Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Ruminations on Selling Opera Tickets in the Twenty-First Century

I think it's fairly common knowledge that opera companies and classical music orgs are having more and more problems selling tickets. There are lots of reasons for this, including competition with sports, popular musics, theater, museums, film (in movie theaters or at home), and with other classical arts orgs.

Think about it: fifty years ago, how many musical organizations and presenters did the NY Philharmonic, Met, SFS, and SFO compete with? Around 2005, Alex Ross wrote on his blog that in the early 1970s, there were two new music groups in NYC, but now there were nearly 50. That's a lot of competition.

I wonder whether we're seeing the effects of this in San Francisco, where San Francisco Opera is no longer the only game in town: Opera San Jose, West Bay Opera, West Edge Opera, and Opera Parallele are all doing interesting work at lower prices, and taking on increasingly challenging works, including Salome, Lulu, Cunning Little Vixen, etc.

I attended the opening performance of La Traviata at SFO this past Saturday, and I was shocked at the number of empty seats in the Dress Circle. Today, I read on Facebook that the Tuesday performance was half-full. The most widely-read critic in the area gave the opening a rave, and we know that Traviata remains a popular work.

Now, even if half-full is something of an exaggeration, if the house was only 2/3 or 3/4 full, that's still terrible news. There are ten Traviata performances scheduled, and my impression has been that long runs of the most popular operas in the repertory are generally there to help support runs of more esoteric or "difficult" operas. This season, that would be Elektra and the upcoming premiere of Girls of the Golden West. I really want SFO and other companies to be able to stage new and more difficult works. SFO, the 800-pound gorilla of local opera companies, is the only organization with the budget to bring us internationally-famous singers and directors, and to commission composers as prominent as John Adams.

After seeing and hearing that the first two Traviata performances were apparently undersold, I have to wonder whether the old strategy of Rigoletto/Tosca/Boheme /Butterfly/Traviata/Turandot/etc just isn't going to work that way any longer, and I have to speculate about why.

My guesses are that 1) current opera-goers have caught on and do not actually want to see the same operas every three years 2) the older productions at SF are just tired out and those operas need a fresh look and feel (the Traviata production is 30 years old; Nozze is similar; Turandot has been around more than 20 years; Tosca is 20, etc.) 3) younger potential opera-goers want novelty, not the same old same old. 

There've been a surprising number of empty seats for Elektra, which got well-deserved raves from every critic who reviewed opening night, and a lot more raves from those of us who've been going multiple times and urging our friends to go. This just makes me so sad: Elektra has a great, great cast, a terrific conductor, and a riveting production. And yet I hear people saying things like, oh, they saw it once, and it was "very modern," meaning "maybe a little too difficult for me." It's a beautiful score however close Strauss gets to bi-tonality; I have been known to characterize it as "Rosenkavalier with more murders." (Don't laugh! Give it a listen!)

I also wonder whether Elektra sales have been hurt by the fact that you could see Christine Goerke in the same opera, different productions, in both Houston and NY this season, whereas if those were in different years or a couple of years apart, there would be more people traveling.  I hope not! On the other hand, fans of the singer and opera will go see her in more than one location anyway.


Anonymous said...

I can confirm that Dress Circle was mostly empty on Tuesday. By the last act, I'd say only rows A-C were filled. Neighbors on both sides of me (who seemed to be enjoying it) left before the end. I've never seen anything like it in 8 years of subscribing.

Deborah said...

Funds need to be found/raised to make some seats available for folks who simply cannot afford an opera ticket. Perhaps local, large tech companies could buy a block of seats (and not only upper balcony ones!) and distribute them to local high school music departments. There is no future without new audiences.

Lisa Hirsch said...

SF Opera invites h.s. students to dress rehearsals free, I believe.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Here's the dress rehearsal program, in fact.

Ced said...

It's a challenging/interesting question to get butts in the seats at the opera house. The mix of this season is pretty typical (old/new; familiar/unfamiliar). The opera releases their occupancy rate, it's usually in the 80s, not in the 50s, if I recall well.

That said: the increased choice is not an increased competition. I don't think opera parallele or west edge compete with SF Opera. Most people I know who go to these also go to SF opera. They are rather complementary offerings: they don't overlap much on repertory, and they get a different crowd into an opera performance. The typical OP crowd is younger and may not be interested in SFOpera at first. Granted, my evidence for this is anecdotal.

The reason for the (alleged!) low interest in this Traviata is more simply explained by the fact that the cast is unknown. If you do Butterfly with Pat Racette, Trovatore with Hvorostovsky or Norma with Radvanovsky, it's an easier sell. It has filled the seats in the past, but it also probably cost more...I don't know the economics to say what is best.

For this Traviata, it's the US debut for Florian; RuciƄski's career has been mostly European in his main roles (with the exception of Sharpless at the Met, according to his bio, and that's supporting cast). For these two and Ayan, it's a SF opera debut. So there is not much established star power/name recognition to sell the performance. SF Opera may be counting on reviews/word of mouth to kick in, since the headlines I've seen are high on this cast.