IC: I knew Ponnelle’s work at the Met. I needed a production of  ‘Tosca’ and learned that San Francisco Opera, which owned the Ponnelle “Tosca”, was planning a new production of the work. I contacted the San Francisco Opera management and asked that they send me the Ponnelle production. Why should I build a “Tosca” for the ego of this company? The Ponnelle sets still have a wonderful frame. The sets tell you where to go – the door is there, the scaffold is here. It works beautifully.

Wm: You have refurbished sets from other companies, and with the assistance of James Mulder, recreated Gunther Schneider-Siemssen’s Metropolitan Opera production of Wagner’s “Tannhauser”. Do you see more of these approaches occurring in the future with San Diego Opera taking a lead role?

[Below: James Mulder’s recreation for San Diego Opera of the Metropolitan Opera’s “Tannhauser” sets for Gunther Schneider-Siemssen; edited image, based on a photograph from San Diego Opera.]

I was at the Met when Gunther’s “Tannhauser” was being shown. The production stresses the fairy tale elements of the piece, with nymphs inhabiting the Venusberg. At San Diego Opera, we have had Gunther’s productions of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” and Dvorak’s “Rusalka” and a new production of Floyd’s “The Passion of Jonathan Wade”.

The  Schneider-Siemssen “Tannhauser” was created for Vienna originally. In San Diego, we had Jim Mulder’s extraordinary abilities, and the imagination he honed through his past experience with Walt Disney Corporation’s Imagineering division, in the recreation of Gunther’s sets. The production looked beautiful and the transformations between the fairy world of the Venusberg and the human world of the Wartburg proved to be magical. We would love to rent the production to other other companies. It is the only Gunther Schneider-Siemssen “Tannhauser” left.

Wm: In 1983, when you became General and Artistic Director of the San Diego Opera, it was experiencing financial turmoil. Were there skills you employed to get the company’s finances into the “black” that you are using for today’s environment.

IC: Of course, prayer is an important part. When the State Opera of South Australia was foundering, I was brought in to rectify the situation. The obvious response to deficits is to cut costs. But I believe it is also very important to talk to the ticket buyers to be certain that the product you are offering is what they are willing to buy.

In an artistic enterprise, as elsewhere, what you propose to cut can have unintended results. When I came to San Diego, there was not only an extreme budget deficit, there was a divided board as well. Half of the board felt it was time for change of leadership. But the half the board that felt loyalty to the previous general director stopped giving to the Opera.

I did an internal audit that showed that the San Diego Opera would have a massive deficit. We brought in outside consultants that gave credibility to our projections. We reduced the company’s activities to lower expenses. We were producing more than the opera company could sustain. But even as we downsized in some areas, we invested in the development of a strong educational program.

Our main revenue sources are the ticket buyer and the contributor – and, of course, in the past we have always depended on a substantial percentage of the ticket buyers also being contributors. The economic downturn may well prohibit some of long-term subscribers on whom we depend from renewing, and very likely will cause some of those subscribers who do renew to reduce or even eliminate their contributions.

Wm: Do you sense this is more than just a cyclical trend – that even with a turn in the economy, we may not see a return to the revenue levels that opera previously commanded?

This new opera marketplace is one I have never experienced before. We have to look at everything again. With the stock market down so deeply, and so many people fearful of their financial future, we have to go through the same process of reducing costs in recognition of the market being smaller.

We are trying to make the rough decisions early. When we offer five operas, we have 10,000 tickets we have to sell. We felt that was more than our market could comfortably bear. In 2010 we will cut back from five operas to four.

One opera costs about about 1.2 million dollars to produce.  By reducing the number of operas produced, we cut expenses, and sell a higher percentage of the number of tickets we have for sale. I believe with those adjustments we will keep San Diego Opera stable.

But there are opera companies that are using lines of credit for ongoing operations, or who are asking donors to release the principals on their endowment. Even our conservative, well-managed investment committee still had paper losses of 3.4 million. The value of our investments will revive in time, but the return on investments that will be required to get back to where we were is daunting.  If you had nine units and lose a third of them you have six left. To get back to nine one needs to increase the number of units by 50 percent.

The impact from this Fall and Winter’s wealth implosion will last for many years.The impact of reduced investment income on such a forward-planned artistic enterprise as opera is of great concern. What we have had to do is to apply business principles and reduce capacity to maintain stability. A much more leveraged company may find it impossible to survive.

Wm: Your neighboring company to the North, Orange County’s Opera Pacific, has closed its doors midseason and is selling off its assets. Would you comment on the situation there and other companies that appear to be closing their doors forever?

IC: The adjustments that Opera Pacific was making to save themselves didn’t help them. They had a geographic problem that proved insurmountable. They are located in the Orange County town of Costa Mesa, midway between Los Angeles and San Diego, two cities whose opera companies have developed loyal audiences over several decades.

Wm: Even Long Beach, a Los Angeles County municipality that borders Orange County, has an opera company that competed with Opera Pacific.

IC: Ultimately, there has to be some community ownership for an opera company. In Orange County, they never developed sufficient community ownership to sustain the opera company through tough economic times, and they were suffering even in the boon years of mid-decade. We bought some of Opera Pacific’s assets. We built some raker boxes – used for constructing on-stage ramps –  for them, and we bought them back.

Most opera companies are finding it necessary to make cuts. The Baltimore Opera declared bankruptcy and cut out the rest of its season, and the Connecticut Opera has closed up mid-season as well. The only truly stable community seems to be Chicago. The Lyric Opera has a deep history and a solid endowment. Unfortunately, the newer cities do not have opera companies with large endowments. I have often said that we do not have enough San Diegans buried here yet. It’s still a young community.

Wm: Do you share the pessimism of Kip Cranna at San Francisco Opera, whose interview was posted in November 2008 about the reliance of opera companies on the non-profit sector and subscriber contributions, and do you see a way to attract younger audiences to opera?

IC: I am not convinced that a decade from now we will have as many opera companies. This does not mean that opera will cease to recruit younger audiences.  If you come to San Diego Opera’s Wednesday night series in you will see the audiences are younger.

My concern is that they do not make the same commitment to opera as the generation they are replacing. They will not subscribe with the same numbers as in the past. They become what I call “grazers” – seeking out only those operas that especially interest them. They do not want to pay for five operas up front, especially if the list includes unfamiliar works. What is worse, they are not donors at the same level.  They do not understand that their ticket is subsidized by many of the other patrons who are sitting in the opera with them.

Sometimes, we are criticized because we have sets some consider to be lavish. They ask, can’t we get by on less expensive sets? But all of the costs relating to constructing or renting sets or production revivals is only seven percent of the budget.

 The City of San Diego contributes 2.5 percent of the budget, but it is the individual opera-goer who is the backbone of our finances. Up until this point when individual opera-goers have been asked to pay for an opera ticket and make an additional contribution, they have done so. It is not my expectation that the younger person is going to step up and take on that financial burden.

We no longer even have music in the schools. In the past, there would be opportunities for all of us to sing in choirs and choruses and  we would grow up performing.

Wm: So even Disney’s series of  High School Musical films, in which activities of the music and drama departments are central to the school’s social life, portray a world that may no longer exist in most places.

IC: In California, we have parents with no arts education. We are filling the void with ipods and computers. We have huge competition for entertainment dollars.

Opera is considered too long for much of the younger audience, who have grown up with the TV zapper. In the old days, we had three television channels and you had to get up to change from one channel to another. We do not focus attention on a performance in the same way as before. The experiences are so different.

The Metropolitan Opera movies are not attracting many new people. Those who attend them are our regulars. I do not think the Met movies will bring those new people whom they are trying to reach into the opera house. The movies have  close-ups and surround sound. The camera makes the decisions as to what you should watch and directs your point of view.

The behavior required for a movie house is different from what is expected to support live performance of opera. For the movies, you are not expected to subscribe for a whole season’s performances. For an opera, certainly here in San Diego, you are expected to dress up. You cannot arrive late nor leave during the performance.

Wm: And the regular opera audience has expectations of the behavior of others sitting among them. They cannot talk or ask questions of their companions. They cannot use their cellphones. 

IC: Attending opera performances  is not a part of their culture. We will have to grab our future audiences and drag them in.

There will always be opera and theatre. The general standard of opera is better than ever. There is depth in casting. There will be quality opera, although there may not be live opera performances in smaller communities.

One of my concerns is that many people who think it is good for a community to have the fine arts, opera companies, and museums simply don’t believe how precarious funding often is for these cultural entities.   So many younger persons who enjoy the performing arts have grown up with no fears for their future. I just fear that the younger person is not a giver. They just assume that these institutions will continue to be there, and there is nothing an individual needs to do nor give to help sustain them.

In San Diego, the San Diego Symphony got into into financial trouble, but a donation from Irwin Jacobs of Qualcomm saved it. He enjoys the  San Diego Opera and gives us a major contribution as well. If Irwin had not stepped up, I do not know how the San Diego Symphony could have survived. Could the same thing happen to the San Diego Opera? Maybe! Do we have sufficient ownership of the opera to weather an even worse economic situation than we have now?

We are told the not-for-profit sector’s percentage of the economy is on the rise, but that seems to be attributable to healthcare and to human services, but not to the arts.  Opera is looking like a luxury that people do not understand. The classical music stations are vanishing. I am pessimistic over the longer term.

When we lose a regional opera company, the possibility of that community bringing together the resources to create a new one is remote. I don’t know that anyone nowadays can get together and say “let’s form an opera company”. Few people seem to fear the loss of the opera company, or symphony orchestra, or a museum, and do not seem to believe that they are an important part of our culture. I just wish that America could afford more opera, and that the government could join us.

Wm: You have expressed your personal reservations about much of 20th century opera. However, you are participating  with Dallas Opera, San Francisco Opera and Calgary Opera in commissioning a new 21st century opera, Heggie’s “Moby Dick”. Do you see multi-company commissions as the future as opposed to, say, San Francisco Opera’s recent “go it alone” commissions of Glass’ “Appomattox” and Wallace’s “Bonesetter’s Daughter”?

IC: As impressed as I am of [San Francisco Opera General Manager] David Gockley’s commission of “Bonesetter’s Daughter”, I think the times have made it far too dangerous for a single company to commission a work, as opposed to spreading the costs of creating a new opera over a number of companies. I had been considering collaborating on a new production with the Royal Opera Covent Garden, but even committing to half the cost of such a new creation seemed to be too great a risk.

Now, I believe the “Moby Dick” commission will work. I had made suggestions, and all of us looked at it to see how the opera would work with a big stage. We will all see how it plays at the Dallas Opera. If there are things that should be changed, there will be revisions before it comes to San Diego, then Gockley will get it in San Francisco, then it goes to Calgary.

The composer/librettist team is committed to our four companies being happy with the result. No composer wants to write an opera that no company wishes to perform. Remember that Puccini had to revise the original “Madama Butterfly” three times, and it was not until the fourth city that heard it that he settled on the authoritative version.

Wm: Thank you, Ian.

For the first part of this interview, see: An Interview with Ian Campbell, General Director, San Diego Opera

Tags: 2008-2016 William's Interviews