The 30th Anniversary Interview with San Diego Opera’s Ian Campbell – Part 1

Note from William: In observance of the 30th anniversary of Ian Campbell’s appointment as General Director of the San Diego Opera, I scheduled the following conversation with him:

Wm: Thirty years ago you took over management of the 18-year old San Diego Opera, known for an ambitious repertory but with obvious financial problems. Over three decades you have built it into one of the United States’ leading and most successful regional opera companies. What were your objectives when you assumed the general director position? Have those objectives been accomplished? 

[Below: San Diego Opera General Director Ian Campbell, resized image, based on a  J. Katarzyna Woronowicz photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]


IC: In 1983, the San Diego Opera already had a great reputation for its innovations, including mounting neglected opera and some world premieres. My major concern was the cost to the company of offering a festival of Verdi operas each summer.

Wm: Having an American opera company presenting a summer festival in which all of Verdi’s works would be performed over time seemed like a good idea. Why didn’t it work out?

IC: The Verdi Festival had both negative financial and artistic consequences. From an artistic standpoint, it effectively meant that Verdi operas were not being performed during the main season. But a successful opera company has to have Verdi well-represented in its subscription series.

Financially, the Verdi Festival was unsuccessful as well. Summer in San Diego is not a time to spend indoors. The Festival never sold enough tickets to sustain it.

Wm: Some critics have objected to American opera company repertories that they regard as too conservative. Yet, over the years you have maintained the adventuresome repertory upon which San Diego Opera’s early reputation was built.

IC: Another objective was to keep the repertoire diverse. It’s true that some people will skim over an opera company’s offerings for a season and dismiss the repertory as too “traditional”. But I believe that the fairest way to judge a company of our size is to consider its repertory over five-year intervals.

We continued with the idea of doing new and different things. In my first few years we had company premieres of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” and Verdi’s earliest opera, “Oberto”.

[Below: Erich Parce (left) is Wade and Sheryl Woods (right) is Celia Townsend in Carlisle Floyd’s opera, “The Passion of Jonathan Wade”, edited image, based on a Pablo Mason photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Since then, we have hosted the world premiere of Myron Fink’s opera “The Conquistador”. Other contemporary operas included Carlisle Floyd’s “The Passion of Jonathan Wade”, “Of Mice and Men” and “Cold Sassy Tree” and Tobias Picker’s “Therese Raquin”.

Even those works that are established elsewhere, such as Mozart’s “Idomeneo” or Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova”, may be thought of as a world premiere for those living in a region where the works have never been performed previously.

We also did our first performances of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugen Onegin” in 1986, followed by Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites”, Barber’s “Vanessa”, and Handel’s “Julius Caesar” and “Ariodante”.

We mounted rarely performed Benjamin Britten operas “Albert Herring” and “Rape of Lucretia”. In 1994 we premiered “Rappacini’s Daughter”, the first opera by a Mexican composer performed in the United States.

[Below: John Conklin’s sets for the 1994 American premiere of Catan’s “Rappacini’s Daughter” with, bottom right, Encanarcion Vazquez as Beatriz and Francesco de la Mora as Giovanni; edited image, based on a David Siccardi photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Encarnaci?n V?squez (Beatriz) and Fernando de la Mora (Giovanni) in Daniel Catan's RAPPCCINI'S DAUGHTER.<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /> U.S. Premiere, San Diego Opera, 1994.</p><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /> <p>Set design by John Conklin.</p><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /> <p>Please credit San Diego Opera and Dave Siccardi.

Wm: In my interviews with operatic artists, it is clear that the San Diego Opera is an attractive venue for many international rank singers. In recent years this has become especially evident. Are you finding that the San Diego Opera’s favorable reputation among major artists, and perhaps the fact your season is located in an attractive, sunbelt city in the early months of the year, makes it easier for you to bring first rank artists to San Diego?

IC:  Perhaps if you are in Hamburg or Berlin in two feet of snow, coming to San Diego in January is an attraction, but artists can find good weather during wintertime in lots of places, so I wouldn’t consider that the reason artists like it here.

I believe it is the artistic side that attracts them most. I said at my first “job interview” that I wanted San Diego Opera to become a “singer’s company”, where artists would be comfortable.

Artists are happy to come here. They take the risk. The international stars come to San Diego for a variety of reasons, even though they lose money when they come here.

When Ferruccio Furlanetto sings at the New York Met, he would do eight to ten performances. Piotr Beczala could pick up twice the number of fees if he performed in Europe during a time that he commits to being in San Diego for rehearsals and performances. So coming here has a cost associated with it.

Artists know the company will do well by them and they like the staff. As an example, Conductor Daniele Callegari, who just finished conducting Verdi’s “Aida” here, told me he had never been so comfortable in a company.

It goes all the way through to people who are not even full time employees like wig and stage crew. I’ve never approached an artist about performing here and had the artist say “No I’m not interested”. Some will have scheduling conflicts, but most of the artists we invite do come.

They all talk to each other. For example, I invited Anke Vondung, who will be our Dulcinea with Furlanetto in our revival of Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” next season, to sing Octavian in Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” in 2011.

[Below: Anke Vondung as the Count OcuFtavian (right) presents a silver rose to Sophie (Patrizia Ciofi, left) in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Vondung said she would come, on one condition, and mentioned the beach house that can be rented for artists. She had heard about it from Reinhard Hagen. She said that she wanted that house during her period here. It was not available but she came anyway.

Wm: During your tenure, San Diego Opera has been closely associated with the Italian basso Ferruccio Furlanetto.

IC: Ferruccio is a supreme example of an artist who comes here because he likes the company.  I’ve seen articles that suggest he that Furlanetto chooses to come to San Diego because he likes the nearby golf courses.

But he has access to the world’s great courses, including St Andrews in Scotland. His appearances here have nothing to do with golf.

Since he sang the title role in Verdi’s first opera “Oberto” in 1985, we have given Ferruccio his first American King Philip in Verdi’s “Don Carlo”, the title roles in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” and  Massenet’s “Don Quixote”, and Thomas Becket in Pizzetti’s “Murder in the Cathedral”. We are talking about his return to San Diego Opera in 2016 or 2017.

Wm: Your friendship with Furlanetto to San Diego Opera was most evident in San Diego Opera’s new production of Pizzetti’s 1958 opera “Murder in the Cathedral”, which proved to be an artistic triumph, in which Furlanetto starred and which you directed. Now that we are a couple a weeks past the final performance, what are your thoughts about your company’s production, Furlanetto’s performance, and the future of this opera and this production in the North America?

IC: I would love to see the production done elsewhere in the U. S. The opera is so good and powerful.

If companies could cast Furlanetto he would be the best person I could imagine in that role. He is intelligent, responsive, and not afraid to do things differently.

At the end of the first act, in which his impending martyrdom is presented as a crucifixion scene, he had never done anything like that. But he knew it would work.

[Below: Ferruccio Furlanetto as Thomas Becket in Pizzetti’s “Murder in the Cathedral”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


We staged the second act sermon as Becket administering communion. It’s the only chance in the opera to show him as an acting priest – a compassionate man administering the rite of communion. He had never considered that before.

He now believes it is something that should be done every time. He’s a real artist. I don’t know when you we will hear his like again.

Wm: I was very impressed at the care that you took in casting each of the roles in the Pizzetti opera. It was an impressive group of major artists singing the three priests and the four tempters and knights.

IC: Absolutely. I was determined to get the best artist possible for each of the roles. Some companies would have relied on their Young Artists’ program for these smaller parts, but I wanted an experienced artist in every single role. It worked beautifully.

Wm: As a leader of Opera America, you have had the responsibility for assessing the state of opera throughout the nation. How would you characterize the differences between the national state of opera in 1983 and in 2013? What worries you and what gives you hope?

IC: I believe that the world of opera is in crisis. I think between 1983 and 2013 we have had an explosion in the number of opera companies, with many new ones coming into being.

We’ve lost some of those companies and each loss is a calamity for its local community. When an opera company has to close down because of financial problems, it is unlikely that that company can be revived.

Wm: Would you characterize the crisis as a lack of interest in operatic performance?

IC: No, the problem is not demand for live operatic performance. The desire to hear opera in live performance is very great. It is not a lack of interest in opera or even of education about it. If the public can afford the prices, they will come and enjoy the show.

In San Diego, as in other cities, whenever we’ve done some special, such as offering tickets for $29 each on the 29th of February, 2012, the demand has been overwhelming.

[Below: Patricia Racette as Love Simpson in Floyd’s “Cold Sassy Tree”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photgraph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Wm: Then what do you believe has caused this crisis?

IC: The crisis is the result of not having sufficient revenues to cover the costs of mounting live performances.

Live opera performance is so expensive that to produce it with the revenues from ticket sales is impossible. It requires large subsidies, which in the United States means donations from corporations, non-profit organizations and individuals.

Donations have dropped off across the United States. This leads to higher ticket prices, and that creates a real problem.  If we had four times the current contributions, we could cut ticket prices in half.

Wm: Do you believe that the drop-off in contributions is a temporary result of the economic crash or is this a longer-term problem?

IC: The loss of contributions has caused several opera companies to have to live on lines of credit. They have to borrow money to pay their bills.

When we had all of those economic crashes in 2008 and 2009, a lot of corporations and foundations and individuals stopped their contributions. In San Diego we lost $2 million in annual gifts from corporate and foundation donors which have not returned.

Some of those gifts were redirected to health and human services programs, since they seemed a higher immediate priority than giving money to an opera company.

But when money is diverted to other causes, even after the donor has recovered economically, it is no guarantee that the gifts to the opera company will be restored. Even contributions in the range of $500 may be permanently lost to some other use. Even a multimillionaire might be financially pressed.

The loyalty of donors is an increasing problem. We need to take greater interest in encouraging the donors in a community to regard their opera company as an institution that must be preserved.

The financial state of opera may recover eventually, but I think it will take longer than many of my colleagues think.

[In Part 2 of this interview, in which Ian Campbell continues his assessment of the state of live operatic performance, see: The 30th Anniversary Interview with San Diego Opera’s Ian Campbell – Part 2.]