Opera Companies from Mars, Audiences from Venus

Sunday, February 24, 2013 - 11:16 AM

David Rubenstein Atrium David Rubenstein Atrium, Lincoln Center’s new visitors’ and ticketing facility (Mark Bussell)

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.

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Comments [10]

Dear Fred,
This is one of the most thoughtful and wonderful articles on opera and The Met (and other arts institutions) that I have ever read. We may disagree aesthetically on a performance's strengths, but there was not an insightful word you wrote that I do not whole heartedly agree with. I believe the greatest problem in the arts (and The Met) is the embracing of the for profit corporate model and ruthless CEO-like masters who promise financial success while often dumbing down, sensationalizing or trampling on artistic standards that made the institution prominent in the first place.
When I first became involved with the Met there were gentlemen of seemingly impeccable taste and erudition such as Francis Robinson, Milton Cross and Martin Segal, to name just a few. Nowadays, these have been replaced by money managers, promotional divas, event managers and advertising copy writers, all a far cry from artists, or gentleman for that matter. I marveled at your story about Mr, Bing dictating an answer! I have never had Mr. Gelb deign to answer any of my several letters to him and have been lied to and laughed off in public settings with him! You must know the saying about Sotheby's and Christies': The former are business men trying to be gentlemen, and the latter are gentlemen trying to be businessmen.
How true this is among todays art institution administrators! Arnold Lehmann has almost completely turned the Brooklyn museum, one of the country's greatest, into a three ring dumbed down circus. Then there is Susan Henshaw Jones of The Museum of the City of New York, who has stripped all of its greatest exhibits and anything child friendly, to make room for her extended offices and harsh, didactic polemic exhibits that please politicians' agendas. The New York Public Library situation is so sad I will not go further than to sigh.

Mar. 09 2013 07:50 PM

Likewise, the Met Opera now hangs publicity banners all across the handsome architectural facade, selects directors and designers who have never even seen or done operas to foist their concepts on us, and markets their seats with a fierceness that would impress any airlines.
Yes, I have had four subscriptions, now down to two, and somehow had the better seats next to me occupied at times by Trustees who commiserated with me how horrible the productions had become but said Mr. Gelb does not tolerate any dissent from his Boards and they are intimidated and threatened. Intimidated by saying their displeasure at aesthetic choices is because they are old fogies who are too old to get with it or understand modern taste! And threatened that they will be the cause of the loss of new audiences and opera's future.
Further, the only one they say is listened and catered to is the biggest giver! Well, in past years, Sybil Harrington gave millions for many of the Met's greatest productions, and she saw to it that they were great. Currently, Mr. Gelb shrewdly seeks out the mindless givers like Anne Bass and Mrs. Ziff who just give him money carte blanche or those that give to gain social status rather than fine quality opera. He is not interested in his audience or their feelings or opinions. He has hired pubic relations firms to survey and collect opinions --but people like me are excluded (actually asked to leave if accidently selected!) because we are long time opera goers and might have a valid and grounded opinion! And, those same seats next to me have been occupied by rush tickets buyers that got them for $25. Like someone mentioned, it is very irksome to be offered seats later in the season for a fraction of the cost of my subscription seats. They do not make friends like this, but very angry and jilted customers what with fixture fees and other nickel and diming.

Mar. 09 2013 07:49 PM

Another Met joke is that Peter Gelb does not think it is helpful or elegant to make a pre-act announcement to "turn off cell phones," while the Paris Palais Garnier, a million times more elegant than the Met could ever be by anyones' measure, announces it FIVE times: in French, English, German, Japanese. and Chinese --everyone giggles, and you never hear a cell phone, unlike at the Met. People sadly NEED the reminder. Another customer friendly thing they do in Pairs is when the doors are shut, ushers (who do not all disappear during the performance) come down the aisle and tell patrons to move center in their rows to fill up the seats, and late comers are seated AT THE END of the row. In contrast, at the Met, buying a seat is such a real estate transaction that I have seen them remove perfectly respectable people who had moved to seats that were languishing empty!
I will write you more on this Fred, because you seem one of the few who are voicing the great and growing displeasure of the opera lovers. The New York Times reviewers, like Mr. Tommasini, either don't notice problems because they are so catered to, parrot public relations releases like Daniel Watkin and others, or are simply intimidated that their career will suffer if they express anything against the power of Peter Gelb who has become for many the man behind the curtain of Oz or the emperor without clothes! He is a genius at making and marketing the HD films, but someone else should be making the production aesthetic decisions!

Mar. 09 2013 07:47 PM
Rafael de Acha

On topic: Operavore. Civil: I like it very much. Brief: May I be notified of future postings? This one I got in a roundabout way from Thomas Cott.

Mar. 01 2013 08:23 AM
Anonymous

Mr. Danish, I am in precisely your position. I have had to move three times in order to avoid obscene increases in ticket prices, once from the Grand Tier (tickets once $95, now $290-330) to the Dress Circle, then further to the side in Dress Circle Row A as my seats were encompassed by a new "premium" section, and once from Dress Circle Row A (tickets $95 four years ago, now $170-210) entirely as the "premium" section expanded. These experiences, and the constantly shifting fees and "donations" for exchanged tickets, have completely changed my attitude toward the Met. I used to feel a true affinity for the house as "our" place for opera, see extra operas in addition to my subscription, purchase extra tickets for family and friends, and "proselytize" on behalf of the house and the art form. Now after being subjected to years of "genius" marketing designed to exploit our intellectual and emotional commitment to opera as an ATM machine, I no longer buy any extra tickets, don't even try to encourage others to experience opera, and have no positive feeling for the house whatsoever. I will be keeping a close eye on the discount websites you refer to, and the minute I see something I am attending advertised for half the price that I paid, I will never subscribe to the Met again.

Feb. 28 2013 06:25 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

CONGRATULATIONS FRED ON YOUR 200TH ENTRY. WHAT I HAVE CHOSEN TO DO FROM MY EARLIEST YEARS AS A PERFORMCOURAGEDER AND AS A MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE IS TO PURCHASE TICKETS ONLY FOR THOSE PRODUCTIONS THAT I KNOW FOR SURE WILL NOT COLLIDE WITH MY OBLIGATIONS AS A TEACHER OF VOICE AND COACH FOR ARTISTS PERFORMING WAGNER AND SHAKESPEARE AND, OF COURSE, MY OWN CONCERTS AND OPERA APPEARANCES. I HAVE FRIENDS WHO ARE FREQUENTLY OBLIGED TO GIVE AWAY TICKETS FOR PARTICULAR DAYS THAT THEY HAVE ON SUBSCRIPTION BUT FOR ONE REASON OR ANOTHER ARE UNABLE TO ATTEND THOSE SPECIFIC DAYS. WE ALL RESPONSIBLY AT ONE TIME OR OTHER OBLIGATE OURSELVES TO FAMILY, FRIENDS AND, AT WORK, COLLEAGUES.
WE MUST REITERATE HOW VALUABLE YOUR EXPERIENCES AND PERCEPTIONS ARE TO YOUR READERS MANY OF WHOM CONJURE UP NOTIONS OF THE ARTS THAT ARE SUPERFICIAL BOLSTERED BY CAMPAIGNS THAT STRESS THE GLAMOROUS, MARGINALIZING THE PREPARATION THAT IS THE "SECRET" TO SUCCESS. REGULAR SUBSCRIBERS SHOULD NOT BE DISCOURAGED FROM THEIR EARLY SUPPORT FOR THE INSTITUTION BY THE COMPANY DECIDING TO OFFER A STILL BETTER DEAL TO SINGLE TICKET BUYERS. THAT IS FOR SURE A NO BRAINER. THEY'LL ANGER THE FULL SEASON SUBSCRIBERS AND DEFINITELY LOSE THEM WHEN THEY ARE MOST NEEDED.

Feb. 28 2013 04:28 PM
David from Flushing

In addition to the mentioned "convenience charges," there are also the "requests" for donations. Indeed, there is often a comment about priority for givers over other subscribers whose choices might be at risk on this account. Sports have now taken up this idea and one must often purchase a "license" in order to purchase tickets.

Feb. 25 2013 02:29 PM
Peter Danish from Nyack.

Fred, by the way, I neglected to mention that for 25 years I have been a MARKETING DIRECTOR at various television networks and major media companies and I understand the importance of marketing better than most. But I think the Met has gone "marketing-crazy" and lost sight of what it is they are marketing and whom they are marketing it to.

Feb. 24 2013 01:16 PM
James Libby from ...

Self-referencing regietheater productions, directors with a dim grasp of the works they intend to produce, numb audiences that clap right over diminuendos, and yes, the cost - the complaints are legion, Fred, but I don't feel we have a problem of pretty faces that can't sing. If anything, we enjoy a wonderful vocal period of young artists, whom we can blame if they happen to be attractive as well as talented! If anything, this should defeat the marketing based on the 'star system,' where say poor Anna Netrebko is plastered for months on bus stops wearing an absurd hat. Art, not novelty or names, will light the house - the rest, a recipe for decline.

Feb. 24 2013 01:08 PM
Peter Danish from Nyack

Wonderful piece Fred! You are spot on. "Dynamic Pricing" is a concept that has no place in the arts. I will use my own case as an example. I had been a Met subscribe (Saturday 3) for over twenty years. For the first ten years of my subscription, my tickets went from $65 per seat up to $90. I considered that a reasonable increase (albeit a far greater increase than the cost of living index or inflation for that same time.) But during the second decade of my subscription my tickets went from $90 per seat to $350 per seat. An amount I consider positively obscene for Dress Circle seats. I am now earning more money than I have in my life and can no longer afford a subscription that I could afford in my mid-twenties. Sad. But I get I continually get promotions from Worker's Advantage and Broadway Box and Plum Discounts offering severely discounted Met tickets - to say nothing of the vast amounts of ticket promotions offered every weekend by contest on the website. It strikes me as incomprehensibly bad judgement. I'll bet if the Met's marketing department did even a rudimentary assessment of the cost/benefits of this, they'd find they are probably losing a fortune, not to mention the long-term detrimental effect of disenfranchising lifetime supporters who are no longer the institution's greatest ambassadors.

Feb. 24 2013 01:01 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream, blog and weekly radio show devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and Amanda Angel. The stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings. The Operavore radio show on WQXR, features opera news bulletins from the around the globe, previews of new recordings, and interviews with the players and personalities on the scene.

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