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Campbell Has Opera Singing A Different Financial Tune


San Diego Opera general director Ian Campbell's beaming countenance is due to more than the recent birth of his first child. The opera company he has headed since July, 1983, has finally turned the corner, firmly re-establishing its local following and erasing its debt.

For the past two seasons, the international series at Civic Theatre has drawn houses that are about 93% full, compared to average attendance of 73% during Campbell's first season in San Diego. "That was the bottom of a four-year depression in opera attendance here," Campbell said. "By the 30th of June, we will have balanced our budget for this year. And we expect to have no accumulated deficit."

Putting the local company back on its feet, however, has not been painless. It has meant shrinking the Civic Theatre international series from six operas per season to four and eliminating the summer Verdi Festival inaugurated by Campbell's predecessor, Tito Capobianco.

Campbell now has been forced to terminate his own series of chamber operas at the Old Globe Theatre. The double bill of Menotti's "The Telephone" and "The Medium," which closed May 17 in Balboa Park, turned out to be the innovative series' swan song.

According to Campbell, eliminating the chamber opera series was an economic decision, pure and simple.

"It was a disappointing decision, but a practical one. I believe in chamber opera--I think it's a very important part of repertoire," he said. San Diego audiences, however, did not share Campbell's enthusiasm for such exotic fare.

"We had two great artistic successes, but they had no impact on the public. It was appreciated only by a small coterie," he said.

Although Campbell was not surprised by the small audiences for last year's Old Globe offering, "The Lighthouse," a demanding contemporary piece by English composer Peter Maxwell Davies, he was somewhat taken aback when the more accessible Menotti operas, which were directed by the composer himself, drew no larger crowds.

"San Diego audiences want to come to what they know," Campbell explained. "We found with 'The Medium' and 'The Telephone' that it's not something they know. It didn't matter that the composer himself arrived--it didn't sell! If we did something like 'Edgar' (Puccini's rarely staged second opera), and Puccini came back from the dead to direct it, not one person would come, because they don't know the piece."

Campbell has cut his losses with equanimity and without bitterness. Unlike Capobianco, who was so attached to the Verdi Festival that he left San Diego Opera rather than see his pet project curtailed by a cost-conscious board, Campbell has been attached solely to the solvency and stability of the company.

"When I came, I was given a five-year contract," he said. "My one obligation was to restore the audience, which I have done."

The Australian-born director stressed that he did not consider pruning the number of San Diego Opera productions as a kind of retrenchment.

"We are an opera company consolidating, living to fight another day," he said. "If we had continued on the path we were on (when Capobianco left in 1983), we would not be here today. Eight opera productions per year were bound to incur deficits, and the company was not raising enough money on a reliable fund-raising base to keep going."

Campbell discreetly alluded to the plight of the San Diego Symphony, which expanded itself into insolvency and finally into dissolution.

In the wake of the symphony debacle, Campbell has found raising money for the opera to be particularly difficult.

"Many business people gave money to save the symphony. But those who had never before given to the arts, who were caught up in the excitement and urgency of it, thought their contributions would save and stabilize the organization. Within months, they believed, their money had gone down the drain," he said.

When Campbell turns up on the doorsteps of these business leaders, the first thing he hears is, "I got burned!"

Campbell said that although no one has come out and said, "You arts administrators lie," that's the unmistakable message he gets. But donors who have supported the opera do not display the same cynicism.

In his four years at the helm of San Diego Opera, Campbell has become adept at dealing with audience dissatisfaction. "It's absolutely amazing how happy I've made people by being truthful," he said. Recently, a patron took Campbell aside to express displeasure over last fall's production of Bellini's "Norma."

"I thought 'Norma' was the worst thing you've ever done," the patron solemnly intoned. Campbell replied, without the slightest hesitation, "I was ashamed of it, too!"

"People are not used to an opera director admitting that they make mistakes," he said. "We do take risks that sometimes don't pay off. There are, however, certain ingredients in that 'Norma' production that will not be repeated."

This fall, San Diego Opera will inaugurate a new educational program, a resident opera ensemble that will bring opera into the schools. "We will have six young, semi-professional singers in residence," he said. "We're bringing them in from New York and San Francisco--not just using what's available locally. They'll do an abridged 'The Barber of Seville,' as well as programs about the lives of Mozart and Puccini."

If such programs sound conservative and remote from avant-garde innovation, it doesn't faze Campbell. He knows his overall programming for the company has been dismissed by some as too conservative.

"I'm starting to like the word 'conservative' with regard to the opera," he said, "because it comes from a root that means conserving your resourses. It really doesn't mean keeping your head in the sand."

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