by Andrea Altona, President of AFM Local 325 (San Diego, CA)
A few months ago I read a blog by Mark Blackmon that really moved me. The title of his post was “How Closing San Diego Opera Makes Your Life Worse.” He wrote: So, what happens now?…. Lots of people who can ill afford it lose their jobs. San Diego loses one of California’s/America’s/the world’s cultural treasures. And an art form dies a little. And we’re all a little bit worse off because we’ve contracted the amount of space in our world that we are willing to allot to art. And, thus, we become less and less human. That’s the esoteric nth degree, but it makes it no less sad.
I wish I had Blackmon’s gift for words. He managed to express exactly how I feel anytime I hear of another arts organization closing its doors. The truth is, I often felt at a loss in recent months when searching for words powerful enough to convey the message: “Save San Diego Opera.” Fortunately, I had the opportunity to work with a team of talented and passionately inspired people who, together, managed to get the message out loud and clear.
When the news broke about the San Diego Opera (SDO) Board’s sudden decision to close down the opera, it sent shockwaves throughout our community. It seems no one (not even the opera’s own board) had any idea this was coming. SDO General Director Ian Campbell unilaterally decided that the opera had become too expensive and donations and audiences were dwindling, so the honorable thing to do would be to go out with dignity, rather than face cutting the budget or making any other attempts to revive the organization. He claimed publicly that scaling back would be “like watering down the beer” and that the audience would know the difference. This announcement came after the enviable record of 22 years of balanced budgets. On March 19, the board voted 33 to one to shut down the San Diego Opera after the last performance of its 49th season.
Within days, a team was mobilized to tackle the crisis head-on. The leaders of the six labor unions representing the employees of San Diego Opera, as well as many employees from every level within the company, set about creating a campaign to attract public support and pressure the SDO Board to reverse its decision to close. Dubbed “The White Knight Committee,” as a reply to Ian Campbell’s declaration that there was no white knight coming to save the SDO, our group had a very short time frame to accomplish just that. The SDO Board set the date to begin selling off the assets as April 14, just weeks after the initial announcement and the following day after the company’s last production of Don Quixote.
An online petition was created to urge the board to rescind their vote. The initial goal of collecting 10,000 signatures was quickly met. To date, more than 21,000 signatures are on record. Press releases were sent out and the story soon became national news. Stories were featured in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, and locally the story produced near daily news updates on television and radio, and in the newspaper. Protests were staged around town and “Save San Diego Opera” t-shirts and posters were distributed. A Facebook page, Twitter account, and website were established to keep supporters informed of news, progress, and ways to help.
T-shirts were printed up bearing a “Fight for San Diego Opera” logo and musicians wore them to rehearsals in a show of solidarity. Leaflets were handed out to patrons outside the Civic Theater before all performances, informing them of the impending shutdown and directing them to the website and petition. Inspirational videos were produced by SDO employees and even some from the stars of Don Quixote. These were loaded onto YouTube and the Facebook pages to rally support.
Nearly 60 choristers, committee members, musicians, and other SDO employees showed up at City Hall and serenaded City Council members in a fashion never before seen in those chambers. Support was enlisted from Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzales. The labor union representing SDO singers and choristers, the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), filed an unfair labor practice against SDO and sought an injunction to stop the sale of assets.
At the final curtain call of the last performance, the stage was flooded with hundreds of SDO employees and committee members in an emotional, and possibly last, goodbye to the audience. Above the stage the supertitles were also commandeered, and read; “We are not giving up. SaveSanDiegoOpera.org.” Cheers and a standing ovation from the audience seemingly went on forever. Afterwards, a candlelight vigil was held outside the theater where patrons and employees had a chance to connect.
A town hall meeting was then scheduled with Opera America President Marc Scorca and Opera Philadelphia General Director David Devan to present alternative models of opera that could result in lower cost productions and increased audiences. The meeting was attended by more than 600 people in person and online. The message was very timely and inspirational.
Slowly, board members started coming around, a few at a time, realizing that the previous vote had been hasty and options needed consideration. Board member Carol Lazier came forward with a million-dollar donation challenging the SDO to retool and rescue the 50th Anniversary Season. By the end of the town hall meeting, news was announced that the SDO Board meeting, which had been scheduled simultaneously, resulted in 12 board members, including Board President Karen Cohn, storming out and resigning. Ian and Ann Campbell (Ian’s ex-wife who also held a top executive position at SDO) reportedly left with those 12 supporters, but did not resign. Carol Lazier was named acting board president and the shutdown was extended.
With Lazier now in charge, and most of those board members who were staunchly behind Ian Campbell gone, the chances for reversing the original vote suddenly looked very good. In fact, a vote was scheduled for April 28 to allow all donors of more than $100 in the previous year to participate in the vote to rescind the shutdown. In the meantime, Ian and Ann Campbell were put on administrative leave, until the formal end of their association with the opera in May.
The next step was to raise money, fast. An online crowd funding campaign with the goal of raising $1 million before the vote to rescind closure was to take place. Within a week the goal had been achieved. With it came the announcement from another group of board members that an additional challenge grant of $500,000 would be matched if an additional $500,000 could be raised. Over 36 states and seven countries participated in the fund drive and all goals were met.
On May 19, a highly anticipated press conference by Board President Carol Lazier brought welcome news that the San Diego Opera was back in business. Exactly two months after the initial announcement to close, the “Save San Diego Opera” campaign had accomplished a small miracle.
It is astounding to think that so much activity took place in just a few short weeks, complete with all the drama one would expect from any self-respecting opera storyline. It is important to note the role of social media in this campaign; it would have been impossible to reach so many people so quickly without it. Also indispensable was the massive amount of favorable press coverage we received locally.
We had no budget, zero. Every aspect of the campaign was donated by people who were very passionate about preserving this great institution. Each person contributed what they could in terms of time and talent. To them, it was personal, not just a job.
I believe this campaign can be duplicated in other cities, so I hope this account of events is informative. The relationships I made with other labor leaders will continue and enable all of us to help each other in the future. The work of so many dedicated San Diego Opera supporters was truly inspiring. In this day and age of technology, a community can come together like never before to save a struggling arts institution. The planning of the 50th Anniversary Season of the San Diego Opera is now underway, and there will be much to celebrate. For now, we are all a little more human.