Keeping the Opera Alive in San Diego

San Diego Opera’s New Board President Reveals Exciting Future Plans



Graphic design provided by San Diego Opera

Provides by San Diego Opera

San Diego Opera’s wild ride from near-closure to rejuvenation and bright hope for the future is unique. Other companies have tried and failed in such efforts. How did this local miracle come about? Newly minted San Diego Opera Board President Carol Lazier in a joint interview with COO Keith Fisher provided some keen insights. 

Fisher, incidentally, is Lazier’s constant companion. “We’re joined at the hip,” Lazier said earnestly.

Regarding San Diego Opera’s travails and ultimate transformation, Lazier got serious. “I think all the stars were aligned,” said Lazier. “New York City Opera - they were going belly up for years and people were deaf to what was going on. Our board did not understand what was going on either, and things were so abrupt it galvanized both the community and the board into action.”

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Keith Fisher agreed. “I think what was underestimated at the point in time when the decision was made to close the company was the power of the people. There was clearly a lot of public outcry.”

That outcry started with the formation of the White Knights Committee, a group consisting mainly of employees who got the word out to the community via social media.

“They were like the new generation,” said Lazier. “They were making cookies with San Diego Opera on them. They were amazing.”

“And printing T-shirts, posters,” Keith Fisher added. “There was artwork everywhere. It was like ‘Occupy San Diego’ here.”

The White Knights helped promulgate the petition that generated over 20,000 signatures worldwide. But it was Lazier’s overwhelmingly generous gift of $1 million that set into motion an unprecedented crowdfunding campaign.

“It overwhelmed us, the level of support we got. The number of gifts,” said Keith Fisher. 

“And the variety. They came from every district in San Diego, and six different countries,” Lazier said.

Equally impressive was the fact that fifty percent of those contributors were new or lapsed donors, inspired by the company’s renewed purpose. 

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“There was a new awareness,” said Lazier. “People who’ve never even been to the opera donated because they just thought it was really important. We had ten-dollar donors, fifteen-dollar donors, anonymous donors; the whole gamut.”

“That’s the power of the people,” said Keith Fisher.

People who truly care about opera are a powerful force indeed. But the initial gift of San Diego’s “Opera Angel” was the catalyst.

“It’s kind of embarrassing. I mean it was a group effort,” said Lazier. “I’m the public face, I kind of got everybody started. But it wouldn’t have happened if I was the only one. Everybody came together in so many amazing ways.”

“There has been outpouring from all areas,” Keith Fisher added. “The unions standing up and speaking out, we’ve had certain public officials who have been very supportive. Todd Gloria, the Council President, and the City Council have been amazing advocates for us. People do care.”

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Keith Fisher

The initial March 19th decision to close the company reflected a mindset that did not portray an accurate picture of that unanticipated outpouring. The gritty SDO was not going to go away quietly. The story of their journey is a remarkable one.

“I can’t believe we’ve lived it,” said Keith Fisher.

“Don’t you feel like you’ve aged twenty years?” Lazier laughed, then said, “May 19th, the cloud lifted, and it was like, ‘Hallelujah.’”

Lazier’s passion for opera is well known. She and her husband, Jay Merritt, were actually married at the Civic Theatre, on the stage set for San Diego Opera’s production of Verdi’s A Masked Ball. Lazier reflected on the precipitous series of events that followed after the announcement to close the company was made.

“We hadn’t gone on a honeymoon because it was opera season and we had to stay and hear all the operas. Then four days later it was like, what happened? What hit us?” Lazier said.

One day later, the company had to perform Verdi’s challenging Requiem (which Lazier also underwrote) on the Civic Theatre stage. The entire company was in shock. World-renowned opera singer Ferruccio Furlanetto, a longtime fixture at San Diego Opera and much beloved here, was devastated. But reaction was instantaneous from the public at large and prominent players in the operatic sphere. New York City Opera showed solidarity on their Facebook page. Having suffered a similarly shattering situation, they were determined not to let San Diego Opera fail. Opera America put together a group of advisors, which included General Directors from companies in Dallas, Philadelphia and Fort Worth, who offered advice, support and inspiration. 

carol-lazier-saving-opera-san-diego Carol Lazier

“We had this core of wonderful people that shepherded us through the process,” said Lazier.

But in fact Lazier was the leader, the face of the movement to keep the company going: an amazing woman who was a source of inspiration to everyone.

“They kind of came out from the woodwork,” Lazier said, smiling modestly.

“Carol was the driving force, the moral compass,” said Fisher. “She just kept saying, ‘This can’t be right. You need to start thinking of ways, people. You can’t let this happen.’”

‘“Give us options,’” Lazier added.

Convincing people of that truth was not easy. But on April 17th, in tandem with a standing-room-only Town Hall meeting at Civic Plaza, a breakthrough occurred at the San Diego Opera Board meeting when members began walking out.

“We were like, ‘what do we do now?’” said Lazier, and added, laughing, “It was pretty chaotic. But wonderful chaos.”

“We had to question so many things up in the air,” Fisher said. “If the president walked out of the room, then who would take over? Of course it would be the executive vice president, but she walked out. And if it wasn’t the executive vice president? The vice president of finance had already resigned, and Carol was the secretary…”

Lazier laughed. “I was the last man standing.”

Did the upsurge of support from the community surprise her?

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“I wasn’t surprised there was a huge outpouring of emotion. I was amazed at how well it was turned into dollars to keep us going,” Lazier said. “I really thought halfway through, ‘What have we done?’ It felt so daunting. Then we opened that account and the money kept coming in and we were watching it and thought, ‘This is a miracle.’”

“When we set up that [crowdfunding] account, our CFO at the time and I were talking about how to get it up and working,” Keith Fisher said. “We had no idea what number to put out there. I said, ‘Maybe we could make it something really high, like a million.’ He thought I was nuts. It was kind of nice to have him proved wrong, because we came close to a million dollars.”

“That was like a week or ten days,” Lazier added. “But we still had two million to raise.”

“So next up was how to inspire more people to give,” said Keith Fisher.

Kevin Smith from Opera America spent a lot of time with company principals, sharing insights and advising them as to the wisdom of crowdfunding to set a goal and satisfy the board’s confidence that the company had enough operating cash for the next season. After Smith’s presentation at the April 17 board meeting, a discussion began that helped spur the spate of board resignations. The resolution to have a season passed by just a narrow margin.

“16-14. With two abstentions. It was really close,” Lazier said.

It came down to two conflicting groups: those who, like Lazier, believed the company should stay alive and keep its assets intact; and others who felt the best decision business-wise was to close, divest the debts, and reemerge as a brand-new company. 

According to Lazier, “It would have been six to ten years to start the company with no assets. You’ve lost your patrons, your staff, everything. And you’re starting from scratch. That didn’t make any sense. It just didn’t feel right.”

Plus there was no debt. The budgets were balanced.

“The former model as it existed was completely unsustainable,” Keith Fisher said, citing not only the magnitude of the high-end productions, but also the size of the staff and expense of their high-rent offices. “We should have had these conversations about changing the model ten years ago. I don’t want to come across as being critical, but we did the same thing year after year and never changed.”

“And we got the money from the same people year after year. No wonder they were tired,” added Lazier.

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It came down to a change in the opera’s business model to one of diversification. To a great extent, that involved community outreach by performing in venues other than the 3,000 seat Civic Theatre; offering diverse sectors of the public different types of “product” than the conventional Grand Opera, and promoting wider appeal, ideally to all the City Council districts of San Diego. In other words, moving forward into the 21st century. Was former General Director Ian Campbell still thinking in the 20th century?

“I never want to take away from what Ian has done in this community,” Fisher emphasized. “He is artistically brilliant and should be regarded as such. But I think how to affect change was going to be difficult [for him.] And it’s also fair to say that some of the big donors didn’t have an appetite for what that changed product would be. Case in point, if we did an opera in a warehouse in Barrio Logan.”

Fisher cited the example of a young soprano (recommended by new Artistic Advisor William Mason, former General Director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago), whose guest spot on Sesame Street was shown on YouTube. Her easily understood description of opera to the show’s characters was of a play where the words are sung in different languages. Other opera luminaries like Plácido Domingo and Beverly Sills have appeared on the perennial PBS show to spread the word about opera from a non-traditionalist perspective of theatre with words in a community setting. There’s no reason not to popularize such an art form.

Moving forward, then, how would Lazier and Fisher describe the heady feelings associated with the coming season of the emerging “New” San Diego Opera - challenging or frightening? 

“Both,” said Lazier. “On one hand, the world is your oyster, you can find cool things to do. On the other hand, will they work? So we’ll have some successes and some failures. There’s a lot of pressure.”

A major portion of that pressure will be borne by the person chosen as the new artistic director.

“Ironically, he or she would do the same things Ian did thirty years ago when he came here,” said Keith Fisher. “To excite, inspire and engage the community.”

Hopefully that engagement will spur audience attendance from forward-thinking individuals who will be intrigued by San Diego Opera’s innovations in opera, and will show their approval with donations. 

“We had several, very generous high-end donors who were supportive of Ian and his direction for many years, and have temporarily lost some of those individuals,” Fisher said. “But I think it provides a whole new opportunity for another crop of individuals to come out and support us.”

“A whole different group,” added Lazier.

Still, innovations involve belt tightening, staff reductions - some to part time positions - and ten percent reduced salaries across-the-board for the remaining staff. The process has been painful but productive: those reductions have amounted to $9 million in savings.

Lazier has nothing but praise for the San Diego Opera staff. “They’re unbelievable. A dedicated crew.”

That dedication extends to Lazier and Fisher: long, tough days, sometimes starting as early as four in the morning; Herculean effort, but definitely worthwhile and productive. How were they able to make needed changes for a viable new season? Opera America’s Kevin Smith also offered budget advice.

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“We discussed Tannhauser in concert version. With Wagner you’re limited in what you can do,” Lazier said. “We ended up with a Festival concert, with all these different singers. Highlights of opera favorites, a lot of arias.”

“It’s a great intro because it’s not a full stage performance,” said Fisher. 

“And tickets will be less expensive,” Lazier added. “The San Diego Symphony [whose prominent Music Director is Maestro Jahja Ling, and whose musicians also play the operas] has been really generous in donating Copley Symphony Hall. It’s wonderful.”

“We cannot underestimate the support we’ve received from our fellow arts organizations, and from some of the leaders of the organizations,” Fisher said.

Lazier and Fisher hope to work more closely with both organizations in coming seasons. A world-class opera needs a world-class symphony orchestra.

“We can’t exist without them,” said Keith Fisher.

Lazier agreed. “We’re not an island. The collaboration is important. You have to work together.”

The exciting new season features new young singers as well as established opera personalities. Opera star Stephanie Blythe, who performed in Verdi’s A Masked Ball and Requiem last season, has offered her popular Lincoln Center recital, “Stephanie meets Kate Smith,” a sure hit in a military town like San Diego, and a great opportunity for an audience to learn that an opera star can sing American classics.

“She demystifies the whole persona of the opera diva,” Fisher said of the spirited singer, who insists on equal billing for her accompanist.

“That’s definitely a new way of thinking.” Lazier added.

Young operatic duo Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello, who will present a recital of love duets, will take up the cause of cultivating opera as an art form accessible to the younger generation, thus helping to keep opera alive. But just as important for the immediate future is the search for a new Artistic Director. 

“We have to do some strategizing to figure out what we’re looking for. I hope within the next couple of months we’ll be able to put on an executive search to find a permanent one,” Lazier said, adding that current new artistic advisor William Mason is “a fine Mid-western human being. Flexible and willing to stay with us for six months. A nurturing and healing person, humble and unbelievably knowledgeable.”

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What is the biggest challenge in ensuring the company survives and thrives beyond 2015 or 2016?

“Keeping the excitement alive, growing a future audience, cultivating new community interest,” said Lazier. “Showing how cool opera is.”

“The board will be challenged by getting back the trust we’ve lost in some parts of the community, to steward the company beyond 2015,” Keith Fisher said.

Lazier agreed. “There needs to be a lot of healing. Everything’s in flux right now. We’re starting to refine it and figure out the direction. It’s about exploration.”

Watching these extraordinary people rise to the challenge since the initial closing announcement was made has been tremendously inspiring.

“We don’t really know how to describe the experience except we’re just living it,” said Keith Fisher.

“Moment by moment, day by day,” Lazier said. “Keith Fisher has been unbelievable. He knows the business inside and out. ‘What do we do now?’ ‘This, this, this and this.’ All this would have totally fallen apart without him.”

How would Lazier and Keith Fisher characterize San Diego Opera’s future, in a few words?

“Novel. Exciting,” said Lazier.

“Presenting new works and the classics,” Fisher added. “Bringing opera to all parts of the county. The possibilities are endless.”

And most of all, keeping opera alive. Lazier put it simply but effectively:

“We need an opera.”