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Rooting for opera's survival

There’s not much worse in a crisis than an armchair critic shooting from the cheap seats, especially one second-guessing an arts organization producing work as complex, artistically demanding, and costly as San Diego Opera. Add to that mix, generous donors, many of them board members.

But on Tuesday I received a Survey Monkey email asking for feedback because I am a former subscriber. I jumped the Ghost Ship years ago for a season subscription to Santa Fe Opera, with its stunning desert opera house, innovative programing and colorful, diverse audience. So, for what its worth, here is the requested feedback, albeit from the bleachers.

In short, San Diego Opera’s public relations efforts of late are a confounding disaster of mixed messages, reputation damaging revelations, and “Hail Mary” pleas for money and subscribers, depressingly delivered before what should have been a celebratory 50th Anniversary 2015 season.

The emailed survey arrived one day after The New York Times published the opera’s obituary. This followed several weeks of press about directors, citing waning audience interest among other things, throwing in the towel. Blaming the customer is not a good messaging start.

The email survey presumed that I knew that a “special committee” was formed to look at options. Had not. The next day, a sketchy description of a committee was revealed in a U-T report, apparently one with a promising rescue plan. At the same time, other leakers and spokespeople tell the press that the fat lady has already sung.

The info ooze makes Malaysia seem transparent and consistent.

The survey wanted to know if I would return as a subscriber and consider contributing. I clicked “maybe,” which is a step up from the “never,” a result of having our top priced subscription loyalty rewarded with consignment to the Civic Theatre acoustic dead zone. For anyone interested, side front-ish.

As a world-class company, San Diego Opera deserved a modern performing arts venue, preferably on the bay like Sydney, but as I and Mike Stepner wrote in a San Diego Transcript op-ed in 1998, the old library site, publicly owned, would do fine. Alas, the Town (mostly) Fathers preferred to pursue a football palace and build a new library.

I, like thousands of others, answered the survey because I cannot fathom our city without one of its nationally admired cultural institutions — the same impulse that had me rooting for the San Diego Symphony to rise from real bankruptcy ashes (by accounts, SD Opera is not insolvent). My daughter has a lifelong love for opera thanks to them. I fondly remember smashing productions like the Hockney set for a grand Turandot.

But, if the board of directors is not committed to the institution, civic leaders have no enthusiasm for building a world-class performing arts venue so it can thrive, and fundraising efforts focus on elite high-end donors, leaving a precariously small support base, why should the average citizen pony up or even care?

Now the public is witness to more board drama: a tumultuous Thursday meeting straight out of “Aida” — tears, wailing and walkouts, with a new board president emerging, presumably after a coup by those who want to save San Diego Opera from itself.

So, after talking to some nonprofit executives, folks who sadly never saw San Diego Opera, and former subscribers, here is my feedback as requested:

Give the new “reform” board chair and members a chance to call the shots — at least they have a rescue plan instead of a ditch and run strategy.

Look no further than SD Symphony for exciting marketing outreach and quality programming that works — musician ensembles are ubiquitous at community events throughout the county

Profoundly thank Ian Campbell for building a great institution, and send him off in favor of an innovative, independent and enthusiastic artistic director who answers to the board, not vice versa. A succession plan wouldn’t hurt.

Shed the “elitist” approach to fundraising — the first Obama campaign demonstrated the power of the small donor. Acorns can sprout big trees.

And so from the cheap seats: if San Diego Opera is worth our support, which should be obvious, consider transparency, consistency and good old boosterism.

Ross is a San Diego based writer and fine art photographer.

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