In early April, U-T San Diego ran a series of letters on the plight of San Diego Opera, then on the verge of shuttering due to sagging ticket sales and declining patronage. The writers were loopy with opinions on what went wrong – the company's administration can't get its arms around the enormity of the troupe's internal difficulties; light opera (which the company refused to stage) might have worked; an independent audit of the company's finances is in order; the science and art of opera is dead in any event.
That last part yielded an edgy message from the guy who wrote the letter. “There is one bright spot,” he wrote: “We won't have to endure Nixon in China next year.”
As you know, the opera's fortunes have reversed to the extent that it's announced a 2015 season, and lo and behold, Nixon in China is on the bill. There's an irony in that that transcends the political flaps over dollars and cents and the fact that only 33 of the opera's 58 board members originally voted in March to shut it down (a statistic that never got fair play in the press).
I don't know anything about Nixon in China, except that it's gotten mixed reviews. Hell, I don't even know that much about opera, as live theater (a wholly different discipline) is my usual beat. But after nearly 20 years as a critic, I'd like to think I know something about what excites a patronage, what speaks to its mind, its objectives and its needs.
My experience leads me to cite Chicago – already the greatest theater city in America – as a case in point amid its thriving opera scene, the means to its success and, given the recent turmoil at San Diego Opera, how our reinvigorated company might accordingly cop a clue.
A recent National Endowment for the Arts report says that 2.1 percent of the population attended at least one opera in 2012, down from 3.2 percent ten years earlier. Nonprofit Quarterly magazine sees things differently in Chicago, reporting that ticket sales at its Lyric Opera are up 15 percent and that Chicago Opera Theater subscriptions have grown by 20 percent. Newer companies, the magazine said, home in on their stated missions, cultivating tastes for things like baroque and black productions and weathering peaks and valleys of public acceptance until their intents become clear.
Chicago opera appears to be staged in a climate of extreme due diligence, with the audience's capacity for empathy its target. One recent experiment, the magazine said, saw Chicago Opera Theater produce Ricky Ian Gordon's Orpheus and Euridice at a series of public swimming pools, the locale symbolizing the imaginary River Styx. Lyric also presented what's called the world's first mariachi opera. Local university programs are said to provide sources of fresh talent. "There's a real commitment [to Chicago opera],” Lyric general director Anthony Freud told Reuters, “which is an informed commitment, not simply an instinctive emotion.”
And that's at the heart of the matter. The sighs of relief at our company's reprieve must give way to highly serious, highly educated, highly independent study on San Diego's general demographic and its anticipated flux over the next many decades (such long-term approaches are designed to take economic interruptions into account). The patrons within that demographic are a reflection of the city's fabric, and the good performing arts company understands that that demographic is in a constant state of flux.
The permanent fix to San Diego Opera's troubles lies in an extraordinary measure of patience in tracking the demands of public taste and sentiment, which far transcend an administration's subjective choice of fare in the interest of temporary success. The opera as Americans know it has been around for about 450 years; a couple more decades won't hurt.
Martin Jones Westlin is editor of La Jolla Village News.