Opera Companies from Mars, Audiences from Venus

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In my previous article, about how subscriptions strengthen the financial situation of non-profit performing arts institutions by providing infusions of cash ahead of time in a way that enables these companies to do rational budgeting and planning, I stated that I am deeply concerned that the compact between audiences and these institutions has crumbled. There are many reasons for this, some of them relating to changes in the economy or in the way people organize their lives. But there are other factors that are less discussed.

I believe that heads of some, though hardly all, arts companies have become so absorbed in pursuit of their vision or power that they forget that their chief responsibility is service to their art form and keeping their own institutions strong. Similarly, there are many members of the audience who are very hidebound, wanting only to repeatedly see or hear a small group of works rather than taking risks and supporting the diversity that keeps an art form healthy and its performers challenged. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Beethoven Symphony no. 5, La Bohéme or The Nutcracker, I always try to lead frequent arts attenders to something new. We don’t have to like everything, but we won’t know until we try. In seeing unfamiliar works of art, we inevitably discover more about ourselves.

I know many people who fell in love with an art form --let’s say opera, the one I love most-- and compare what they see and hear now to the performers who first got them excited. In my case, among these were Grace Bumbry, Mirella Freni, Marilyn Horne and Kiri Te Kanawa. All are still with us, thankfully, but are not active performers. I am grateful to them for all that they gave, and the fact that they all now teach young artists. But it would be foolish to not go to opera now because they are no longer singing.

Every generation has its group of great artists. People new to opera will fall in love with the art form, in part, because they are drawn to some of today’s performers. It is incumbent on older, more experienced audience members to not be dismissive of today’s performers because they don’t “compare” to those who sang when we first became infatuated with opera. Rather, we might try to gently instruct the newcomer as to what makes an opera singer great. One singer may have all kinds of gifts and be pretty while other people on opera stages today are, let’s face it, only pretty and not much more. Think about it: the four ladies I mention above were all beautiful but we remember them primarily as great artists.

Message to opera managers and audiences: An opera singer makes a character “believable” when she can sing, act and inhabit a role, not because she has a pretty face. The same applies to men, whether it is a handsome face or a muscled torso. Let us remove the requirement of physical beauty from being the foremost consideration of a singer’s appeal and viability. Exciting opera was, is, and always will be based primarily on fabulous singing. If opera companies cast the greatest singers, audiences will be turned on.

Another important thing for opera audiences (and those who patronize other non-profit performing arts organizations) to remember is that we have ongoing relationships with the companies that present subscription seasons. We need to support them and allow them to pursue the creative and the new in addition to the familiar, but we also need to make very clear that our support is contingent on opera companies taking seriously the interests of the core audience--subscribers, not single-ticket buyers.

The same admonition applies to those who run and work in these companies. The holier-than-thou, we-do-no-wrong viewpoint does not work. Sir Rudolf Bing, general manager of the Met from 1950 to 1972, received many complaining letters from the public and often dictated pithy responses such as (and I paraphrase), “Dear Madam,  Thank you for your letter and your comments about The Metropolitan Opera. Your suggestions will receive the attention they deserve.”  Which, of course, was no attention whatsoever. 

Bing was very decisive and witty, but he had the comfort of having a roster of singers who could sell out the house just by being in a cast. Because audience members are less knowledgable and au courant today on who great singers are (and media attention is based more on how singers look than their qualities as artists), opera companies need to be audience-friendly or, more to the point, audiences must feel that they are considered when opera companies do their planning.

There is a right way and a wrong way to do this. The wrong way is the one that predominates nowadays: it’s called Marketing. There is a mistaken notion, dating back at least to the 1980s, that you can sell anything if you market it right. Perhaps you can sell tickets to appearances by one singer if a big promotional campaign is mounted, but that is not the way to sell an opera season. If the singer gets sick and does not appear, that creates bad feelings and a reluctance of audience members to invest in expensive tickets again. And many people who might buy single tickets decide that if they can’t get tickets to hear that star artist, there is no point buying tickets to something or someone unfamiliar.

Some thirty years ago, a famous opera company hired a marketing director from a large department store chain. She told me, “selling opera tickets is no different than selling VCRs,” not realizing that opera companies and audiences have ongoing relationships and opera performances are not commodities--they are emotional experiences in theaters where the “consumer” chooses to be and, it is hoped, will return often. That marketing director did not last long and the company lost a pile of cash.

The right way to connect opera companies and audiences is to ignore the phony persuasion that is the malodorous part of “marketing” and focus on two other things: education and information. Education at all levels builds and keeps audiences who become more knowledgable and feel more connected. That way, ticket buyers don’t purchase because one performance might be “hot,” but because they are more interested in the works of Mozart, Donizetti, Tchaikovsky or Strauss. An educated operagoer does not evaluate a performance on “was it worth the money?” but “what did I experience and learn?” This creates, over time, a sense of investment in the well-being of the company and the art form.

By “information” I simply mean that printed and Web materials should be simple, candid, direct and timely. This builds trust in a way that pushy writing does not. Recently, I attended Silent Night, an opera new to me, at Opera Philadelphia. The fact that the program articles were informative and detailed made the opera more meaningful to me than ones that try to tell me why I should or will like an opera.

Another aspect of information is transparency: Some audience members think ticket prices are too high. Full disclosure will help them understand how money is used.People want to know that the money they spend on tickets and donations is being well-spent and not wasted. Non-profit arts institutions need their public records (including annual reports) to enlighten rather than obfuscate. I read them--there is a lot of blather from certain institutions. 

There are now companies that, in addition to trying to sell subscriptions (which include all kinds of “convenience charges” for processing and exchanges that are highly inconvenient), also use “dynamic pricing.” This supposedly responds to the laws of supply and demand and, because a ticket can be immediately reprinted, a new price can be made at the moment. Dynamic pricing is what airlines use to suddenly raise prices on desirable routes with few available seats or quickly lower them if many seats on a flight are empty and it is almost time for take-off. 

It is upsetting to learn that you paid $500 more than the person next to you for that ticket to San Francisco. Imagine discovering that the person next to you at the opera paid $125 for her ticket and you paid $250. Similarly, a subscriber might have paid $125 and discover that the person in the adjacent seat bought that ticket at the box office for $50. None of this is a way to build a faithful audience in good times and bad.

Dynamic pricing comes from for-profit arts events such as big Broadway musicals and rock concerts that take place in football stadiums and large venues such as New York’s Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden.  A Broadway show, unless presented by a non-profit theater, will usually stay open as long as it turns a profit.  Rock concerts are brief engagements that are part of a tour. In other words, charge as much as you can, then take the money and run. There is little sense of an ongoing relationship.

People who live near their arts institutions develop strategies for securing tickets at prices lower than face value, which is a loss for the presenting company. Some are promoted by the company themselves. Companies I take full subscriptions to have been known to send out e-mails offering tickets at reduced prices for the performances I paid full price for and, I often discover, people who buy at the last minute frequently get better locations than I have. This is a disincentive to subscribe.

Audiences and arts institutions need to rebuild their bonds, and both “sides” have work to do. In this article I have posed some of the problems. In the future I will propose some solutions. In the meantime, let me hear your thoughts.