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San Diego Opera Takes a Risk on a Risk-Taker

After hiring David Bennett for his willingness to test the waters with experimental shows, San Diego Opera is standing by its man amid charges of financial mismanagement at his last gig.

David Bennett was like a kid in a candy store.

On a tour of alternative venues in Barrio Logan last month, the new general director of the San Diego Opera surveyed the gritty brick and concrete bowels of Bread & Salt, a former bakery-turned-arts center in Logan Heights. Things like the rusty, old industrial stove still standing in one of the rooms excited him.

“‘Sweeney Todd’ would be great here, but there’s also ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ of course, where they throw the witch in the oven at the end,” he said. “An immersive ‘Hansel and Gretel’ would be pretty cool here.”

Bennett explored Bread & Salt’s cavernous rooms, at times clapping his hands to test the reverberation and sound quality (“It’s fairly flat but it has a little sparkle to it.”), pointing out columns that might block important sight lines, asking about the bathroom situation and otherwise gauging the warehouse-like space’s ability to host an opera.

“What I’m always interested in is looking for spaces that will illuminate a work in a way that it can’t be done in a theater,” he said.

Major constraints come with staging opera in places that don’t have lighting, seating and other necessities. But putting opera in a new context can also make for such an exciting performance that it’s often worth the hassle, he said.

For instance, Gotham Chamber Opera, where Bennett was executive director until he took his new post in June, staged Joseph Haydn’s “Il Mondo Della Luna,” which partially takes place on the moon, at the Haydn Planetarium. For “La Hija de Rappaccini,” which is set mainly in a garden, Gotham took it to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

By the end of touring Bread & Salt, Bennett said he already had something in mind for the space – “María de Buenos Aires,” a surrealist tango operita that follows a prostitute through her travails in the Buenos Aires underworld.

“I’ve always been dying to stage it in a smaller, grittier space because it’s a grittier story,” he said. “You probably wouldn’t look at this space and immediately say, ‘Hey, this is a place where I know opera is going to fit,’ right? Because if you think of opera as the experience of the Civic Theatre, it doesn’t seem to be congruent with this. But what I’m trying to explore is different ways we can experience opera.”

San Diego Opera isn’t going to stop doing traditional opera altogether, Bennett said. The scouting he’s doing is for more experimental shows that would be in addition to the three annual Civic Theatre shows the opera will be staging annually.

But an aging and dying-off audience was a factor in nearly closing the curtain for good on San Diego Opera last year. After making cuts, restructuring and raising millions through a crowd-funding campaign, the 50-year-old company chose a new leader who – unlike its former director, Ian Campbell, who preferred grand opera that spared no expense – is willing to take programming risks that appeal to a wider, younger audience.

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It turns out edgy programming choices aren’t the only risks the San Diego Opera is willing to take with its new leader.

At the start of October, Gotham Chamber Opera announced it would be closing. The opera’s board pointed fingers at Bennett for playing a part in keeping $500,000 of debt off the books.

“We thought we had a debt of exactly $116,758 – that’s what we were shown on our balance sheet in a board meeting held on May 12, 2015,” said Gotham founding board member Johnnie Moore Hawkins. “I remember it clearly. I will never forget that number at this point.”

That meeting was also when the board announced Bennett’s replacement, Edward Barnes. Barnes said it didn’t take him long to discover the invoices, debts to unions, theater fees and other financial obligations that had gone unpaid.

“The full magnitude of what was outstanding was not apparent at all and was not on the books, and that’s what surprised me and the board because it meant an enormous amount of money and that was on top of what needed to raise for the season,” Barnes said.

Both Barnes and Hawkins said only the executive director and the bookkeeper had full access to the company’s books. Bennett, whose signature is on the company’s most recent tax filings, has said in statements that he thinks the board didn’t understand financial reporting.

Gotham is small, so the extra $500,000 of debt meant the end for the experimental opera company that’s been operating for 15 years.

Finance-wise, Bennett’s on a much bigger stage now. Gotham’s annual budget was around $2 million; the San Diego Opera’s is $11 million. His salary at San Diego Opera is $200,000 plus bonuses, more than double what he made at Gotham.

Still, the San Diego Opera board has responded to the Gotham news with total support for Bennett.

“The board is incredibly happy with the work David has already performed for us and stands 100 percent with him,” wrote board president Carol Lazier in a statement.

Edward Wilensky, the opera’s director of public relations, was just as unwavering when I asked how an opera company that came so close to the brink of extinction could so confidently take such a big risk.

“I think both you and I know from our day in the Barrio that it is an exciting vision he wants to bring to the community,” Wilensky wrote in an email. “San Diego Opera has the staff resources, internal financial controls, and strong governance and oversight to prevent anything like what happened when the previous leadership left from ever happening again. So, no, it was not a risk but a bold opportunity. And based on David’s work so far, we’re incredibly pleased with our decision.”

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A former opera singer trained in traditional repertoire, Bennett said he still loves doing the big, showy, grand opera. But the near-death of San Diego Opera was a clear signal that expensive traditional opera couldn’t be the only thing it did.

The San Diego Opera board saw Bennett as the guy who could steer them in the right direction.

Nothing’s set yet, but Bennett said he’s bubbling with ideas. He’d love to see Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat” staged at the Salk Institute. He wants to talk to biotech giant Illumina, which has an amphitheater on its campus, about doing a recital there. He’s thinking of ways in which to engage San Diego’s military and Latino populations.

Staging more nimble shows that engage new communities could come with more financial payoffs than just saving money on production.

The goal of attracting a more diverse arts audience opens San Diego Opera to new funding opportunities as well. The Irvine Foundation, for example, has been giving out millions of dollars in grant money to organizations, specifically for reaching new audiences.

“I think there is still a sense in the overall community, there’s a little caution to see if we’re going to prove ourselves to be economically viable,” Bennett said. “I think that’s because there was so much of a story that was told that the opera couldn’t really exist anymore, you know, that the formula was broken and it needed to end. So I think we have a couple of years to really convince everyone. … If we do opera in these other ways, I think we can do it.”

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