Wednesday, July 8, 2015

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]

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