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July 26, 2006

What can orchestras learn from opera companies?

by Barbara Jepson

Janelle's reference to the American Symphony Orchestra League's 1992 Wolf Report, and its possible relevance
to orchestra managements today, reminds me of some interesting findings that came out of a survey done for
Opera America in 2003. (Locating it is a little, um, shall we say, circuitous. Go to www.operaamerica.org, then click on "Companies," then "Marketing and Public Relations Resources," then "Deepening Opera Attendance"--the 2003 study. )

In a section called Research Findings Challenge Conventional Opera Wisdom, the following points struck me as particularly intriguing and possibly germane to orchestras and chamber ensembles as well:

1. There is no ladder!

The research did not support a long-standing belief in the industry of an upward, linear progression from
ticket buyer to subscriber to donor (then to higher-level donor) that underlies the marketing strategies of many
opera companies.....

2. The seat is the benefit (The second and third points listed here are numbered differently in the report.)

Preferred seating was seen as the primary benefit of subscribing or donating by 70% of all interviewees and
90% of subscribers......

3. Major donors do not appear to reflect the thinking or priorities of most of the audience.

The current approach to Board membership may be a barrier to deepening opera attendance and personal
involvement with opera companies.

By focusing primarily on major donors, companies may be leaving significant dollars on the table.......

What are the implications of There hasn't been much about opera on our blog so far. And in light of our "best of times, worst of times" issue, It's intriguing to me that, according to Opera America, the opera audience in the U.S. grew 35% between 1982 and
1992, and an additional 8.2% between 1992 and 2002. The growth has obviously slowed since 1992, and we all know of individual situations where there's been a major drop-off, most notably, at the Metropolitan Opera.

But contrast this to the symphony orchestra world. On the ASOL web site, under Quick Orchestral Facts for the
2002-03 season, it reports that total attendance at all orchestra concerts declined slightly in the 2002-03 season,
though it was still higher than a decade ago. (When they broke out classical concerts only, attendance had grown
by about half a percent.) We all know of individual situations in more than one major city where attendance is
easily down 10 percent or more.

What are the implications of these findings for orchetras? We haven't had much discussion of opera so far--is this the best or worst of times for opera? It seems like it's better overall than for symphony orchestras. Why might
that be? Do the visual and theatrical elements of opera make it more appealing to people? I've hated most of the visuals I've seen at symphony orchestra concerts, although I recall a wonderful recital by cellist Maya Beiser at Zankel Hall that went far beyond the usual slide accompaniments that attempt, in often silly or superficial ways, to mirror the music. Whoever did the visuals for her--it was an artist or designer of some sort--was really imaginative.

Posted by bjepson at July 26, 2006 09:57 AM


The Maya Beiser concert is an interesting example. She was a member of the Bang on a Can All-stars. That group has always had a knack for marketing and savvy visuals. It belongs to a new trend of hipster crowds of primarily young string quartets and new music ensembles. Without the institutional baggage, it's easy to hire whoever you want to work with for designs and stuff- the latest post-punk graffiti artist or whatever.

At a place like the MET or the Phil, they want established names that are often more conservative or conventional. However, with Peter Gelb coming in it might get better. Certainly Taymor's production of the Magic Flute was (supposedly) quite visually appealing. Unfortunately, for the poor student that I am, I never had the chance to go see it.

Posted by: Eric Lin at July 26, 2006 11:56 AM

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