Published in KPBS On Air Magazine January 2003

You could say Ian Campbell got his start in radio. As a boy soprano in Australia, he loved to sing, act, debate and he often performed live on the wireless. But he didn’t see his first opera until he was 18. “La Boheme” would change his life.

He was about to enter law school at 21, when Opera Australia (then the Elizabethan Trust Opera Company) heard him sing in an amateur production, and asked him to audition. “I was a university student one day and an opera singer the next,” he said, still tickled by the memory. In 1974, he sang the first season in the new Sydney Opera House. He was a comprimario tenor [supporting role in Italian operas that often gets an aria] — “a reasonably good one,” he confesses. But he knew he’d never achieve the level of skill and accomplishment he desired.

So, at age 29, he switched gears and became the Senior Music Officer with the Australia Council, the national funding authority for the arts, similar to our National Endowment for the Arts. In 1976, he became the General Manager of New Opera in Adelaide, South Australia. There, he had his first taste of directing (beginning with his beloved “La Boheme”) which, he found, “combined my love of organization and administration.”

In 1983, he was lured to America as General Manager of the San Diego Opera. One of his first acts was to hire Anne, a former singer, who became his wife and the company’s Director of Development.

The 2003 season marks Campbell’s 20th anniversary with the San Diego Opera, whose budget has grown, during his tenure, from less than $3 million to $13.5 million. He reduced the number of operas (from 6 to 5) but extended the number of performances and expanded the repertoire, introducing new American works including Myron Fink’s “The Conquistador,” Carlisle Floyd’s “Cold Sassy Tree” and this year, “Tobias Picker’s “Therese Raquin.” He enticed acclaimed fashion designer Zandra Rhodes to design her first theatrical costumes (“The Magic Flute,” 2001), and she’ll be back for Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” in 2004.

Campbell created the San Diego Opera Ensemble of young artists who perform for the education/outreach programs and play supporting roles in mainstage productions. The Opera’s education program, he is proud to say, “is second to none, and reaches throughout the county and across the border; busloads of children are brought in for the Student Dress Rehearsal Program that precedes each opera, and the Ensemble tours Northern Mexico three weeks each year.”

He’s committed to keeping the Opera’s recital program robust, attracting artists of great renown (Joan Sutherland, Kiri te Kanawa, Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras), as well as up-and-comers such as Galina Gorchakova (who returns this season as “Norma”) and, just before his San Diego debut in “Therese Raquin,” Britain’s hottest young baritone, Christopher Maltman (3/2, Sherwood Auditorium).

Campbell’s profile is high nationally as well as locally. He is currently Chairman of Opera America, the artform’s prestigious international professional organization. Here at home, he’s known for his distinctive, staff-friendly managerial style, and his active involvement in the community.

“Ian Campbell is ‘Mr. Opera’ in town,” says San Diego Union-Tribune classical music critic Valerie Scher. “Part salesman, part showman, part stage director. He has a grasp of both the budget and the music. You have to hand it to him; he finds young talent, brings in newer or lesser-known work, and he’s managed to keep the company solvent. In these difficult times, that’s quite an achievement.”

©2003 Patté Productions Inc.