Opera Has a Problem: Fans Aren’t Subscribing

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lennygoran
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Opera Has a Problem: Fans Aren’t Subscribing

Post by lennygoran » Sat Dec 22, 2018 9:02 am

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Opera Has a Problem: Fans Aren’t Subscribing

Lyric Opera of Chicago and other major companies are trying to adjust to a new financial reality.


By Michael Cooper

Dec. 21, 2018

CHICAGO — It looked like a typo. For many years, until as recently as 2001, Lyric Opera of Chicago reported selling more than 100 percent of its capacity.

The company was not squeezing opera buffs into the aisles of its Art Deco opera house, which sits at the base of a 45-story limestone skyscraper on the Chicago River. No, back then Lyric largely sold out to subscribers, who would donate tickets they couldn’t use back to the company — which could (and often would) sell them a second time.



Those were boom times for Lyric, which helped invent the modern subscription model. Its influential longtime press agent Danny Newman’s 1977 book “Subscribe Now!” became a bible of sorts for American performing arts organizations. (A chapter called “The Slothful, Fickle Single Ticket Buyer vs. the Saintly Season Subscriber” gives the gist.)

But those days are gone. Now Lyric, like other major American opera companies, as well as symphony orchestras, theater troupes and many sports teams, is grappling with a long-term decline in season subscribers. Current audiences are seen as less likely to buy large packages of tickets or commit to attending events months in advance.

The decline in subscribers is upending the already fragile economics of opera, changing how companies operate and what they program. Lyric now gives a quarter fewer main stage opera performances than it did two decades ago — it gave 60 last season — and has started presenting a musical each spring.

Its pared-back opera season led the company’s orchestra to briefly strike in October, when management sought (and eventually won) cuts to the number of weeks the musicians work, as well as to the number of full-time members of the orchestra.

“We’ve realized that, actually, the status quo is not an option if we want to survive, let alone thrive,” Anthony Freud, Lyric Opera’s general director, said in an interview last month shortly after the strike ended, and after the well-received premiere of the company’s new production of Wagner’s “Siegfried,” the latest installment in its ambitious “Ring” cycle.

One problem is that decline in subscriptions has not been offset by recent increases in single-ticket sales, so attendance is down overall. Attracting individual ticket buyers also costs more than selling subscription packages. And since subscribers have been a dependable pipeline of new donors, their falloff comes at a particularly painful moment when ticket sales, even at high prices, cover a smaller and smaller fraction of the cost of putting on opera.

Lyric retains one of the strongest subscriber bases in opera; it still sells twice as many tickets to subscribers as to single-ticket buyers. But the number of tickets it sells to subscribers has fallen to less than half what it sold two decades ago.

This is a widespread phenomenon.

For the San Francisco Opera, which a few decades ago sold three-quarters of its tickets to subscribers, that number is now approaching half. The change has been even more dramatic at the Metropolitan Opera, which now sells fewer than a fifth of its tickets to subscribers.

Although the Met sold 78,000 tickets to newcomers last season, and sells far more single tickets than ever before, it is hard to make up for the loss of patrons who once attended many times a year. The company took in only 67 percent of potential box-office revenue last season, but with discounts factored in, paid attendance averaged 75 percent. (The Met, the biggest opera company in the nation, gave 224 performances last season — near four times as many as Lyric.) Next season, the company plans to add more-convenient Sunday matinees and begin going dark on Mondays, once the night of choice for New York’s high-society subscribers.


The change is also hitting symphony orchestras, many of which were founded on the subscription model. According to the League of American Orchestras, 2013 was the first year that revenue from single-ticket buyers and group sales surpassed subscription income.

The shift has begun to change how and what operas program. San Francisco Opera’s former general director, David Gockley, once explained the impact of relying on single-ticket sales in a frank program note that said “each title has to survive on its ability to attract an audience, whereas previously it could be slipped into a bigger package.”

And Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, said in an interview that since each production now has to bring in its own audience, the company seeks stronger casts for all of its operas than it sometimes had in the past.



“You can’t coast,” he said.

Marc A. Scorca, the president and chief executive of Opera America, a service organization, said that there have been concerns in the industry that weakening subscription sales could lead to safer programming choices.

“In the old days, when things nearly sold out fully on subscription, opera number three and opera number seven could be rare works, new works,” he said. “Now that more of the house is sold on a single-ticket basis, one has to be thoughtful of what the titles are.”

At Lyric, Mr. Freud said that popular works such as “La Bohème” still do well at the box office, but that donors are increasingly interested in supporting new or rare works, such as Jimmy López’s “Bel Canto,” which had its premiere at Lyric in 2015.

“A diet of war horses is never going to work for us — partly because we will dilute their box-office strength if we schedule them too often, and partly because we won’t be taking full advantage of contributed revenue potential,” he said.

The company has been working to increase revenue and cut expenses. Its spring musicals sell tens of thousands of tickets, and bring new audiences into the opera house; Lyric finds that it is able to persuade about a fifth of those newcomers to return for an opera.


Lyric also owns its theater and has been working to increase income from rentals. The Pet Shop Boys have performed there, and the company recently struck a deal to make the opera house the Chicago home of the Joffrey Ballet, beginning in 2020. The company has also increased outreach to Chicago schools and communities new to opera with Lyric Unlimited, an ambitious education program.

But there have been setbacks as well: After losing philanthropic support, the company discontinued its longstanding radio broadcasts of its opening nights.

Mounting the new “Ring” cycle has been a major and expensive undertaking. Lyric’s “Siegfried” boasted world-class singers, led by the dramatic soprano Christine Goerke and the bass-baritone Eric Owens. Opening night was sold out, and before the performance the crowd gathered in the lobby and snapped selfies, picked up rolls from the “Sushi at Lyric” window and sampled a Wagnerian-theme cocktail called the Fafner, named after the opera’s sleeping dragon.

“I would say that I worry about opera in the United States,” said Howard Smith, 88, who was at the performance. “We all started coming in our 30s or late 20s, and you don’t see as much of that. There are so many other venues for entertainment.”

He took in “Siegfried” from the orchestra seat he has occupied — on subscription — since 1961.



https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/21/arts ... ctionfront

maestrob
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Re: Opera Has a Problem: Fans Aren’t Subscribing

Post by maestrob » Sat Dec 22, 2018 10:28 am

Not surprising, but still a shock to have my instincts confirmed. Thanks, Len, for posting this.

John F
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Re: Opera Has a Problem: Fans Aren’t Subscribing

Post by John F » Sat Dec 22, 2018 11:47 am

This has been a long-term trend at the Met. However, the story isn't about opera in general but Chicago Lyric Opera. As you can see, Chicago's season has always been short compared with the Met's and other major houses', they now give only 2-3 performances a week, so it's a bad sign that they've felt compelled to reduce it by 1/4 - still more if you subtract the 29 performances of "West Side Story." Season-long attendance of nearly 80% of capacity would be good news at the Met, but as the story says, it's a comedown for Chicago.

I'd think the casting may have something to do with it. In the days of Carol Fox and Ardis Krainik, Chicago's casts more than rivaled the Met's. But several this season such as "Il Trovatore" have a definite down-market look to them.
John Francis

lennygoran
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Re: Opera Has a Problem: Fans Aren’t Subscribing

Post by lennygoran » Sat Dec 22, 2018 11:52 am

John F wrote:
Sat Dec 22, 2018 11:47 am
I'd think the casting may have something to do with it.
John casting is important for us at times-maybe why I still haven't bought that Zajic Aida ticket yet? Regards, Len [a create-your-own person-halfway between subscriber and single ticketer] :lol:

Rach3
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Re: Opera Has a Problem: Fans Aren’t Subscribing

Post by Rach3 » Sat Dec 22, 2018 2:11 pm

The rich get richer, the rest of us can't afford ?

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Re: Opera Has a Problem: Fans Aren’t Subscribing

Post by Lance » Sat Dec 22, 2018 11:47 pm

Much truth in that statement.
Rach3 wrote:
Sat Dec 22, 2018 2:11 pm
The rich get richer, the rest of us can't afford ?
Lance G. Hill
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lennygoran
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Re: Opera Has a Problem: Fans Aren’t Subscribing

Post by lennygoran » Sun Dec 23, 2018 6:50 am

Lance wrote:
Sat Dec 22, 2018 11:47 pm
Much truth in that statement.
Lance I'll second that! I'm not exactly sure how it applies to opera but it's certainly true in this country politically right now imo. Regards, Len

maestrob
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Re: Opera Has a Problem: Fans Aren’t Subscribing

Post by maestrob » Sun Dec 23, 2018 11:48 am

The MET is selling $25 tickets these days, and they still can't fill the house. I'd say lack of interest in opera is the driving force here. La Selva complained to me that toward the end of his career, he simply couldn't get funding for more than two productions, yet in the 1980's and 90's he had corporate sponsorship for four or five performances each season in Central Park PLUS a concert version of something in Carnegie Hall. Nowadays, Michael Capasso can't seem to get NYCO off the ground, and all the money is being funneled to the MET just to keep it alive.

Heartbreaking!

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Re: Opera Has a Problem: Fans Aren’t Subscribing

Post by Beckmesser » Sun Dec 23, 2018 6:01 pm

By an accident of Fate we happen to have tickets for the Met's New Year's Eve gala when the curtain will go up on a new production of Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur starring Anna Netrebko in the title role. They came with our Monday 3 subscription.

Looking at my email today, I was surprised to find an offer from the Met to upgrade our tickets (which are in the balcony and not at premium prices) so that we can participate in the gala dinner and dance and hobnob with the cast. I have no idea what such an upgrade might cost but what it suggests to me is that the Met has a lot of high-priced tickets that they can't sell.

What does it all mean?

My initial suspicion is that the audience for opera is dying off and is not being replaced.

What is the answer?

For opera companies it probably means shorter seasons so that the audience that remains is packed into fewer performances.

Or, how about the Met and the New York Philharmonic merging into a single entity, with each giving fewer performances?

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Re: Opera Has a Problem: Fans Aren’t Subscribing

Post by Lance » Sun Dec 23, 2018 7:50 pm

The decline in attendance at most classical-type concerts and opera houses has been declining for a long time now. Even the small cities with opera houses and orchestras is experiencing a decline and it just isn't in the USA but across our great globe. A dear friend who was heavily involved in singing as a soprano in opera houses in Germany advises that country has reduced their opera houses by 50% and climbing.
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