04/14/2014 03:15 pm ET Updated Jun 14, 2014

Closing an Opera With 'Dignity'

After 49 years, the San Diego Opera announced a few weeks ago, it was closing its doors. Ian Campbell, the Opera's CEO and artistic director, said:

"The whole idea is to exit with dignity. ... Exiting with dignity is critical to us. This city doesn't need a bankrupt opera company."

This idea of closing "with dignity" was echoed by Karen Cohn, chairwoman of the San Diego Opera.

What does that mean? How can putting 50 full-time staff and over 350 local artists, musicians and other trades people out of work, and shuttering one of San Diego's longest surviving art and culture icons, be noble or grandeur?

According to ABC 10 News, the employees "have growing suspicions over what they say is a contractual severance payout of more than $1 million to Opera CEO Ian Campbell. Sources, who asked to remain anonymous... Campbell's severance package is 'extensive,' and claim the severance would entitle him to 'years of getting paid.'"

Controversy has surrounded the San Diego Opera's leadership, and a "former official with the Internal Revenue Service" told KPBS the "very generous compensation packages" given to the Campbell's (he and his former spouse) could raise questions with legal authorities."

Aside from the Campbell's compensation, which is not to be dismissed, the management style of Ian Campbell was under intense scrutiny. Several high-ranking members of the opera staff felt they were working in a very hostile environment. One staff member, Dr. Nicholas Reveles, a director with education and outreach responsibilities, said management was "closed, (and) unwilling to dialogue."

Rising ticket prices, declining attendance, lack of sufficient philanthropic contributions and an aging and dying patron base all contribute to many performing arts organizations problems and opera has more than its share.

But as Keturah Stickman, the director of San Diego's last performance this week, told Adam Nagourney of the New York Times, Houston, Chicago and San Francisco have embraced change and "are bringing in world-class musical theater and world-class chamber work, and I think that these are both options that would bring in a larger audience or a different audience."

Several board members said they were blind-sided by this decision to close and that maybe, just maybe, like other non-profit performing arts organizations, the San Diego Opera needed to find a way to adapt too.