Wednesday, July 8, 2015

David Bennett, Part 2: New Seasons, New Concepts

By Erica Miner

EM: You don’t strike me as a person who is easily daunted.

DB: Thanks [Laughs].

EM: There’s always a lot to do. Getting everything solidified is one piece of the puzzle, but then you’re constantly trying to push the envelope. And that’s always a work in progress.

DB: Absolutely. There are so many things we haven’t started - so many things I feel are imperative, the conversation we need to begin having. I had a meeting in New York City with the Consul General of Mexico, who introduced me to the Mexican Consul General here, a very powerful presence. There’s a lot of energy about co-producing and collaborating in many ways, between cultural leaders across the board. A cultural leaders group that meets once a month, and I’m interested in starting quickly meetings with other cultural groups. Trying to make the opera company more responsive to needs of all the communities in San Diego, for instance the military community. A couple of operas have been commissioned about soldiers returning from Iraq, the Middle East, dealing with post-traumatic stress. One is going to appear at Long Beach Opera next season, and one is premiering at Saratoga in New York next month. The possibility of bringing something like that here, if appropriate, is amazing.

EM: Amazing how many composers are bringing these subjects to the opera stage. 

DB: Reaching out to the Latino communities, African-American community, LGBT community, trying to find ways we can address all of those needs. So there’s a lot to be done still. But very exciting. There’s a chamber opera, Champion, that St. Louis Opera commissioned a couple of years ago that Washington National Opera is going to do in a couple of years, about an African-American boxer and his experience in the 50s and 60s, a true story, very interesting. It’s also LGBT because he was a gay closeted boxer, Spanish-American. Someone called him a Spanish derogatory name while his opponent was weighing in and he wound up killing him in the ring. He comes out of the closet later. A lot of racial and LGBT issues and also beautiful music, written by Terrence Blanchard, a wonderful jazz musician. 

EM: It doesn’t get much more controversial than that. 

DB: Right. But also they’re good operatic works, well written, intense, taut, well-constructed libretti, a lot of good dramaturgy, dealing with all those prime issues. I’ve already started a conversation with Fort Worth Opera and Arizona Opera, about commissioning a new opera about Frida Kahlo, which I would love to bring here. It’s smaller scale, three principal singers, a chorus of 16-20. Bringing secondary roles out of the chorus and featuring our own wonderful opera chorus is another thing we have to do here. I think we could have an actual concert with them. And aside from the Symphony, partnerships with a theatre company. I’ve had baby step conversations with La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe. The art museum is interested in finding ways to collaborate. It could be as simple as a Frida Kahlo opera and a Kahlo exhibit at the same time. Or it could be producing something at the museum, finding ways to enliven galleries with actual operas as opposed to doing them in a theatre space at a museum. I’d love to stage an opera in their sculpture garden courtyard. There have got to be a million pockets inside Balboa Park we haven’t even looked at. 

EM: The Old Globe is right there. 

DB: Exactly. That’s burned into my brain, producing a Shakespearean opera, probably a chamber opera, in the Old Globe. I would love to do that. Christopher Beach said, “What about the Salk Institute, it’s such a gorgeous location, the Symphony does a concert there every year, why not stage something there?” These all are opportunities for enlivening spaces with opera that haven’t happened yet. 

EM: Are you thinking about a collaboration with L.A. Opera? 

DB: We will have a partnership with them to some degree. They have already extended their generosity to help us in any way they can. Houston in effect gave Nixon in China to us with no cost - we just had to pay the shipping here and back. Don Giovanni was given to us by Cincinnati at no cost. The opera community overall is helping us stabilize. Speaking opportunities are coming up, this fall in the La Jolla Community Center distinguished lecture series, and the Rotary Club. Perhaps an event together with Martha that involves press, a round table talking about partnerships.

EM: Getting the word out. 

DB: Yes. Showing an evolving model of how a company that’s been doing only traditional opera reinvents itself - that’s where we’re going to be headed. There are some “best practice” examples. Philadelphia, Fort Worth Opera - companies that have tried and succeeded in reinventing themselves, basically facing the same issues we had here, declining sales, over- reliance on smaller and smaller pool of donors. Trying to find a way to broaden the experience and make the civic impact of the company bigger. We’re trying to make sure that community engagement increasingly is not just about engaging those that already come - though that’s an important part of it - but to get those people interested who are not yet opera attendees. We do that in our own community conversations. We’re having one with Nic (Reveles) in September. Sometimes we think all we need to do is tell people we’re doing Tosca and Butterfly and there’s nothing else we need to say because everybody knows them - not true. Even those who do, want to be reminded how fabulous those are. We can sometimes be guilty of saying, “We need to do all this work on Great Scott because it’s a new production,” when we actually need to make the case for why Tosca and Butterfly work and why they’re so engaging.

EM: People have asked me why you’re doing two Puccini operas this year.

DB: I don't know if there’s actually a reason, other than the fact that Puccini sells. They’re all new productions. We bought Tosca from Fort Worth for nothing, so we have a nice, traditional new Tosca that was almost given to us. We’re getting Montreal’s Butterfly, which is a beautiful traditional gorgeous production. The decision might have been that the writing on the wall was terrifying and we had to have some surefire bets. But it also is a little peculiar to do two Puccini in one year [Laughs].

EM: It’s a great opportunity for new singers to make their impact. 

DB: These are all people that were booked before I came into the picture. Latonia Moore has a huge career as Aida. I haven’t heard her sing Butterfly, so it should be interesting. The Tosca, Alexia Voulgaridou, is Greek, sings all over Europe, and I’ve listened to clips on line. I’m sure she’ll be great. If you look at her biography, she sang Butterfly everywhere, then she added Tosca to her rep and did it everywhere. So she’s does a role for a while - I think we’re in her Tosca era now - but she’s sung in major opera houses and gotten great reviews, so I’m sure she’ll be very compelling. Greer Grimsley is coming back as Scarpia. That should be fabulous. 

EM: He must be. Have you seen that Facebook page, “Greer Grimsley is an Opera God”? 

DB: [Laughs] He’s amazing. I saw him last summer in Santa Fe. The voice just kind of rolls out. It’s gorgeous. Healthy, virile, big sound. 

EM: It’s all so new and exciting, and I can’t wait for September. Thank you for spending so much time with me

DB: My pleasure.

Photos used by permission of: San Diego Opera
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

David Bennett Starts His SDO Journey, Part 1

By Erica Miner

On June 15, 2015, David Bennett officially assumed his post as San Diego Opera’s new General Director. The Vice-Chair of Opera America’s Board of Directors, a former performing baritone, comes to SDO directly from his astoundingly successful stint as Managing Director of New York City’s Gotham Chamber Opera. After only two weeks at the job, Bennett already had an abundance of experience to share. 

EM: How have you fared thus far in your first few weeks with the company? 

DB: A lot of the work has been preparing for the (June 29) Annual Membership meeting, making sure that clearly we were closing the fiscal year as soundly as possible, doing everything we could to continually raise money and solidify some gifts that were still outstanding. But also trying to clarify what we know we can communicate now - what’s definitive, versus what we think things are going to look like down the pike. 

EM: Concrete information instead of theoretical. 

DB: Exactly. We were able to tell people what next year looks like, which was already contracted and announced, and that the following year we’re going to be doing three productions in a split season. 

EM: Split in what way? 

DB: Instead of just having opera in the spring and symphony mostly in the fall, we will move our seasons around a bit. Starting the 2016-17 season, we will have an October main stage production, a January-February production, and late April production. Three main productions, as opposed to back-to-back. Those are already booked with the Civic Theatre and fit into the schedule of San Diego Symphony. It’s better for them, because they can spread out their Masterworks series. We will intersperse those with more than just recitals. We’re already in conversations with a Chamber Opera company that’s going to be on tour to present a production here. We’re trying to have a co-production with the Symphony that season, a concert opera at Copley Hall, produced together. Still figuring out what that business model will be, but we’d both sell it, share the expenses and the revenue - a true co-production. 

EM: A concert version of an opera on stage? 

DB: Staged to some extent, not standing and singing with stands and tails, but having some kind of interesting visual element, probably costumed. Something family friendly that might happen in December, which might be part of their holiday programming and creative enough that other orchestras might be interested in doing, so we might try to license it. 2016 is also the 100th anniversary of the San Diego Zoo. So we’re in conversations with Chicago Lyric Opera about a production they’ve commissioned that’s written for a zoo and meant to be performed in a zoo. We want to see if that’s how our zoo might want to celebrate that anniversary. 

EM: That is indeed creative. 

DB: In addition to three main stage productions at the Civic Theatre, we would do three other things. This year it’s recitals. We might do a chamber opera and a concert opera and a recital. That’s how things are going to look for a while. A split season, then as we solidify our financial position and stabilize a little more, perhaps adding a fourth production back, but if not then interspersing with a lot of other things, perhaps in the 2016-17 season a chamber opera at the Balboa, also run outs, possibly to North County or Palm Springs - trying to find ways to engage in needy neighborhoods, underserved populations. 

EM: Utilizing the relationship with the Symphony as much as possible. 

DB: Without a doubt. We’re in the process of renegotiating our contract in ways that are really favorable to both companies. We had a good meeting last week. Martha (Gilmer, SDS CEO) is a great ally, very smart and creative. Clearly it benefits both of us to be team players and think of ways we can creatively work together as producers. Just negotiating a contract to engage the Symphony as our orchestra in the pit is not as interesting to her as finding ways to actually collaborate as creative partners. I think in two more months we’ll have finalized a new contract with them.

EM: Sounds like you’ve done an awful lot in two weeks. 

DB: I have. I’ve met a lot of people, talked to a lot of Press, met with public officials and spoken to the Arts Commission, which along with the State Arts Council has increased its funding. The Mayor had passed a budget that significantly increased arts funding. We were approved for a much larger gift for next year, reinstated to our funding from the commission, our highest since 2009. A real vote of confidence. Starting this month I have individual meetings with commissioners, hopefully eventually meet the mayor. And of course a lot of meetings with opera staff. We have weekly all-staff meetings, department head meetings, production meetings, artistic planning meetings, bargaining meetings, development meetings. 

EM: You must have 36 hours in every day. 

DB: It’s been busy. The staff here is very good. I want to make sure I’m saying that to the public, that in absence of a General Director last year they did an amazing job. Keith (Fisher, COO) jumped in and led the company in a beautiful way. Keith has been working with the entire staff to find ways to build a creative environment for them. They have learned to feel a sense of empowerment in what they’re doing, and feel creatively engaged. Which is really nice. So I walked into an environment that had a lot of positive energy. That’s been great. People weren’t sitting around waiting for me - “We have to do nothing until we have a vision.” [Laughs] Clearly there was work being done. Voluntarily taking reductions, making the decision to move to this smaller suite of offices, making decisions about how to reduce the budget down to what we need. We announced at the meeting that we closed the books yesterday on a year that looks like we will have a surplus. And without touching a penny of the Kroc reserve fund. The argument was made before that there wasn’t a way to raise enough money during the course of a year to pay the operating expenses for that year. They had borrowed or filled their losses with a fund, that wonderful gift from Joan Kroc. With that gone was the impression we can’t have an opera company in San Diego. That’s been demonstrated not to be true. Finding the way to right size an opera company, appropriate for this community and sustained by donors is the challenge, but we’re closing the books on a year that shows it can be done.

EM: “Right size,” the perfect phrase. I remember you mentioned that in our previous interview  ( 

DB: Next year’s budget is almost identical to this year’s, so if we were able to do it last year - we did have some extraordinary gifts from people who wanted to save the company - I think we should be able to do it again this year. We do have one very expensive production, Great Scott, and some large obligations, one production in particular, but not nearly as expensive as our obligations with Great Scott

EM: A commission is always expensive. 

DB: Exactly. It’s going to be beautiful but there’s some complicated stagecraft, so it’s expensive. Commissioning, of course, carries its own set of expenses. But if we stay around the budget level I think we’ll have more opportunity to either add a fourth production back, or do more of the other things without significantly increasing our budget. We may even have an opportunity to save some money on production and perhaps reinstate some of the salaries we’ve reduced, which would be wonderful. 

EM: They deserve to be rewarded for their Herculean efforts. This endless energy they somehow managed to dredge up. I’m so impressed. Plus they found you. What’s not to love about that? 

DB: [Laughs]. 

EM: I read on the website about your current fundraising campaign for $2.1 million, “Stand for SD Opera,” which looked like it had reached around $1.7 million. 

DB: We’re trying to replicate in some ways what we did last year in that campaign - “We need to raise “x” number of dollars in this amount of time from whatever sources so we can move forward with confidence and say we can stay in business.” That included board gifts, city money to some extent, lots of gifts from individuals. Once the city budget has been formally approved, I think we can count on another $400,000 added to that, which I think will make us exceed that goal. We haven’t been able to make that announcement yet. So right now when you look at that thermometer it sits at a place that’s not as high as we’d hoped. But I think we’ll be able to say we’ve exceeded that goal. Carol (Lazier, board president) has given another million for next year, with another $250,000 gift from Darlene Shiley to support Great Scott

EM: They are both angels of the arts here in San Diego. 

DB: So a lot of terrific news. Altogether we’re in relatively good shape. We still have a lot of work to do, clearly, but I’m not daunted, which is a good way to begin.

Photos used by permission of: San Diego Opera
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]