On the Town
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On the Town

Opera Philadelphia’s wide-ranging O17 Festival will make music throughout the city.
By Matthew Sigman 

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Participants in Opera Philadelphia’s O17, from far left: countertenor John Holiday (We Shall Not Be Moved), OP music director Corrado Rovaris (Elizabeth Cree), mezzo Cecelia Hall (War Stories), actor Lauren Whitehead (We Shall Not Be Moved) and composer David Hertzberg (The Wake World)
Portraits by Dario Acosta Photographed in Rittenhouse Square at Parc Restaurant Hair & Makeup by Affan Graber Malik (lead stylist), Lindsey Mascieri (hair), and Natalie Roye (makeup) Cecelia Hall’s Alexander McQueen gown is available at Saks Fifth Avenue, Philadelphia. John Holiday styled by Willie Johnson and Sara Jean Tosetti
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“THIS ISN'T SOME MAGIC SOUP!” says David Devan of the data-driven, meticulously engineered transformation of Opera Philadelphia. The once sleepy, old-school company has become one of the most progressive forces on the opera scene. Having spent more than $600,000 on market research over the past five years, the company is now poised to launch the most ambitious component of its master plan: “O17” will be the first in a series of annual festivals designed to reinvent the urban opera experience. Spanning twelve days, from September 14 to 25, the festival will feature seven “operatic happenings” at six venues across the city.

Devan, appointed general director of Opera Philadelphia in 2011, is much admired by his peers for his innovative (and caffeinated) approach to advancing the art form. He is passionate about its survival and believes the path to sustainability lies in understanding what makes audiences tick. With the financial support of several blue-chip foundations, Opera Philadelphia has engaged top-tier consumer product marketing firms to measure all manner of audience behavior—retention, churn, demographics, psychographics, probabilities, preferences and (the holy grail) the Net Promoter Score, a measure of a consumer’s willingness to recommend the product to another.

Devan recites the results of the research with such speed and specificity that one fears an exam will follow. Forget that quaint, twentieth-century dichotomous key of subscribers versus single-ticket buyers. In the Opera Philadelphia taxonomy there are two kingdoms—“Buffs,” who attend multiple times per year and are risk-seeking, and “Attenders,” who may show up every season or two but are risk-averse. Among “Buffs,” there are “Classic,” “Minis,” “Adventurous” and “Omnivorous.” Among “Attenders,” there are “Wallflowers,” “Bargain Hunters” and “Uncommitteds.” Drilling down by age, gender, education level, potential of attendance, consumption patterns and likelihood of return, one encounters increasingly exotic species of operagoers who may or may not be fruitful and multiply.

The result of all this science is to upend traditional theories of opera marketing, and Devan can sound as heretical as Darwin. “We cannot turn a ‘Buff’ into an ‘Attender,’” he pronounces. Instead of air-kissing into the wind to retain old-guard subscribers or building on-ramps to nowhere for single-ticket buyers, Opera Philadelphia has committed to growing attendance niche by niche, ticket by ticket, household by household. If it’s a Netflix-style binge they want, give them a compact festival. If it’s engagement with an innovative brand, give them a taste of Sundance. If it’s a good old-fashioned war horse, give them Turandot, but give it to them with panache and Christine Goerke.

What Devan won’t give audiences is shlock. Alongside his cerebral investment in micro-marketing is a passionate macro-investment in the art form. “We can’t let marketing drive this as if people don’t want what is artistically exciting, and our research shows that people don’t want things dumbed down. They want things smarted up. They want things relevant to their experience. Stranger things are what people want to see.”  

And strange they will see at O17, in both familiar and unusual places. Komische Oper Berlin’s “subversive” production of The Magic Flute, codirected by Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky, with singers performing against animated projections, will be presented at the company’s traditional home for grand opera, the 2,500-seat Academy of Music. The world premiere of Elizabeth Cree, by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, will be performed at the company’s home for intimate chamber opera, the 650-seat Perelman Theater. “It’s a very, very dark story,” says Campbell, “but fiercely entertaining.” 

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Barrie Kosky’s Magic Flute staging, which will have its East Coast premiere at O17
© Iko Freese

DIRECTOR/CHOREOGRAPHER  Bill T. Jones will stage the premiere of Daniel Bernard Roumain and Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s We Shall Not Be Moved—a “genre-defying” opera combining classical, R&B and jazz musical forms with spoken word, contemporary movement and video projection—at the Wilma Theater, a 300-seat avant-garde venue. In yet a third world-premiere, the company’s composer in residence, David Hertzberg, will see his one-act, The Wake World, performed amid the dazzling art collection at the Barnes Foundation. Monteverdi’s Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, a classic story of warriors clashing in battle, will be performed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s medieval cloister on a double bill with composer Lembit Beecher and librettist Hannah Moscovitch’s 2014 I Have No Stories to Tell You, a heartbreaking tale of a traumatized soldier returning from war. 

Woven into the festival is a classic stagione season. “We want to maintain our commitment to the standard canon and honor our loyal subscribers,” says Devan. To that end, the Magic Flute production doubles as a tent pole for a three-production season that will include George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s Written on Skin in February and a new production of Carmen, directed by Paul Curran, in April and May, all presented at the Academy of Music. The Omnivores can race from venue to venue in a festival frenzy; the Classics can kick back in their familiar plush seat.

Of course, it’s not either/or, Buff/Attender, festival geek/old fart. “Our goal is to make sure the circles are as big as possible, and enhance the overlap as much as we can,” says Devan. He also wants to see those circles expand geographically. “Locally, we want people to take great pride in O, because it is not just for them, it is from them. We are rooted in Philadelphia,” he says. But ticket purchasing patterns reveal that the company is becoming a destination: nearly twenty percent of its sales for Jennifer Higdon and Gene Scheer’s Cold Mountain came from outside Philadelphia, mostly from the New York–Washington corridor. 

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David Devan, Christine Goerke and friends at the Turandot opening-night party, 2016
© Sofia Negron

AS IN EUROPE,  American opera festivals are mostly summer phenomena—Santa Fe to the west, Glimmerglass to the east, with Des Moines Metro Opera, Central City and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in the flyover zone. “It is our identity, and it has enormous benefits,” says OTSL general director Timothy O’Leary of his company’s festival format. “It allows for a critical mass of different activities—free lunchtime concerts, panel discussions, concerts. We offer world premieres alongside standard repertory. The sense of occasion is strong.” So strong is the OTSL festival brand that, even without a bucolic landscape, fully a quarter of its audience travels from outside the region.

Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, the trade association for professional companies, sees “real and hypothesized” benefits from the festival model, regardless of scale, scope or location. Festival activity can inspire a deeper emotional and intellectual commitment from the community. And the festival model enhances the actual enjoyment of opera. There is less glancing at the watch and worrying about work the next day. “The audience is willing to go on the journey, because they are taking the journey,” he says.

On the “hypothesized” side is the notion, which emerges now and then in industry chatter, that somehow a shift to a festival model offers cost efficiencies that could be a panacea for financial woes. Scorca says an analysis of industry data does indicate that “festivals seem to have had a more successful time than traditional companies in weathering the tide of declining ticket sales,” but that “anyone who suggests it is a way to save money probably hasn’t studied it deeply enough.”

Devan is more blunt: “If anyone thinks that doing this saves money, they have lost their mind. You are not going to spend less money.” Saint Louis’s O’Leary concurs. “Certainly, you can get many more performances in per week, such that if you are paying rent on theater, or engaging orchestra on a weekly contract, there is a kind of economy.” But the labor intensity and the labor costs are “tremendous.” 

Then there is simply the matter of financing those costs. In days of yore, when subscribers were willing to put their money down a year in advance, there was a degree of predictability in cash flow. While Philadelphia still has significant subscription revenue and has crafted several ticketing options—including an “all-access” pass for the festival—today’s consumers are impulsive. Such financial risk is magnified by the intensity of the festival model. “Our upfront cash needs are enormous,” says Devan. “We have forty full-time staff members, but we’ve never had a big seasonal staff. Now we will have four hundred people in our employ.” The fail-safe for Devan has been to attract substantial phil-anthropy, including local and national foundations and generous individuals.

As Opera Philadelphia’s marketing research has been applied, the successes have mounted. In recent seasons, Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain and Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves were well received. Andy: A Popera, based on the life of Andy Warhol, was a smash. Turandot with Goerke blew the company’s Net Promoter Score through the roof. But the most important indicator to Devan was the success of last season’s festival “beta” test, in which Turandot, Breaking the Waves and Macbeth were presented in three different theaters simultaneously. “We had more people coming to more performances in a shorter period of time,” he says.

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Devan addresses the crowd at Opera on the Mall, 2014
© Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia

A MARKETING PLAN ALONE cannot be credited with change, and Devan has benefited from enormous wells of support. “We’ve basically had to restructure the staff, the board and casting practices,” he says. His relationship with artists, essential to sustaining the company’s brand, has flourished. Lembit Beecher, whose affiliation with the company goes back to 2011, when he was a composer in residence, notes, “It’s been incredibly exciting to see how they have grown in their ambitions, their quality and their profile around the country, and a lot of it is a reflection of David’s personality.” 

Corrado Rovaris, the company’s music director since the pre-Devan days, has been a willing and eager partner in change: “We have to take care of our standard repertoire, of course. That’s something we can’t forget. But if you wait to take some risk, you are going to die.  We have to find ways to show that opera is something contemporary that provides meaning, that it’s part of our days and part of our life.”

Devan is not naïve to the risks of O17, but he has prepared for Philadelphia’s operatic olympiad with the imagination and discipline of the competitive figure skater he once was. “To use a skating analogy,” he told Philadelphia magazine, “if you’re not crashing, it means you’re not learning the triple. You have to be fearless.” Other American opera companies have pursued the festival model with varying degrees of success and failure, and Devan is aware that many of his colleagues are eagerly watching the roll-out of O17, perhaps with an eye to replicating the research and the formula.

While some might see imitation as a form of flattery, Devan sees a pile-on of festivals as a potential catastrophe. “What I hope doesn’t happen is that everyone goes, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to have a festival!’ That would be the worst thing to happen. The best thing is that people go, ‘Oh my God, I gotta figure out my market.’ Every market is different. With data, the solution will come.” spacer 

Matthew Sigman has written for Opera America, Chorus America, American Theater and Symphony magazines. He is a three-time recipient of the ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism. 

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