In SDO State Of Mind

Dec 20, 2007 (Updated Mar 31, 2008)

The Bottom Line If you are in Southern California and enjoy classic music, there are great shows to catch at the SDO!

Yes, San Diego Has An Opera House, Too!

Established in 1950, the San Diego Opera is one of America's premiere opera companies with a talent for attracting both young promising singers and established international stars to light up its stage. It is a shame that a city as big as San Diego has such a small classical music fan-base that the company can only stage 5 opera per year (unlike the state-subsidized European opera houses, the American companies are at the mercy of their audience!). The current General Director & Artistic Director, Ian D. Campbell, has the Midas touch in putting together quality shows that are more than worth their ticket price, though. Going to the opera in San Diego is still rather expensive, but you get so much for your money!

SDO is a quirky company that likes to mix rarely performed gems along with the 'staple' opera in their short line-up. The staging is usually 'traditional' in style, however, so if you are one of those fans who are sick of the minimalistic/conceptual staging from Central Europe, you aren't likely to find any of that nonsense at San Diego Opera where the composer's story is told rather than the stage director's political twists or erotic fantasies.

This house is so audience friendly that you don't even have to write operatic stars to ask them to put you on the 'visitors' list in order to go and congratulate them back-stage after a show. If you are going as a group, they will even arrange a back-stage tour for you, aside from giving you some handsome discount coupons to dine at some of Gaslamp Quarters' finest restaurants (now that the opera singers aren't so 'plus-sized' anymore, we audience must fill that spot!).

All the staff (from the ticketing agents to the ushers to the directors) are very friendly and eager to help. When my telephone disconnected while I was on hold waiting for a staff to check the mailing status of my Le nozze di Figaro ticket last May, she actually called me right back before I could figured out what happened!

As it turned out, the ticket was apparently lost in the mail. Before the flustered me (this was the day before the performance!) could ask for a replacement, the gal had already fixed it to send a new one for me to pick up at 'Will Call' window the next day. The time-honored concepts of bureaucracy and hassle seem lost on these efficient folks... I was looking forward for some good grumbling, but I was totally foiled!!

Jan 26, 29, Feb 1, 3(m): Wagner: Tannhäuser
Gabor Ötvös conducting: Robert Gambill (Tannhäuser), Camilla Nylund (Elisabeth), Petra Lang (Venus), Russell Braun (Wolfram)

Feb 16, 19, 22 (8PM), 24(m): Donizetti: Mary, Queen of Scots
Edoardo Müller conducting: Angela Gilbert (Mary), Kate Aldrich (Elizabeth I), Richard Hagen (Talbot)

Mar 22, 25, 28 (8PM), 30(m), Apr 2: Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana & Leoncavallo: Pagliacci
Edoardo Müller conducting: Richard Leech (Turiddu), Carter Scott (Santuzza), José Cura (Canio), Elizabeth Futral (Nedda)

Apr 12, 15, 18 (8PM), 20(m), 23: Verdi: Aida
Valéry Ryvkin conducting: Indra Thomas (Aida), Mariana Pentcheva (Amneris), Carlo Ventre (Radames)

May 3, 6, 9 (8PM), 11(m): Bizet: The Pearl Fishers
Karen Keltner conducting: Ekaterina Siurina (Leila), Charles Castronovo (Nadir), Malcolm MacKenzie (Zurga)

*Performance usually begins at 7PM except for the Sunday 2PM Matinee (m).

So our season begins with a rather pretentious German opera about an amorous knight who ditches Venus for the beautiful (and infinitely more human) Elisabeth only to cause her downfall. This is followed by a most deliciously bel canto of Donizetti's three Tudor Queen opera. Then dramatic-extravaganza nights of verismo Italian double-header (tenors José Cura and Richard Leech are on the bill), and an exotically melodic Verdi's Egyptian opera. The season closes with Bizet's too obscure for its melodic virtues Asiatic opera (set in Sri Lanka). You can't ask for 5 more different opera from what this line up gives you!

Office: 18th Floor, Civic Center Plaza
1200 Third Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101-4112

The San Diego Opera performs at San Diego Civic Theater (in the same complex as the City Hall) in Downtown San Diego, with lots of parking lots nearby (for various fees). The concourse is on the 'Civic Center/3rd Avenue' Trolley stop (Blue & Orange Lines). Performance usually ends later than 10:30PM, so you might need different arrangement for the return trip. The Civic Center Complex is a magnet for homeless folks at night, so don't loiter around the Civic Theater for long after the performance.

There are loads of restaurants in the area, including Downtown Johnny Brown, an American eatery in the same complex. The theater is also only 1 block directly north of Horton Plaza (with its many shops and a good 4th Fl food court). There are snack bars inside the theater, but they are rather expensive. There are restrooms at every level, though.

If you are planning on attending the Sunday matinee performance, why not try joining OperaSIG (a bunch of bright opera-lovers who hang at St. Tropez French Bistro in Horton Plaza before the show)? Their webpage is at:

Where to sit?
This venue (Civic Theater) is shared by the San Diego City Ballet, and it seems the acoustic suffers a bit for it as a result (while operatic stage favors bouncing the sound from the stage to the audience, as the singers do not use microphone, the ballet stage wants the opposite... You want to just see the dancers without hearing their footfalls). This is particularly bad in the expensive Orchestra Level, where the voices from the stage tend to get blocked by the sound shooting up from the orchestra pit, bypassing the OR and going straight up to the balcony. That the pit is partially covered probably doesn't help (the orchestra in the pit is usually the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, conducted by various guest conductors). This might not be so bad when you’re attending a heavily orchestrated work by Wagner or Strauss... or even Verdi. But for finesse opera from the Baroque and the Bel Canto periods (including the lightly orchestrated Mozart opera), the OL seats are to be avoided.

If you don't buy the ticket early, the expensive OL is usually the last section to sell out. Ticket price ranges from $28 in the pretty good acoustic, but visually obstructed seats in the side balconies to $192 seats at the center of the OR where the singers can see you just as well as you see them (though their voice tend to sail right over your head straight for the cheaper seats on the upper levels).

The best seats for acoustics are along the center (B-1, and B-2 sections) on the Balcony Level, and if you want to get the best of both world, try to get front row seats on those sections to avoid being visually blocked by women with big hair, baldies with big head, or lovers who insist on resting their head on each other's rather than back on their seats.

No matter where you seat is, be sure to take a stroll to the 2nd floor where the main snack bar is and where you can admire the huge chandelier hanging from the ceiling.

Handicapped Accommodations
The Civic Theater is quite friendly to handicapped patrons and has wheelchair-accessible seats in the Orchestra Level, Dress Circle, and the Mezzanines. The San Diego Opera also offers Sennheiser Infrared Audio System (SIAS) for the hearing impaired and 'audio description service' for the visually impaired (the trained audio describer will discreetly read program synopsis and describe on-stage actions during the show) via a head set that can be picked up for free at the Coat Check in the lobby (on first come/first served basis). Binoculars/opera-glasses are also available for rent at $10 at the same location.

If you do go, get there an hour early for the pre-opera lecture (usually delivered by Dr Nicholas Reveles from the UCSD Music Department). This very casual affair in the OR is a fun and information-loaded preview that would allow even seasoned opera fans to enjoy nuances of the performance that you might not catch otherwise. At any rate, check out the company's website where you can catch free podcasts of live performances.

A few generally observed rules of audience conduct at the opera.

Office Hours: M-F 8:30AM - 4:30PM
General Office Telephone: (619) 232-7636 Fax (619) 533-7070
Ticket: (619) 533-7000
TTY serviced phone (619) 615-4177

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Member: Smorg
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