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Last year was rough for the San Diego Opera. Now with a new chief, the company is on course to shake things up in the traditional art form. “By presenting opera in spaces that might be surprising, you have the potential to bring people to opera that haven’t attended before,” David Bennett tells us.
It would be a bit of an understatement to say last year was rough for the San Diego Opera.
That March, former general and artistic director Ian Campbell told Voice of San Diego that the long-standing organization, then in its 49th year, would be shuttering as a result of low revenue, and “losing to death” many of its strongest supporters. Several members of the Opera’s board of directors fought to keep the company going, before ousting Campbell and his ex-wife Ann Spira Campbell, who served as deputy director. Some major fundraising efforts and cost-cutting measures soon saved the Opera from an untimely demise, granting it new life in San Diego.
In the wake of that turmoil, the company went on the hunt for a new general director. That search took them clear across the country: David Bennett, former executive director of the Gotham Chamber Opera in New York, took the helm last month.
With major questions about the opera’s future still floating around, I pressed Bennett on where he sees the San Diego Opera going under his watch. He says he’s ready to shake things up in a way that will bring in new audiences, propel opera to surprising places and lead to exciting partnerships.
How do you feel about this new chapter in your career?
I feel extremely excited. There is a ton of creative energy here, and new leadership at many of the cultural institutions, so the possibilities for interesting partnerships exist in ways that, perhaps, didn’t a few years ago.
I’m also very much looking forward to producing large-scale opera at the Civic Theatre, something I wasn’t able to do in my position as executive director at Gotham Chamber Opera. So this feels like a perfect fit for me, at this stage in my professional life.
How’s the transition and move to San Diego been? I understand that you were still looking for a home not too long ago.
The transition has been very smooth. I’ve been given the great luxury of the use of a wonderful condo owned by a San Diego Opera board member as I search for housing. I’m getting close, and will probably have a home identified by the end of this week. And I’ve been spending a lot of time getting to know the staff and many Opera supporters, so I feel extremely welcomed.
What first drew you into working in the performing arts, specifically opera? Tell us a bit of your background.
I was born into a very musical family. My mother was a classically trained pianist and taught piano from our home, and one of my older brothers is a very successful jazz trumpeter, so music was in my life from a very young age. As a child, I studied piano, violin and trumpet, began singing and acting in high school and was bitten by the opera bug in college.
After college, I had a successful career as an opera singer and voice teacher for several years before deciding to pursue a dual master’s degree program in arts management, which brought me to New York and, eventually, to my position as executive director of Gotham Chamber Opera.
How does that influence or inform the way you’ll approach your new position here?
Regardless of the size or scale of the production, expressive singing should always be at the heart of any opera. “Expressive” can have a wide definition, and is certainly subjective, but telling a story through singing must always be paramount.
My experience as a singer and teacher of voice has informed my taste, but I’m also inherently a theatrical person, so opera as good theater is also critical.
What do you see as some of the challenges to overcome? You’re coming into the San Diego Opera after quite a bit of upheaval in the organization. How do you plan to approach your new position in light of that recent history?
There are certainly challenges ahead, but I honestly believe they are exceeded by opportunities. The community spoke out clearly that San Diego Opera was worth preserving, so that’s a wonderful place to begin.
We now have to find the right “fit” for the Opera and the all of the communities of San Diego that can be sustainable, engaging and of the highest artistic quality. That is a challenge, but an exciting one.
After nearly closing down, how do you plan to keep the San Diego Opera alive and well?
First, by finding the right budget size for the Opera that can be sustained in the short term and, hopefully, grown over time. In the previous fiscal year and the fiscal year closed last month, the Opera either balanced the budget or produced a surplus, importantly, without touching the remaining assets in the Kroc Production Reserve [a $10 million reserve fund donated to the Opera by Joan Kroc in 2003]. So we’ve proven that a season of opera can be produced at a high artistic level in San Diego without producing deficits or relying on dwindling reserves.
Second, by producing work that is relevant and meaningful to a wide swath of the population of San Diego and broadening our commitment to education, so we build deeper connections with new audiences.
One complaint we hear sometimes is that the Opera isn’t accessible. People have argued that the work presented isn’t modern enough to lure in new audiences, that it’s too stuffy and that little is done to freshen things up. Do you agree with that? If so, what will you do to change that?
What can fit under the definition of opera is wide. What people might be referring to as a lack of accessibility might be better termed a lack of relevance. If opera is only produced one way, you only serve the needs of one potential segment of the potential audience and ignore the potential audiences that might be engaged by something different.
What I hope to do is present a variety of experiences, some large, some less so; some in traditional theaters, some not; some that touch audiences because of their grandeur, and others, because of their intimacy. There is room for all but we have to find the mix that feels right for San Diego.
How can the Opera serve as a vehicle for building the city’s reputation as an arts and culture destination? When the Opera was under threat of closing, some people admitted they’d never seen a performance but felt it was important that this city have a large, nationally recognized opera company. How can you get the people who say they care about having an opera company to actually attend?
I think, most importantly … by creating a variety of experiences. Some will speak to certain audiences, while others will attract a different crowd. And by presenting opera in spaces that might be surprising, you have the potential to bring people to opera that haven’t attended before.
… The atmosphere for collaboration between cultural institutions here is full of potential now. Collaboration between different cultural groups, with potentially distinct audiences, help build awareness of the value of new experiences in the arts.
We’ve already seen the San Diego Opera stage some short, free street performances. Can we expect to see more of that on-the-ground outreach under your direction?
Absolutely. We had great success last season with opera on the Civic concourse and in our Opera Exposed series. I think we will see more of this, in more places throughout San Diego County.
Are there any plans or ideas you may have for outreach to underserved people or communities who are less likely to attend or be able to afford Opera performances?
We already provide meaningful incentives for students, active military and the aged to attend performances. We intend to grow these programs, as well as deepen our commitment to long-term educational residencies in underserved schools.
If you could do one big thing with the San Diego Opera, regardless of finances, rules, laws or any other hindrance, what would it be?
Build a much more robust endowment, that would spin off significant support for riskier artistic endeavors and ensure stability for the long term.