For its 50th season, the San Diego Opera featured the classical opera, Don Giovanni. By the end of the performance, Don Giovanni dies. After nearly facing the same fate in spring of 2014, the opera is reborn and ready for its encore.
Taking the final bow
When news broke in March of last year that the San Diego Opera was planning to close its doors, community members and San Diego Opera performers were devastated. Vocalists from the opera and members of the community came together to mourn.
Ashraf Sewailam, who played Leporello in the opera’s production of Don Giovanni, sees the San Diego Opera as the crown jewel of San Diego. To him, the news was heartbreaking.
“We heard the news and ran to the restaurant where everyone would go during rehearsals, and everyone was there and crying,” he said. “It was like somebody died.”
San Diego Opera vocalist, Reinhard Hagen, didn’t understand how the opera could go from functioning fluidly to crashing and burning.
“I had terrible feelings because I couldn’t understand what happened,” Hagen said.
At the time, the opera was led by Ian Campbell, who was the director for 31 years. Hagen said some pointed fingers at Campbell for closing the opera, but he just felt bad.
“It’s really sad what happened, but (Campbell) did 31 years here and took this opera to a world class level,” Hagen said.
On the other hand, when the opera did announce its closing, Sewailam said he witnessed outreach and support from all types of people throughout the community.
“What really surprised me is that people who didn’t have anything to do with opera felt that it is the backbone of San Diego, and they took it back,” Sewailam said.
Saving the opera
Members from across the San Diego Opera came together to make up the White Knight Committee to save the San Diego Opera. The group created an online petition, a twitter account and a Save San Diego Opera Facebook page.
Chris Stevens, founder and chairman of the White Knight Committee, said the committee did everything they could to get the word out, especially in the first three weeks following the bad news. They ended up getting 21,392 electronic signatures.
“I would say when I started the committee, I felt like we had a 2 percent chance of succeeding,” Stevens said.
Stevens, who also performs with the San Diego Opera, said the committee consisted of only 20 members, but it was enough to make a change.
Stevens said Campbell’s departure from the stage meant a brighter future for the opera.
“It went from a time of status quo and everything being the same to the excitement and wonder of what we’ll be doing,” Stevens said.
He refers to the resurrection of the San Diego Opera as “SDO 2.0.”
“We are really good at grand opera so it will be interesting to see where we go,” Stevens said. “Opera is suppose to be by the people for the people.”
A new scene
San Diego Opera Media Relations Director Edward Wilensky said one thing that’s changed since the rebirth of the San Diego Opera is that there are new groups of people coming to the performances, young and “hip” individuals in particular.
“People are asking me where the bathroom or the bar is at each show 20 to 30 times a night, which is how I know they’re new,” Wilensky said.
Mitchell Sterling, a middle-age man who attended the opera’s 50th Anniversary Concert with his wife and teenage daughter, said something similar about the atmosphere at the the performances.
“The crowd seems more energized and emotional,” Sterling said. “It’s not that people used to take it for granted, but there’s a different energy in the crowd.”
Sterling was accompanied by his wife, Deborah, and teenage daughter, Sydney — a clear testament to the younger crowd he described.
Sterling says he gives the San Diego Opera an A plus across the board.
“It’s a great company and San Diego is really, really lucky,” Sterling said.
San Diego Opera Vocalist, Reinhard Hagen and San Diego Opera President Carol Lazier explain what the opera means to them and what’s next for the San Diego Opera.
For the San Diego Opera, more change is still in store.
Going from a grand, traditional style of opera, the company will now take a more creative step to make its shows more affordable and attractive for all ages.
The San Diego Opera is hoping to take a similar approach to that of LoftOpera, a small-scale opera company based in Brooklyn, New York. LoftOpera operates on a smaller budget and has concerts in nontraditional settings, such as warehouses and photo studios. It also showcases young vocalists and starts its ticket prices at $30, all while catering food and beer throughout the shows.
“That’s absolutely the direction we want to go,” San Diego Opera President Carol Lazier said of LoftOpera.
Lazier said the opera is already looking into having future San Diego Opera performances at smaller venues, besides its most common performance hall, the San Diego Civic Theatre. Lazier envisions a venue where audience members can connect with performers that will also be accompanied by a cheaper ticket price.
“The Civic Theatre can be so hard to see when you’re sitting way up high,” Lazier said. “It’s hard to fill all those seats, you just don’t get those personal feelings.”
According to Lazier, there are multiple operas throughout the country that have gone belly up because they weren’t able to support themselves and change with the times. To her, as well as the rest of the company, the positive and exciting changes to the opera will be brought in by the new general director, David Bennett.
“You know, our crisis was a good thing,” Lazier said. “Otherwise I think we would have had a long, steady death.”