City Opera footnote

A few further thoughts on the New York City Opera, their $25 ticket promotion (for two special performances), and their ways of attracting a new audience.

As I wrote, I saw one of those $25 performances—the opera was Butterfly, with a greeting from the stage at the start, and video introductions to the first two acts—and thought it was quite a success. But now what? Doing this once doesn’t mean much, and in fact might even alienate the audience that the promotion attracted. “We thought they cared about us, and now…?” So what’s the followup?

Not, of course, that the company could readily charge just $25 any time they liked. They had to raise money to afford the low price for even those two performances, because (or so the conventional wisdom among marketers goes) they would have taken in more at full price even with many fewer sales.

But they have to find some way to continue this program, or something like it. Currently, they’re running a promotion similar to something I bought into at Barnes & Noble. I paid $25, and for a year I get a 10% discount on any book I buy. For me, that was a no-brainer. I buy a lot of books there.

City Opera peppily calls its version the Big Deal! (Yes, with an exclamation point. Sigh.) It’s for people aged 21 to 35, certainly an audience the company wants to attract. But the details are complicated. There are two versions of the program; one costs you $50 up front, the other costs $75. Both promise savings if you buy just one ticket.

And that, if you ask me, is where the trouble might start. There’s something counterintuitive about the whole deal, even if you really do save with just one purchase. That’s because the upfront cost is so high. “Wait …I pay you $75. Then I buy a ticket, and I give you more money. And you say I’m saving?” Well, yes, because of something you have to pinch yourself to understand, because they slip it so smoothly into their explanation: This Big Deal! only lets you buy the expensive seats. But I’ll admit I’m simplifying. Read the whole thing for yourself, and see what you think.

To me, the whole thing sounds like a con game, even if it’s completely honest. The claims don’t make sense until, as I said, you pinch yourself, force yourself to grasp the details, and maybe do some arithmetic. Bad planning, I’d say, though of course I might be wrong. The program might be a huge success. If it isn’t, though, I might suggest that it’s too complex, sounds too implausible, and in any case, just like the Barnes & Noble promotion, is most likely to appeal only to people who know they want to go to many operas. I mean, $50 in advance, plus the ticket cost, if you’re only going to go once…doesn’t sound right, even if (repeating myself here) it really makes sense. And sound counts more than substance, at least in marketing.

Footnote to the footnote: The company offers video trailers for all its productions this year. A good idea; I loved it when I heard about it. But I loved it less when I saw the trailers. I watched four. Two had no music. Now, how dumb is that? I do grant that it’s hard for an opera company to put even its own performance of something on the web; its contract with its musicians might forbid that. And using a commercial recording can be expensive, too. The two trailers I saw that had no music were both for unusual operas that City Opera had never done before. But trust me. Watch the trailer for Richard Rodney Bennett’s The Mines of Sulphur, and wait for the part where you’re told that, even though the music is atonal, it’s pleasantly atonal (or words to that effect). Won’t you want to hear a little sample, to see if that’s true? Of course you will.

And there was also, in all four trailers, a problem of tone. Who were they aimed at? Experienced opera fans, classical music lovers who don’t often go to the opera, people new to opera and classical music? The two without music, especially, seemed pitched rather high for a general audience (somewhere in category one or category two). If that’s who the company wants to attract, fine. But I doubt that’s the point. The most useful thing these trailers could do is appeal to a new audience, and I don’t think they do that.

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