San Diego Opera Looks to Civic Responsibility for Growth

It’s not every year that San Diego Opera experiences a rebirth and also welcomes a new general director. Yet that precisely is what the company will celebrate on April 18 with their 50th anniversary Gala Concert at Copley Symphony Hall: rejuvenation, reestablishment of their prominence in the opera world, and reaffirmation of their avowed commitment to bring high quality performances to both established and new segments of the community.

Since its official reopening on the stage of the Civic Theatre on Jan. 24, 2015, SDO has adeptly demonstrated their ability to engage audiences in a meaningful way. The energy generated by new, youthful singers performing along with popular established ones, not to mention the infusion of new blood in management, have given the company a brand-new sheen. And the future looks ever brighter.

Soprano Isabel Leonard makes her Company debut as Arden Scott in the West Coast premiere of GREAT SCOTT (May, 2016).
Soprano Isabel Leonard makes her Company debut as Arden Scott in the West Coast premiere of GREAT SCOTT (May, 2016).

SDO’s newly minted General Director, former Gotham Chamber Opera Executive Director David Bennett, feels community engagement is key to the company’s developing and maintaining its presence as an artistic asset to the city. “Reaching a broader spectrum of the community than in the past, serving their needs, but not abandoning what was already done well, finding ways to engage the community for maximum impact – that’s the most important thing,” says Bennett. “The organizations that have been very successful are those that have dug really deep within the community.”

Philadelphia Opera General Director David Devan agrees. “Community engagement is more than putting artists behind a proscenium stage and winding them up and watching them go,” he says. “It’s also how a company can be interwoven into the fabric of a community.”

Devan, who played a strategic role in encouraging and helping SDO through their crisis of a year ago, adds, “It can’t come down from on high, you need to involve the board, artists, stagehands, the community at large – everybody.” He feels SDO should embrace “the full range of operatic experiences… from grand opera to chamber opera to partnerships in the community.”

The company’s remarkable journey over the past year made a deep impression on Bennett when he was approached about the new position. “The organizations that have been very successful have dug really deep within the community and found a way to have impact. Some of that has already happened in San Diego because the community has spoken so loudly in saying, ‘This Company is an asset we want to keep.’ Finding a way to develop the company in such a way that it builds on that energy and excitement and really taking advantage of that is both the challenge and the opportunity.”

San Diego Opera presents the West Coast premiere of GREAT SCOTT. May, 2016
San Diego Opera presents the West Coast premiere of GREAT SCOTT. May, 2016

Bennett, who officially assumes his new duties on June 15, has a clear idea of what he’d like to accomplish initially. “Rebuilding…making people feel confident about the health of the organization, but not abandoning the things people love about SDO. We are going to be doing traditional opera, but less of it,” he says. It’s also important, he feels, to grab hold of the initial surge of energy and excitement. “It has to be harnessed quickly because it can dissipate quickly. Those are all things we need to jump on immediately when I get there…to ascertain quickly and talk quickly with the community and learn what the community wants.”

Once that is established, he hopes to stabilize the company in a defined way, “finding a way to life size the organization so it can operate, do beautiful and artistic work, and grow new things.”

Bennett admits it will take a few years to find a working formula, but there’s room for innovation along with the tried and true. “Next season we’ll be looking a little bit like what we’ve been this season – some recitals, grand opera. The following season I imagine you’ll see a production of something new.” Nothing radical yet, but, he adds, “Another year down the road we might see what’s on the main stage of the theatre looking a little different in repertoire.”

“The company has a real opportunity to up their innovation game, something they might not have done before,” Devan says. “To survive and thrive, SDO must develop their artistic muscles, create elasticity, and more flexibility. If they can do all those things within a responsible business practice it’s going to be spectacular.”

Of utmost importance to Bennett, especially over the next five years, is to deepen SDO’s sense of belonging in the community. “Finding new ways and new things to produce with repertoire that means something to a part of community that hasn’t been reached before is a part of how you build community impact,” he says. Plus, “Exploring ways to be curious and investigating new things artistically that have benefit for the company…feeling like the community sees where the company is headed, toward stabilization and fiscal soundness…that we will have permanence for fifty or more years.”