Adam Diegel, OPERA San Antonio artistic director, welcomes the audience to a dress rehearsal of La Bohème.
Adam Diegel, shown here in May at a dress rehearsal for La Bohème, says he has resigned as artistic director of Opera San Antonio. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

After Opera San Antonio closed the 2017-18 season with a successful production of La Bohème, Artistic Director Adam Diegel has resigned and Executive Director Liz Tullis has moved into an advisory role, away from her position managing the day-to-day operations of the company.

Tullis confirmed her change in status Wednesday, and on Thursday, Diegel confirmed his resignation. Both Diegel and Tullis were hired in mid-January, praised at the time by Opera San Antonio Board Chair Blair Labatt as strong and skilled leaders who would help the 4-year-old opera company “be a long-term, stable, nonprofit resource for our city.”

Diegel said that he was not comfortable with Labatt’s “involvement with day-to-day activities.”

“The definitions of the board’s responsibilities in relation to the duties of the artistic director and the executive director were not adequately outlined, or presented at the beginning, when I accepted the job,” Diegel said.

Tullis said discussions with the board continue about the specifics of her status. “I haven’t left the Opera,” she said. After analyzing what made La Bohème so successful, including building community partnerships and attracting a large and diverse audience, Tullis said, “I’m continuing to provide that counsel to the board.”

Said Labatt: “We’re still trying to figure out the model. But no, Liz has not left Opera San Antonio.”

Liz Tullis of Opera San Antonio

Diegel said he tendered his resignation to the executive committee of the board on June 4. Initially, he said, the resignation was not accepted.

Prior to Diegel’s confirmation of his resignation, Labatt had said Diegel was not initially hired as a full-time artistic director, but “was always hired with a flexible arrangement where he could be here or not,” citing the many professional singing engagements Diegel would continue to pursue.

Before Diegel and Tullis were hired, the positions were combined under the general and artistic direction of Enrique Carreón-Robledo, who Labatt had said resigned “to pursue other opportunities.” There was no announcement of Carreón-Robledo’s departure at the time, and he did not respond to a request for comment.

Though this was Diegel’s first administrative position with an opera company, he brought 16 years of professional experience as an opera singer to his new role. He described himself as “an inquisitive personality,” who asked questions of professional colleagues in leadership roles what qualities made a company successful and what didn’t work for arts nonprofits.

Diegel said he had been invited into board meetings of many opera companies as a consultant, advising from an artistic point of view and from “a landscape perspective,” including “sustainablity, marketing, philanthropy, everything.”

Companies he consulted with include the Kentucky Opera, Arizona Opera, Minnesota Opera, Austin Opera, Metropolitan Opera, Palm Beach Opera, he said, citing Minnesota and Palm Beach in particular as being “in the black” financially for eight and five years, respectively. “These are sustainable models,” he said.

At the time of the hirings of Tullis and Diegel, Labatt cited a modest two-year surplus for Opera San Antonio.

However, Diegel said the company had a dearth of individual donors. “When you’re talking about $600,000 for a production,” as with La Bohème, he said, “you need individual support.” Revenue from ticket sales for most performing arts organizations typically account for one-third or less of a total annual budget.

Citing a lack of individual donors as a common problem with nonprofit arts organizations in the city, Diegel said that “until San Antonio figures that out, it’s going to be a tough go for everybody there.” However, having experience in 40 different cities within this country and internationally, he said, the social dynamic in San Antonio might be at the root of the problem.

In his five months here, he said, he observed an older generation “becoming increasingly more entrenched in their beliefs and social status,” while “the younger generation is all about transparency, and a democratic way, and forward thinking.”

For the moment, Diegel will move on to singing in two upcoming productions, taking the familiar role of Don José in Carmen at the Mill City Opera in Minneapolis, followed by Carmen at the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice in upstate new York.

“Then I’m going to reevaluate everything,” he said. “The opera businssess as a whole has changed significanty, even in the past three years,” he said, and his next move “may include leaving the art form altogether.”

Changes in the opera landscape have been going on for a while, he said, “and it’s not for the better. It’s a very, very strange time right now for opera specifically, and for the arts in general in this country.”

However, there are a lot of positives from his experience in San Antonio, he said, “and I’m choosing to focus on those.”

Diegel said La Bohème set ticket sales records for the company, including the Saturday, May 19 performance, which achieved the highest single performance ticket sales in company history, he said, with the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts 95 percent sold out.

“That’s the thing we can hang our hats on, Liz and I,” Diegel said.

Labatt confirmed that La Bohème “sold more tickets than for any other opera that we’ve had, including Madame Butterfly, which was the previous record.”

Opera San Antonio, which Tuesday was recommended to receive more than $450,000 in City arts funding during its next 3-year budget cycle, begins its 2018-19 season September 13 and 15 with La Traviata.

La Traviata is completely cast, scheduled, ready to go in the hands of the director,” Garnett Bruce, Labatt said.

As to the future of the company, “We haven’t sold out yet,” Labatt said, “so our goal is to sell out. We’re moving in that direction, all signs are positive.

“The only way we’re gonna grow as an organization,” he said, is to “continue to grow our audience, [and] we have to have philanthropic  support. We’re doing all we can to minimize the amount of the philanthropic support we need, that’s our vision.”

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...