Monday, June 20, 2016

Conversations, Part One

I've had a number of interesting conversations recently about matters operatic, and thought I'd blog about some of the topics discussed.

One chat was, broadly speaking, about repertory and the effect of subscription numbers on what an opera company can present. A company that sells a high percentage of its seats to subscribers is a company with a guaranteed income, so there's more inclination to present works the general public (which I will define as the Puccini public) might not like. It doesn't matter if audience members leave at intermission because their subscription money is already in the bank.

It's well known that the percentage of subscription ticket sales has dropped precipitously over time at just about every performing arts organization in the country. I think there must be exceptions, but they're not primarily among the big unionized organizations.

I suspect that West Edge Opera is doing well with subscriptions, but they present three operas three times each, for a total of nine performances per festival season; their sets are not lavish, they've not paying a full-time orchestra or stage crew, they have to sell many fewer tickets than SF Opera, which has a 3200 seat hall to fill. The economics of WEO and [your favorite big orchestra / opera company here] are very different. (And, to be clear about this, I support the unionization of musicians and other professions in the performing arts world.)

(If there are exceptions among the larger organizations - orchestras or opera companies that have increased subscription sales - I hope that they are trumpeting how they did it so that other organizations can use their methods.)

The reasons for the drop in subscription sales are also, I believe, well understood. We have more forms of entertainment and leisure time pursuits available than we had 30 years ago, from the explosion of individual sports activities to the immense range of musical performances to the availability of great long-form TV shows. The people who take advantage of these activities also have less time than 30 years ago, because of extended working hours plus 24-hour availability and the increase in commute times for so many. Many fewer people are willing to commit in advance to buying a subscription because they want to partake spontaneously. (Me, I like buying ahead of time because then I know where I'll be on any given day. And being a subscriber often gives you more ticket-swap flexibility.) People are having children later and they're busier with child-raising later in life than, say, 50 years ago.

There's also the wide availability of discount tickets. Possibly organizations shouldn't dump tickets to Goldstar, but figure out how to handle discounts internally. I find it odd that I can get some rather steeply discounted opera tickets through my job at a company that...ah....has a highly educated and well-paid workforce of people who can afford full-priced tickets. Well, perhaps this is one way to lure in new, younger subscribers.

So the questions arises as to how you offset all of this. How do you bring in the new audience members you need and how do you persuade them to buy tickets? To what extent do you let money concerns affect your ability to present new and unusual repertory? How do you retain audience members who strongly prefer 19th c. Italian classics?

Well, I have a few ideas. Mostly, I'm looking at you, big opera companies. You can't cede performance of works such as Lulu to ambitious small companies like WEO; yes, that was among the most impressive and memorable productions I've ever seen, but there were losses too. We also need to hear Berg's magnificent score played without cuts by a full orchestra.

  • If your organization has a special fund for the performance of Italian opera, make sure that "Italian opera" doesn't just mean Rossini to Puccini. Where's Il Prigioniero? Where are Respighi's operas, and works such as Iris and Isabeau? Francesca da Rimini? And where are, even, the less-known Donizetti operas?
  • If you have a special fund for the performance of Italian opera, start one for the production of new and unusual opera. There are plenty of people in your large metropolitan area who will donate to such a fund. That might get us a staging of one of Harrison Birtwistle's operas or From the House of the Dead. Or works by Schreker! This goes for orchestras, too: the range of new and unusual music presented at SFS is....narrow. This seems to me to be an obvious path to take, especially if you've got a fund-raiser such as David Gockley around.
  • Look for production sponsors who want to see the new and unusual. Again, they are out there: I have friends who just won't go to the opera for Verdi or Mozart, but will go out of their way for Janacek. There have to be some People With Big Bucks who fall into this category. 
  • Or put together coalitions of new/unusual music lovers to fund these works. Remember the work Lotfi Mansouri did to get Arshak II staged? Lots of donations from the Armenian community! The local Chinese community apparently got behind The Bonesetter's Daughter. For the SF Bay Area, just saying, Harvey Milk probably sold pretty well, and there's gay content or the implication of gay content in King Roger, a rarity that is coming into its known. Also, Mariusz Kwiecien is a major major advocate of the opera and a big draw.
  • Concert and semi-staged opera! I asked about this at Matthew Shilvock's first press conference, and got an answer to the effect that "this isn't what we're about - people expect fully-staged opera." Well, but some of us expect a wider repertory. That organization across the street from SFO has been mighty successful with its semi-staged operas. The rehearsal period for Peter Grimes was about ten days, which I know because Stuart Skelton tweeted his arrival in town. The NY Phil has also had great success with semi-staged opera, selling out three performances of Le Grand Macabre. It's a perfectly reasonable way to reach the audience for new and unusual works without breaking the bank. 
  • Also, concert & semi-staged operas could be performed in the current SFO off season, from January to May when the ballet uses the opera house. And it could be done in a smaller venue. Run-outs to Walnut Creek? to the SFCM concert hall? to Zellerbach in Berkeley?
  • Differentiate your subscriptions. I'd love it if SFS would do a new and unusual music series; I'd buy it in a second. Ditto SFO. And what if SFO had an early opera series? I'd buy THAT in a second too. This could also be termed "respect audience segmentation." Let the Rossini to Puccini crowd have their favorites, but let my people have their Birtwistle. Sure, do three performance of Birtwistle to ten of Rossini, no problem. Perform them semi-staged, which worked just fine in London's Birtwistle at 80 concerts.
  • Talk with the people at SFSoundBox about how they have made SoudBox a happening thing. Those performances sell out in about two hours. Here are some of the characteristics I see.
    • Limited availability: two performances, 500 tickets to each.
    • Air of mystery: the repertory isn't even released until a week before the performance. People are buying anyway; there is genuine trust that the program will be interesting.
    • Unusual start time. Okay, this mostly won't work with opera, but what if there were more matinees?
    • Unusual repertory.
    • Low prices. 
    • Drinks! Admittedly, SoundBox is in a space that is a whole lot easier to clean up than a typical concert hall or opera house. 
    • SoundBox concerts are short and often include excerpts from longer works. This isn't so workable for an opera company, especially when the gigantors of the repertory often sell very well to serious fans (Ring, Troyens, Don Carlo, etc.). Still, what about concerts of opera excerpts? These used to be very popular and were a weekly occurrence at the Met.
Honestly, I am not any smarter than anyone working for the big music organizations. I have to believe that they've thought of all of this and are either costing it out or have done so already and decided for or against. It does take time to change institutional thinking, from figuring out the money side to getting your own board of directors to agree to such plans.

UPDATED: Around noon to correct a basic error in my description of WEO's season. Added a clarification or two. Must also add a hat tip to Alex Ross, whose Cultural Commentary in The New Yorker addresses, among other things, the Met's utter failure to commission new work and perform many important works of the past. Say whatever else you want of him, David Gockley, unlike almost every other opera impressario in the country, has commissioned a lot of new work, some of it great, some of it workmanlike, some of it not so good. That should be expected and there should be tolerance for the variability of the works and cheers for the effort.

Further updated: On Tuesday, June 21.


E C said...

Actually, a semi-staged opera as a way to create buzz and interest behind a full staged opera does sound like a great idea. Especially with the Wilsey Center next door as a small venue. Mix it with the "mystery show" idea from Soundbox, maybe?

Lisa Hirsch said...

I have another list and one of the ideas does involve ways to create buzz and mystery!