Opera’s Missing Audience Development Gene Threatens Its Very Survival

Madama Butterfly, on stage now at the Metropolitan Opera.

Madama Butterfly, on stage now at the Metropolitan Opera.

I am an opera fan.

I say that with some trepidation. Liking opera is a bit like being a railfan. No matter how much you think you’re into it, there’s always someone else who is at least ten times nuttier about it than you.

Nevertheless, I see a decent number of operas.

But it’s not impossible that large scale opera performance in the United States will go extinct before I die .

Opera is a deeply troubled enterprise. Its financial model is broken as it struggles with Baumol’s cost disease, among other problems.  It has artistic challenges such as the lack of new operas entering the repertory, which leads companies to try to artistically innovate through outré productions that by and large don’t work.

But its most basic problem is that its audience is literally dying.

As recently as 2008 the Metropolitan Opera sold 92% of its seats. Today that’s down into the 70s. Even truly excellent productions sometimes play to a house that’s a third or more empty.

One of the bright spots for the Met, its high definition simulcasts in movie theaters, looks to me to be heading for an even bigger crash. The are still more than a few younger attendees at the opera house itself, even if its average age is still high. But every time I’ve been to a movie theater showing, it was almost exclusively senior citizens.

I have been doing background research for over a year on a major magazine piece I hope to write about the future of the Met Opera at some point.

In the meantime, I want to talk about one of the biggest problems opera faces today: its lack of audience development capability.  It’s almost as if opera, for so long so popular and prestigious tickets basically sold themselves, has a missing gene for building audiences.

As I said, I like to see opera. After moving to NYC in 2014, I saw 22 performances at the Met in calendar year 2015.   So far this year I’ve seen 12 in only two and a half months.

Now it’s true that I often buy rush tickets or Family Circle (the upper balcony), though I do sometimes buy higher priced seats. But in a company that badly needs butts in seats, you would think that they’d be thrilled that someone who goes to lots of performances and has multiple decades of future potential ticket buying capacity ahead of him has shown up at their door.

To date, however, the only times I have ever been contacted by the Met Opera is in the form of solicitations to buy even more tickets or donate money.

I don’t mind being solicited. It’s entirely appropriate for them to market themselves and ask for money. While I haven’t donated anything yet, that actually is on my agenda for this year.

On the other hand, when all you do is solicit money, how does that build any sort of relationship with or loyalty to the organization?

What’s more, their approach can even be counter-productive.  Just yesterday I got a call from a Met telemarketer – during the Met’s own Saturday afternoon radio broadcast.

Here I am enjoying the opera after my visit to the antifa protest, and my phone interrupts asking me for an opera donation.  Odd timing to say the least.

I inform the person that I am familiar with the benefits the Met gives to donors and have the information that was mailed to me, but I’m not interested in donating at this time. But in typical telemarketing style, the person would not allow me to politely disengage from the conversation and forced me to hang up on her.

It’s been observed that people today are taking an increasingly mercenary view of the Met and gaming the ticket system to get deals.

The Met might look at me and say I’m exploiting the system. I can understand why they might feel that way and there’s probably even some truth to it.

But turn it around and look at it from the audience perspective. From what I’ve experienced, the Met takes a purely transactional view of its customers. Why wouldn’t they return the favor?

The Met seems all about getting more money out of people in the now. What’s more, it forces people into unpleasant interactions (like my telemarketing experience) that bucket them with two-bit marketing outfits instead of the world’s greatest art organizations.

I am personally internally self-motivated to buy opera tickets so this won’t affect me. I am a big supporter of the Met and want it to succeed. I certainly plan to donate money to them this year.

But people like me are the exception.

Consider how other organizations create a sense of relationship and thus inspire loyalty and repeat business. Take Zappos for instance. Tony Hsieh, who runs the company, built it to deliver a “WOW” experience to customers. For example, they sometimes give free upgrades to overnight shipping. Imagine how you’d feel about Zappos after you order some shoes before you go to bed, expect to get them in 2-3 days, and have them get there the next morning. Think that’s a company you’d order from next time?  Hsieh’s biography and story of the company, Delivering Happiness, goes into detail on this.

Apply this to the opera. Imagine that people who buy some threshold number of tickets get a letter from some bigwig there thanking them for being part of what the Met is doing – without asking for money. These could even be totally automated and robo-signed. Cost: practically zero. But it lets people know they are noticed and valued. And it gives them an envelope that’s an unexpected delight to open.

I used to be a subscriber to the Chicago Opera Theater, that city’s smaller, more experimental opera company.  When I left my position as a partner at Accenture to launch my new career, I told them I had to eliminate my annual donation because I was starting again from zero in a completely eat what you kill environment.

COT, without my asking, extended the benefits of my previous donation level to the next season anyway. The cost to them was basically zero. And while I left Chicago that year, I have never forgotten that. So while it hasn’t paid off necessarily (yet) for them, because of what they did, if I ever find myself in the position to give a major gift to an opera company they are the ones getting it. In the meantime I’ll sing their praises whenever I get a chance.

Smaller, scrappier organizations seem to get this way better than the big companies. Perhaps partly out of necessity, and partly out of scale reasons.

I also attended the Lyric Opera of Chicago for many years. One Saturday night I ran into a young woman (mid-20s) from work at the performance. The opera in question happened to be Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage, an obscure opera and a complete dud of a production.

This woman had never been to an opera before. I asked her how she picked this opera as her first. She told me she’d called the Lyric to buy tickets and they suggested this one.

I about blew a sprocket.

Here the Lyric had a twentysomething professional interested in trying out the opera for the first time. Instead of sending her to Carmen or another famous crowd pleaser and otherwise making sure she had a “WOW” experience, the Lyric dumped their worst ticket of the season on her, one that I’d guess wasn’t selling well.

Is it any wonder the next generation of opera fans is so much smaller than what went before?

The sad thing is that opera companies already have one of the ultimate “WOW” products in the form of the very productions on their stages. But they just seem incapable of converting that into loyal younger ticket buyers.

I’m not going to suggest there aren’t major barriers to attracting new audiences. I wrote a piece seven years ago that goes into some of them, and still believe it’s relevant today. I’ve got many ideas on this and other fronts. But there’s just basic level stuff that these organizations never had to master before because there was no need, and it shows.

This is going to require a change in mindset that requires the Met and other organizations to actually invest in potential future audiences members with an eye towards the lifetime value of a loyal ticket buyer. This is the opposite of how things used to work, apart from potential major donors. The ticket buyers were always the ones who were expected to invest in the organization.

In an era where the audience is dying off faster than the replacement rate, that won’t work anymore. Realistically these opera companies should have started making that investment 10 to 20 years ago so that they’d already be reaping the harvest. Today they are behind the eight ball.

The Met has big financial challenges right now.  Believe me, getting cash in the door in the now is a big deal, very important, and can’t be ignored. By all means please keep calling and asking me for money. I don’t mind.

But unless the game gets changed, this is just going to be a process of managing decline. As part of its major fundraising program, the Met needs to have a budget for long term audience development.  And it needs to turn to savvy marketers from outside the arts world – I suggest looking at luxury or fashion houses – to make it happen.

from Aaron M. Renn


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