… I've Got Another Theory …

Stop fussing with ‘grand opera’.

The 19th century model of the enormo-opera, specifically Wagner but including things like Aida, is an anomaly in the history of the form. There are so many great operas from Monteverdi to Rossini and from the 20th century on that aren’t ‘grand’ but merely great. And cheaper to do. If the Oakland Opera Theater can do an unforgettably brilliant production of Ahknaten in a garage, opera can work in San Diego.

Maybe reconsider the whole board made up of donors and the executive director who makes six figures and spend that money on the music, the musicians, and the composer. The makers, in other words:

Another theory: Only New York, Paris, Berlin, and Milan deserve quality operas. For the rest of us, there’s the MOOC model to arts appreciation: via high-definition simulcasts, operas appear in cinemas across America, well within reach of the casual fan. But if you want to sit sixty rows away from someone’s real, live, quivering uvula, pay up and head to a major city. This is the essence of the argument floated by the San Diego Opera’s longtime general manager, Ian Campbell. He didn’t send people to the movie theaters or to New York outright, but he cited fundraising pressures and said grand opera can’t be done anymore, not in this city. “The demand for opera in this city isn’t high enough,” he told the Los Angeles Times. Operas are falling left and right. Orange County. Baltimore. Cleveland. Spokane. New York City. In San Diego, the opera was known to be well run, despite its closure; if even a competently managed opera can’t survive, can we trust our theaters and other arts venues to be viable in the long run? This is a chapter in a longer story, the same story that tells of the merging of language and classics departments into “humanities” departments, the adjunctification of academia, the focus on educational ROI over the intrinsic merits of studying, say, Faulkner. The question becomes not “how can we stop this,” but “which city will lose its opera next?” A headline in the Chicago Business Journal asked: “Could it happen in Chicago?”

A third section of the commentariat contends that San Diego was swindled. It deserves and desires an opera—as proved by the success of its grassroots fundraising and its citizens’ collective refusal to watch the opera go quietly—but greed has prevailed. After the company announced it was closing, reporters uncovered evidence that Campbell and his ex-wife, Ann Spira Campbell, a fundraiser, were receiving robust paychecks, bonuses, and contract terms, even during the economic downturn. Some say his pay and pension are a fair exchange for managing the company successfully for decades. Others see his flush contract as another nail in the coffin, and many people have blamed him in large part for the closure. Campbell refused to consider the possibility of carrying on the opera with diminished production values—the classic “claim artistic integrity to save your cushy retirement package” line. He’s stopped giving interviews, but I’m curious to hear his point of view.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.