A letter circulating among members of the "White Knight Committee," a group that formed to help save the San Diego Opera, which voted in March to close the institution come April 29, indicates that board members and management knew the longtime arts organization was in serious trouble as early as the fall of 2013 and failed to successfully respond to the warnings.
Written by attorney and San Diego Opera board member Courtney Coyle (who couldn't be immediately reached for comment) and sent to both board members and non-board members, the Sept. 15, 2013, letter states that it was written at "a time of great uncertainty to our beloved Opera."
"Ticket sales and revenues are down the last several years," Coyle writes. "The Kroc fund, which has been used to maintain high artistic quality-and to balance the budget-will be depleted within a year."---
The full letter is included below, but, essentially, Coyle was sounding an alarm that seemingly went largely ignored by the San Diego Opera board and management staff.
"It is unlikely that the current paradigm will be able to lift us out given the new market realities," she warns.
The San Diego Opera did conduct a marketing research study last summer. It included an online survey completed by 388 opera patrons and indicated that it would result in a campaign to increase ticket sales.
CityBeat spoke with San Diego Opera staffers and longtime patrons and donors, especially members of the Advisory Directors, one of the most active leadership groups at the opera, and all said the results and recommendations that arose from the marketing study were completely ignored, and they blame the rigid vision and direction of Ian Campbell, San Diego Opera artistic and general director, and his now-ex wife, Ann Spira Campbell, the company's deputy director. There are also those who are concerned that the Campbells didn't do enough to keep the opera afloat, instead opting to close quickly in order to protect generous compensation packages.
"Why they didn't make more changes," said a member of the Advisory Directors who wanted to remain anonymous because the Campbells are considered personal friends, "you just really have to wonder."
CityBeat submitted a request to the opera's current crisis-communications team for specifics on what San Diego Opera did in response to declining revenue and ticket sales and asked specifically about the recommendations that arose from the marketing study. We received the following reply:
"The board spoke with major donors and many well-known philanthropists letting them know that the reserve funds would be depleted by 2014 and needed to be replenished (the bridge between earned and contributed revenue). In addition, numerous steps were taken to boost sales-everything from group sales, affinity nights at the Opera, "experience nights," travel zoo discounts, internet discounts, etc. The SD Opera's earned revenue is very high among national opera companies at 36-38%. The difference is the difference between earned (box office) and contributed."
At the board's meeting last Friday, members indicated that they would proceed with plans to close at the end of the month, but a special committee of six members was formed and tasked with exploring alternatives to shutting down. Headed by Carol Lazier, the board member who donated $1 million to the company earlier this month, the committee will present its findings at a board meeting tomorrow.
The committee is working on a reorganization plan that includes initiatives to trim the budget, revitalize the patron and donor base, increase marketing efforts and look for new venues for performances, Lazier told KPBS, which has been providing detailed coverage of the opera saga.
The White Knight Committee will also host a town-hall meeting at 4:30 p.m. tomorrow in the Copper Room at San Diego Civic Concourse and is asking people to register and join them in discussing "the future of San Diego Opera by looking at ways other cities have turned the corner' on financial difficulty with energy and success."
The group just released a letter that it sent to the opera's board. The letter, the full text of which is also included below, asks the board to "stop the sale of assets, revote to allow the company to stay open through 2015 and beyond and seek new leadership to lead us through these tough times just as Ian did for our company in 1983."
Courtney Ann Coyle's letter
Dear San Diego Opera Executive Committee, Strategic Planning Committee and Staff,
Below, please find a letter from me in response to Faye's email of September 4, 2013, soliciting input on the apparent proposal for the Executive Committee to assume strategic planning for our organization. It is not intended to be a committee report, but rather, reflects my personal views on the scope of action required to stabilize the company in both the short and long terms.
I respectfully ask that each of you read this letter and that it be made part of the meeting record for the upcoming Executive Committee meeting. I would also be happy to attend that meeting in person.
With best regards,
San Diego Opera Board Member
Strategic Planning Committee member
Dear Executive Committee,
I have been serving over the summer on the newly formed Opera Strategic Planning Committee. This Committee convened, had several meetings with several more scheduled, when its last meeting was requested to be postponed by opera leadership. I now understand through an email from Faye Wilson that opera leadership has apparently asked that strategic planning be taken into the Executive Committee and presumably that the Strategic Planning Committee be disbanded.
This proposed action comes at a time of great uncertainty to our beloved Opera. Our President resigned recently after just a few months. Ticket sales and revenues are down the last several years. The Kroc fund, which has been used to maintain high artistic quality - and to balance the budget - will be depleted within a year. It is unclear whether there are any major angel funders in the wings, and if there are, what such donors might require or ask of the Opera. Our Management Executives have apparently signed contracts, but succession planning is unclear.
Faye's email, apparently addressed to individual Committee members, asked for their individual thoughts to be summarized by her to the Executive Committee. With no disrespect to Faye, this makes me uncomfortable. Early on in our Committee work our Committee members agreed that our Chair would speak on behalf of the Committee. However, I understand Joe has been out of the country since Faye's email. He knows I might submit my thoughts directly. I therefore have copied them to the Strategic Planning Committee and Faye. I apologize for their relative brevity, but Faye's email asked for comments on an expedited basis.
While the Committee was still actively in the fact finding and information gathering stage, there appeared to be a consensus on the need for a dual-tracked approach to address the Opera's most critical needs: one track to meet immediate-term finances so that the show could go on, and two, a track of longer-term planning and structural change to ensure stability into the future. Without a shared vision and strategic plan, it may prove difficult to raise revenue in the short term from donors who don't see a plan for the future. In turn, two subcommittees were established: revenue and planning. My strong belief is that the Opera must perform both tracks without delay and that a strong Strategic Planning Committee, with outside professional support, would greatly assist in both regards, in part, because there is much work to be shared.
Another aspect that was discussed is the need for cultural change within both the Opera Board and Management. While this topic may make some uncomfortable, and is frankly rarely easy to discuss or quick to address, I believe it is critical to achieve both the short and longer term objectives. I believe the Company is in the situation it is in, not out of ill-intent. However, it is unlikely that the current paradigm will be able to lift us out given the new market realities.
A major aspect of this, is the need for the Board as a whole to play a more active role in the management and direction of the Company. This would include transparency and documentation of committee, executive, compensation and Board and Management succession planning actions as well as reintroducing the fiduciary responsibilities to the Board. Everyone needs to feel included. Without this, I remain deeply concerned that even if the short term financial objectives were achieved, that the long term stability of the company will not be secured and Board members will continue to lack the understanding of what the Opera truly needs and will continue to be underutilized in identifying and implementing successful solutions. Taking strategic planning into the Executive Committee runs counter to these realities.
The other side to this, is that Opera Management would benefit in having increased receptivity to new ideas, expanded outreach and more varied programming opportunities. I have been hearing this for some time now, long before the Committee convened. This does not mean that the Board interferes with artistic direction or daily management, but rather, that Management, in conjunction with the entire Board, develops a clear, robust vision for the company, which is informed by and shared with the larger San Diego Community. I am confident a statement of renewed vision, implemented by thoughtful and meaningful strategic planning, can secure the sustainable future we all desire. I am very concerned about the health and vitality of the company if such initiatives are curtailed or restricted.
It is my hope and belief that these comments will be strongly considered and taken in the manner intended: from a common love of the art form and with the desire to see opera continue in San Diego, unabated, and at the highest quality possible. I have enjoyed working with each of you in recent years and with our esteemed Opera Management and staff over the last two decades. I will do what is in my ability to continue to support the Opera moving forward.
In closing, I would ask that should the Strategic Planning Committee be disbanded, that special care be taken regarding the "outside" members of the Committee. Their energy, time and caring is genuinely appreciated; their guidance and input would have been important to securing the Opera in the broader community and should not be neglected in whatever direction opera leadership takes this effort.
Most Respectfully and with Kindest Regards,
Courtney Ann Coyle
San Diego Opera Board Member
Strategic Planning Committee Member
September 15, 2013
An Open Letter to the San Diego Opera Association Board of Directors from the White Knight Committee