Widespread Surprise at San Diego Opera's Decision to Fold

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Last week’s revelation that San Diego Opera, the 10th largest opera company in the United States, plans to close its doors – an apparent victim of rising costs and shrinking audiences – appears to have caught many opera fans off guard.

The 49-year-old opera company had boasted balanced budgets for 28 consecutive years but, behind the scenes, its board of directors believed that the writing was on the wall. Among the indicators that have emerged:

  • Attendance has plunged about 15 percent since 2010, according to company data, with ticket revenue dropping about 8 percent.
  • Competition for donations was increasing while cash reserves were shrinking.
  • The company had essentially run through a $10 million gift left by Joan Kroc in 2003 and which had provided $1 million a season.

Charity Navigator, the watchdog group that tracks nonprofits, had given San Diego Opera a score of 42.08 out of 70, or two out of four stars, in 2012. Several comparable opera companies had ratings in the 50s and 60s. Its own data based on the Opera's tax returns showed a steady, four-year decline in revenue while an upswing in costs.

In an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Ian Campbell, the company's CEO and general and artistic director, expressed the apparent consensus within the company: that it was necessary to “go out with dignity, on a high note with heads held high,” rather than witness a prolonged downsizing and cutting back on quality.

Some observers weren't convinced. Los Angeles Times classical music critic Mark Swed deemed the decision rash, writing, “Who has ever heard of a major arts institution with a $15-million budget, one of the country's top 10 opera companies, simply throwing in the towel over a deficit of a couple million dollars and not fighting to the end because there is no dignity in that?”

Swed argues that the company’s board has simply run out of fundraising steam and could no longer respond to a changing environment for non-profits.

A petition aimed at convincing the company’s board “to reverse the decision and keep San Diego Opera alive” was posted online on Monday and has gathered more than 6,500 signatures by late Tuesday.

Others took to Twitter to voice their opinions:

 

The Los Angeles Times reports that Los Angeles Opera will now remain as the one opera company in Southern California. In 2008, Opera Pacific in Orange County shut down.