Opera Warhorses

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

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The 30th Anniversary Interview with San Diego Opera’s Ian Campbell – Part 2

May 10th, 2013

For Part One of this interview, see: The 30th Anniversary Interview with San Diego Opera’s Ian Campbell – Part 1.


[Below: San Diego Opera General Director Ian Campbell; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Wm: As Europe sorts through their financial problems, do you see their governmental subsidies being in danger?

IC: In some countries, yes I think so. Perhaps not in Germany, but I do believe reductions in subsidies are coming and cannot see what can be done to prevent them.

I’ve heard reports of total confusion in some Italian houses. Artists are beginning to avoid some companies where they worry about payments being delayed, sometimes for long periods of time.

Wm: Should it happen that American opera companies’ financial situations improve so that ticket prices can be lowered, do you still see problems for opera?

IC: I’m also concerned about the leadership of opera companies. First, I want everyone to know that I am going to hang around. I’m not going anywhere.

But I don’t see a lot of new leaders who have the experience of being general directors, who have the skills to make an opera company work.  Twenty years ago there were more general directors.

[Below:  the fateful boat trip in San Diego Opera’s 2003 presentation of Tobias Picker’s “Therese Raquin”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


There are new artistic directors, who will want to schedule Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” and other high cost projects. They may not have the steadying hand of a general director who can grasp all the elements that it takes to assure an opera company’s viability.

The impending loss of experienced general directors like Speight Jenkins of the Seattle Opera, and David Gockley, who has announced that he will be retiring as San Francisco Opera’s general director later in the decade, worries me.

Wm: So a key responsibility of a general director is to judge how much risk a company can take in its quest for artistic integrity.

IC: Yes. There are opera companies that offer unusual repertory that have modest budgets but very loyal clientele. The Long Beach Opera is such a company.

I admire the risks that the Minnesota Opera takes. There ticket prices are lower, and they rely on less expensive artists. I admire the fact that even companies of the size of the San Diego Opera are taking risks.

But if you offer unusual repertory in the upper tier theaters with the highest price tickets, you have to be very careful. When patrons have to pay over $200 a ticket, they become very cautious in what they commit to.

[Below: Stephen Costello (2010) in the title role of Gounod’s “Faust” ; resized image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Even a work like “Murder in the Cathedral” with a major star did less well financially than we had thought it would.

I’ve thought about mounting a double bill of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” and Schoenberg’s “Erwartung” in the future, but cannot imagine a huge return for it. I’m working on the 2016 season now and believe it is far too early to consider such fare.

Wm: Speaking of San Francisco Opera’s David Gockley, he obviously studies how many times an opera should be performed in San Francisco in a season. He schedules some operas for five performances and others for as many as eleven. But San Diego Opera performs four operas four times each. How do you as a general director determine how to manage risk in such a situation?

IC: I can say quite publicly that at the San Diego Opera, Puccini’s “La Boheme” and Verdi’s “La Traviata” can sell 11,000 tickets each. For unfamiliar works, we seldom get past 8,000 tickets. For, say, Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”, you are down around 8,000. That doesn’t sustain the revenues we need.

Every opera loses money. But it gets very bad with some operas.

You can mitigate this a bit with careful planning. Since at our company we can control the number of persons in the opera chorus in a given season, last year (2012) we did a season with small choruses, including Strauss’ “Salome”, Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” and Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” knowing we would have big choruses this year for Verdi’s “Aida” and Saint-Saens’ “Samson and Delilah” and of course “Murder in the Cathedral”.

[Below: Ekaterina Siurina as Leila (2008) in Bizet’s “Pearlfishers”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Wm: You have been associated with the promotion of two French works, Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” and Massenet’s “Don Quixote”. One result of your Zandra Rhodes production of the former is that Bizet’s opera become one of the most performed of French operas. Do you see a similar path for “Don Quixote”, an opera you mounted for Furlanetto in 2009 and will revive for him next year?

IC: I do. Seattle Opera has already performed it, and I believe that the Lyric Opera of Chicago is looking at it as well.

Wm: Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company has announced it for May, 2014 with Furlanetto.

IC: There you go. It’s an appealing story with great music and only requires three principal singers.

Wm: We were both at the world premiere of Heggie’s “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera, which San Diego Opera co-sponsored and later performed. In my review I predicted that Jake Heggie or someone who writes in his style will compose the Great American Opera. Do you agree with that assessment?

IC: I think that Heggie has the capacity to have a truly great work. I think the ensemble work in “Moby Dick” is extraordinary.

[Below: the sighting of the white whale by Captain Ahab (Ben Heppner, center in black), Starbuck (Morgan Smith, front right in tan sweater vest) and the crew of the Pequod in Heggie’s “Moby Dick” (2012); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


The size of the current production of “Moby Dick” will be beyond the resources of many opera companies. Eventually, a smaller production will be created that permits it to be performed outside of the major houses.

Wm: The San Diego Opera will join the The Dallas Opera and other companies in sponsoring Heggie’s next opera, “Great Scott”. What can you tell us about how that commission is coming?

IC: Heggie’s new opera for The Dallas Opera is a comedy, and the company has brought together an appealing cast that may well attract a wider audience.

Jake is working on the music. The libretto is underway. We don’t get reports until there is something genuine to show, but Jake could indeed sell the idea of a popular American comic opera.

Wm: What American operas do you believe are candidates for the standard repertory?

IC: I think Carlyle Floyd’s “Of Mice and Men” and “Susannah” both belong in the standard performance repertory. I think Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” is unjustly neglected. I was pleased that The Dallas Opera staged Argento’s “The Aspern Papers”.

[Below: Anthony Dean Griffey as Lennie (1999) in Carlyle Floyd’s “Of Mice and Men”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


But I don’t think every new opera needs to be thought of in terms of becoming standard repertory.

Wm: In fact, almost every opera ever written in history has seldom been performed after its first run, even if it had a first run.

IC: What I see happening is that a lot of companies are creating purely “local interest” operas for their domestic audiences. Fink’s opera “The Conquistador”, that we premiered, had resonance across the U.S.-Mexican border. If it had been performed in Chicago, it would not have had such a great connection, but there is an opera about Frank Lloyd Wright that might have appeal in the Midwest.

[Below: the stage setting for Myron Fink’s “Conquistador”  (1997); edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


One of things to get used to is that we are coming into a world of entertaining “disposable operas”, that are done relatively inexpensively, that the audience can enjoy and not see again.

Jonathan Dove’s “Flight” that saw at the Opera Theater of St Louis was such an opera that has now vanished in the United States.

Wm: Two seasons from now, the San Diego Opera will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. As your company moves into its second half-century, what would you like to see it accomplish, in such areas as community education and outreach, structure and financing, and repertory choices?

IC: We must stage operas which build up an audience that will trust the institution. If we had significantly lower prices they would trust anything we plan for them. We need to look for works not done in this area, because not many people travel to see their operas.

At our current prices, they don’t go to see Berg’s “Wozzeck”, which, though an artistic success when we mounted it, is not a big audience draw.

I would like to see a diverse repertory. We need reliable funding. That is the next issue to address – getting a donor base that cares about having opera in San Diego County.

Lyric Opera of Chicago will be there forever. I describe Chicago as a vertical society. One’s great grandmothers are buried there. There are deep roots. Chicago has a high level of ownership of its opera.

[Below: Lucas Meachem as Figaro (2012) in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


In San Diego, we don’t have the depth of ownership and roots. We are all above ground. That’s what all the arts and cultural activities are facing in San Diego. We’re living on very few donors, most of whom are opera-goers. I think that would take another 20 years before we can feel safe. We need to get legacy gifts for the opera in wills.

In terms in the opera company’s structure, I don’t think anything needs to or can change. We need to bring the best international singers that we can.

I would love to see to go from four operas back to the five operas a season we used to produce, but we would need higher ticket prices and/or greater numbers of donors. If we went back to five at the present time, we could destroy the company.

Education and outreach is very interesting. We hear that we have to reach out to children, but I’m not sure that is what we should be doing now. We ask for donors to give tickets to tertiary students, university students. Students leap at it and they come.

Many of these university students will remain in the city and in a couple of years may be able to afford a ticket. In the intermediate term we need to concentrate on who can buy tickets.

Since San Diego County is a center of the biomedical research and technology, we have “Life Science and High Tech Night at the Opera.” There will be about 250 people from the high tech area at performances, some who have never been at the opera before. Some of these become subscribers. They have the income to act immediately.

We are working to get friends to bring friends who can afford to buy tickets. We will continue to have a student night at the opera, that brings in about 10,000 people a year. I would love to have the money to do another performance just for young people, but it is a dangerous time for the survival for American companies.

[Below: Dame Josephine Barstow as Kabinicha (2003) in Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Wm: You are a skeptic as to the likelihood that high definition movies of live opera performances will bring large numbers of new people into the opera houses.

IC: Well, they are truly brilliantly done. They have their place, but the bottom line is that in the HD movie theater you are seeing the movie, one that’s in your face with close-ups.  The film director has decided what you should look at. You have lost visual choice.

In an opera house the experience is totally different. You’re immersed in the action. You decide whether you want to watch this singer, or the chorus, or the scenery.

It’s only theory that persons who buy those $15 tickets, who are not opera-goers anyway, are then going to go buy a $200 ticket to see if the experience is different. There are no statistics that it is beneficial for opera companies.

If anything, I suspect we lose some of our patrons to the HD theaters. The movie theater has conveniences that you don’t get in the opera house. You can come in shorts. You can eat popcorn and wander in and out at will.

Wm: I’ve commented that I find that, of all the audiences in the opera houses all over the world that I come across, that the San Diego Opera audiences seem to be the best-dressed for the regular performances, at least for the Saturday night series that I usually attend. Do you have a thought about that?

IC: Personally, I am envious of the live theater companies where you know you don’t have to be decked out in the audience. I’m always a bit embarrassed when I go to the theaters here in town wearing a suit.

But many of the ladies like to wear fashion to the opera and many of their men are in tuxes. I could see that it might be a put-off to some people.

Wm: I’ve found, even in some big cities, that it’s unusual, except on the season opening nights, for men to wear formal wear. Those who do seem embarrassed, as if they didn’t get a memo on the dress code. It’s different in San Diego. There are lots of tuxes. I’ve come to the conclusion that San Diegans actually enjoy dressing up for the opera.

[Below: Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II (2004) in Verdi’s “Don Carlo”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


IC: I hadn’t thought of it in that way. Yet, whenever we have a student night on the program, I’m amazed that the young ladies turn up in prom dresses.

It does seem that opera here is considered a special event where you dress up, but I do like to see the guys in suits.

Wm: Is there a question that you wish I had asked you, and, if so, what would have been your answer?

IC: Oh yes, I hinted at it earlier. The question would be “When am I retiring?” The answer is that I have no plans to do that. I’m healthy at the moment. I enjoy what I’m doing and the board is supportive.

I’ve been at the San Diego Opera for the greater part of the 46 years that I’ve been in the business. My staff is superb. To be able to ask persons of the caliber to come here to work, and to get them here is very rewarding.

Once Opera Australia’s search committee interviewed me for a position there. I knew that at Opera Australia they limit the number of foreigners who can work with the company.

I asked if I would have to operate the company with that restriction. When the answer was affirmative, my response was that it is too limiting. In San Diego, I’ve never had a problem in hiring a foreigner.

I’m committed here. There is no reason to leave, no dissatisfaction at all. My elder son Benjamin is going off to Cornell University in Manhattan to work for a PhD in neurological science. David, the younger one, is going to USC law school. This is my home. I’m not leaving.


For a previous interview, see: An Interview with San Diego Opera’s Ian Campbell, Part I and Interview with San Diego Opera’s Ian Campbell, Part II.


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