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Marketing opera seems to get more complicated every year. How can OPERA COMPANIES attract new TICKET BUYERS—and keep them? by Matthew Sigman. Illustration by Robert Neubecker. 

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker
“IT'S A NEW ECONOMY. ALL BETS ARE OFF.”—ANTHONY FREUD

FOR FORTY-TWO years, until his death in 2007, Danny Newman was the high priest of opera marketing. From his pulpit at Lyric Opera of Chicago, he spread the gospel that selling out the house on subscription was the one true way to financial salvation. His book on the subject, Subscribe Now!, was his Bible, and it was within a cubit’s reach of every arts professional.

Newman practiced what he preached: as recently as fifteen years ago, according to Lyric’s general director, Anthony Freud, the company perennially sold out its 3,500-seat house on subscription—as high as 103 percent of capacity when revenue from returns was included. “There was true scarcity,” Freud says. That solid base, which other companies enjoyed to varying degrees, enabled long-range artistic curation, kept marketing expenses low (brochure out, check in) and provided ample cash to hedge against seasonalities. Contributed income was still essential, but, with a strong correlation between subscribers and donors, the begging was easier.

Newman’s law remained in effect for two generations, even as external forces increasingly rendered it obsolete. Wayne Brown, who became president and CEO of Michigan Opera Theatre last season after heading up music and opera for the National Endowment  for the Arts for nearly seventeen years, says fissures in the subscription model can be traced to the late 1970s, when theaters, museums and universities launched series that encroached upon loyalties traditionally reserved for the opera and symphony. “By the time I joined the Endowment, granting had already shifted from creativity and capitalization to access and education,” he says. Audiences could no longer be invoiced. They had to be cultivated. 

The advent of projected titles buoyed attendance, but fissures became tectonic shifts as the millennium approached. Volunteer guilds, which traditionally led subscription campaigns, diminished as more and more women entered the workforce. Digital media exploded entertainment choices, and economic shocks reduced investment in cultural education and infrastructure. Affinities in the arts evolved from a continuum of shared live experiences to intermittent bursts of virtual interaction: why go out when you can watch YouTube aria mash-ups from home? The escalating costs of urban life and job uncertainty turned audiences risk-averse. Flexibility trumped loyalty. 

“It’s a new economy,” says Freud. “All bets are off.”

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► IN HIS TEN YEARS as San Francisco Opera’s general director, David Gockley has watched the company’s subscriber/single ratio flip from 60/40 to 40/60, a result, he says, of “age, death, downsizing to smaller packages, or defection to other art forms or Met HD at their local shopping center.” Devout audiences remain, with renewal rates as high as ninety percent for full-season subscribers and 85 percent for those who take half. Beyond that, the decline is exponential. Upgrades, parking vouchers, free drinks and concierge services cut into margins with little effect on attrition.

Yet Gockley still believes investment in subscribers is worthwhile: they buy more, donate more and last longer. At Washington National Opera, executive director Michael Mael says his company’s core subscribers are similarly devout, as well as pragmatic. “They believe it is their duty to support the art form, they appreciate the discounts and benefits, and they covet the real estate—they want S1, and they want it on Saturday night.” 

Opera Philadelphia has invested heavily in market research and divides its audiences into “Buffs,” who buy more and are open to curation, and “Attenders,” who buy less and demand more control. “Attenders are the Netflix generation,” says general director David Devan. “They buy what they want, not what we tell them to buy. And our research shows that there is nothing we can strategically do to convert an Attender to a Buff.

“What we need to do instead is maximize each person’s connection,” he says. “We need to embrace the churn and just attract as many households as possible. A lot of people think the decline of subscriptions is the decline of people seeing opera,” he says. “It’s not. We have more households buying everything than we did five years ago. Attraction is not the problem. Packaging is the problem.” 

Philadelphia didn’t invent flexibility—with matrices of artists, productions, days and prices, companies have played Twister with audiences for years—but Devan is exploring the space–time continuum with data rather than faith. “We are trying to build a unified yet multifaceted brand,” he says. The company analyzes psychographics to determine appropriate “on-ramps” to its programming, whether it’s Cold Mountain at the Academy of Music, Capriccio at the more intimate Perelman Theater, or ANDY: A Popera at an abandoned warehouse converted into a den of iniquity. 

Cincinnati Opera’s general director and CEO, Patricia Beggs, says subscribers remain the “bedrock” of the Cincinnati audience—holding steady at 60 percent of the house—but like many of her peers, she has long since steered Cincinnati away from too singular a focus. “We look at an audience in a holistic way,” she says. “We have a number of initiatives we blend throughout the year to attract audience members from various areas and interests.” The premiere of a contemporary work is accompanied by lectures and community events; there are alliances with schools and conservatories; a young professionals group has been empowered to draw in their peers.

Beggs’s counterparts have diversified in similar fashion. Michigan Opera Theatre took Robert X. Rodriguez’s Frida out of the opera house and into the community, selling 9,000 tickets in multiple venues at 98 percent capacity. Lyric Opera of Chicago has lured thousands of new households to its database through its American Musical Theater Initiative. Washington National Opera courts groups—friends of the chorus, neighbors of staff, school alumni—by supplementing their experience with receptions and backstage tours. When 31,000 people attend a San Francisco Opera simulcast at AT&T Park, Gockley says there’s an e-mail offer in their inbox “before they hit the pillow.”  

These companies are not throwing random darts. “We track everything and we know what gets a better return,” says WNO’s Mael. And they talk. Says Lyric’s Freud, “We learn from our colleagues as well as our own experience.”

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► UNDERLYING ALL of these initiatives is a prayer that a single ticket sale will beget connection, that connection will beget exploration, and that exploration will beget passionate commitment. But the cost of that first date is high. Despite the cost savings trumpeted for subscribers, single tickets are often heavily discounted. Even with underwriting, special events cost money and staff time. Direct-mail print campaigns remain necessary and expensive. Radio, television and social media campaigns can eat up 50 percent of gross revenue per single ticket.

And woe to those companies who do not operate their own hall or box office and are encumbered by third-party ticket merchants, such as Ticketmaster or Telecharge. At Boston Lyric Opera, which performs at the 1,500-seat Shubert Theatre, general director Esther Nelson says the company is permitted to sell subscriptions directly to the public but is contractually required to divert single-ticket sales to the Shubert’s Citi Performing Arts Center Telecharge portal. Buyers are slapped with service charges that can approach 45 percent of the face value of the ticket; the company is charged a service fee on the back end for each ticket sold. Add special-event expense, media buys and transaction costs, plus staff time and overhead, and the yield on a single-ticket sale can be negative. 

“The only way we can remain competitive is if we get them first and sell them a subscription. And the majority of time, if we get the call first, we are able to sell them a mini-package,” says Nelson. The company’s website and telesales staff clearly warn customers of the fees, but there are those who just want Bohème now and not Werther later. “And when they pay those fees, they are mad at us!” says Nelson. A recent BLO audience survey revealed processing fees as a major complaint, and that the majority of buyers don’t know that the company doesn’t benefit from those fees.

Equally dispiriting is the loss of essential customer data when single sales are processed through Telecharge or at the box office. Nelson says only 40 percent of consumer information received is complete with name, address, phone number and e-mail. Without the further expense of engaging a consumer data service to mine for missing information, there is no way to invite single-ticket buyers back. “We’ve lost them,” says Nelson. In mid-October, BLO announced that it would not renew its lease at the Citi Shubert Theatre. The company will move to a new temporary venue, as yet unannounced, for 2016–17.

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► SUBSCRIPTIONS MAY NOT BE AS HIGH a percentage of sales as they once were—even the mighty Lyric is down to 70 percent, according to Freud—but they remain the dominant source of earned income. And even when margins are slim, single-ticket campaigns mounted with dynamic pricing tools can generate positive returns.  

The Met’s struggle to reverse declining sales has been profound (and public) in recent years, but its marketing history has been one of perpetual innovation. Recordings, radio, television and Live in HD have renewed audiences in every generation, democratizing the art form globally while building hometown pride. When canny regulars coopted an online ticket lottery designed to lure new customers, the Met quickly tweaked the system in favor of fresh households. 

A review of the Met’s marketing materials housed at the New York Public Library reveals a steady evolution of flexibility and benefits (even as visuals stagnated for decades with fuzzy production photos and dense stacks of credits). Under Peter Gelb’s leadership as general manager, the narrative shifted from information to passion.  

The Met declined to speak for this story, but Gelb has publicly said that his prime objective is cultivating the fully committed. “We want people to know you should buy tickets in advance, at full price,” he told Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times last January. In March, he told James B. Stewart of The New Yorker that the company has turned the dial on age but not on loyalty. “We are attracting a younger audience, but they don’t buy subscriptions.”  

Long before opera companies adopted modern techniques of consumer product marketing, opportunistic placement of big-name artists was a primary strategy to leverage commitment. Says Gockley, who previously served as general director of Houston Grand Opera, “In my early days in Houston we would say, ‘Only subscribers are guaranteed to see Beverly Sills.’ And that drove subscriptions. The fact is that today there are few to no stars in the firmament” with that box-office pull.

Tinkering with repertoire and updating production styles helps, but balancing the familiar with the innovative is an age-old challenge. Warhorses, though presumed to be crowd-pleasers, are subject to local tastes. In Cincinnati, Beggs plans to stretch out the frequency of “the ABCs” (Aida, Bohème, Carmen) to keep subscribers engaged. Gockley, who will retire at the end of this season, expects San Francisco will tighten its warhorse cycle to lure newcomers. Meanwhile, contemporary operas, once programmed with extreme caution, are in many cities usurping the place of canonical composers as box-office draws for traditional audiences and newcomers alike: Philip Glass, John Adams and Jake Heggie are just as likely to sell as lesser-known works by Donizetti or Verdi.

And then there is the problem of the houses themselves, grandiose temples constructed during opera’s Great Bubble: San Francisco’s War Memorial, built in 1927, has 3,146 seats; Chicago’s Civic Opera House, built in 1929, seats 3,563; and, of course, the Metropolitan Opera House, launched in 1966, has a capacity of 3,800. Even with compelling artistry and sophisticated marketing, no company can be expected to support a level of demand defined by cultural architects of a different era. 

In Cincinnati, the community has recognized that the best way to grow may be to shrink. Courtesy of a public–private funding partnership, the city’s grand 1878 Music Hall, which the opera shares with several other performing-arts entities, will be shuttered for fifteen months while it undergoes a $129-million renovation that is expected to cut some 1,000 of its nearly 3,500 seats. 

A smaller hall, Beggs believes, will ease the marketing burden and allow greater flexibility in programming, with minimal impact on net revenue. More important, she believes the enhanced sensual experience will measurably improve retention. “A full house creates an energy that is palpable, a communication between the stage and audience,” she says. “We can feel the difference.” 

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► CAN THE LEADERS OF AMERICAN OPERA forge the “connection” of which Devan speaks, seduce them with Gelb’s visceral narrative, then consummate the marriage with Beggs’s elixir of experiential intimacy? Perhaps, but the metrics of success must be recalibrated. With opera omnipresent in movie theaters, baseball stadiums, warehouses, digital radio and iPhones, companies can continue to advance the art form, grow audiences and serve their communities, all while identifying new revenue streams. Losing money to chase the nostalgia of “selling out the house” is quixotic. Rest assured, Danny, opera is still big. It’s just that the house got much, much bigger. spacer 

Matthew Sigman  is editor of Opera America magazine and a three-time winner of the ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism. 

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