So much fuss about Peter Gelb, so many accusations flying!
And not just from the unions he’s locked in battle with. I’m late to this discussion, but what got my attention was Norman Lebrecht saying that Peter was not only wrong, but was lying — outright lying — when he says that attendance at opera performances (and at classical music events generally) is falling, both in the US and in Europe
This is untrue, and Peter knows it is untrue.
Peter Gelb is out there telling the world that opera is doomed when others are getting off their butts and making it bigger and better.
If everyone else thinks opera is growing and Peter Gelb alone insists it is doomed, what we have here is not an artistic crisis but a clinical dysfunction at the top of the Met.
But is this how we ought to think about these things?
Yes, some companies are doing well. That would be true even if the entire field was doing badly. It’s a basic principle of statistics. And of common sense. If you look at a large enough sample of opera companies — or shoe manufacturers, or dairy farmers, or any group you care to name — a few will be doing much better than the norm, and a few will be doing much worse.
So you can always find success stories. But in the larger picture, they’re meaningless. What you want to know is what the norm is — what’s happening to most shoe manufacturers. Or opera companies. Maybe the Chicago Lyric is having wonderful years, but how’s the field doing as a whole?
As it happens, we have an answer for that. Back in September, I asked my invaluable assistant, Caroline Firman, to contact classical music service organizations in the US, and ask if they had information on ticket sales in the area of classical music they deal with. Kate Place, research director of Opera America, supplied a chart showing attendance from 1988 to 2012 at all the larger US opera companies, taken together:
So Peter Gelb may be right. These numbers aren’t complete. We don’t know how smaller companies are doing. Kate Place says that not enough of them report their data for her to feel that she can say how they’re doing as a group. But what’s happening at the larger companies is clear. Ever since 2001, they’ve been selling fewer tickets. Maybe the numbers picked up since 2012, but what would that mean? A two-year increase wouldn’t reverse the trend. (Unless, of course, it brought the numbers right back up to where they were in 2001, but as we’ll see in just a moment, even at the Chicago Lyric that’s not close to happening.)
The importance of context
But how did they do the year before? Really badly. In their 2012-13 season, ticket sales were only 83% of capacity, down from 88% the season before. That’s a 9.4% drop.
So now they’re doing better. If, when they talk about their 2014 fiscal year they mean the 2013-14 season, which just ended, their 8% sales increase brings them back up to 89.6% of capacity.But all that does is wipe out the drop from the year before. It doesn’t establish any kind of long-term trend.
And are you ready for this? Even at 89.6% of capacity they’re down — way down — from a stunning 103% in the 1990s.
How did they sell 103% of their tickets? It’s simple. When subscribers couldn’t go to performances, they’d give the tickets back without asking for a refund. And the company would then resell those seats to single-ticket buyers.
I remember those days well. I wanted to know how they’d sold 103% (which meant selling out even the contemporary operas they produced), and so I called them and had an informative talk with a member of their marketing staff. They were marketing demons, I learned. If seats were unsold for a 20th century or contemporary opera, they’d get on the phone to anyone in their database who’d ever bought a ticket to such a work, and talk them into buying yet another one.
But that was then. Now we have a ticket sales decline from 103% of capacity down to 89.6%. That’s a fall — from the 1990s to 2014 — of 13%. Or 20%, if you use the 2012-2013 numbers. (Which for all anyone knows could return in 2014-15.)
This isn’t a success story. It’s a story about a long-term decline. The Lyric might now announce what seem, in the present climate, like wonderful results, but in the past 20 years they’ve taken a big hit to their bottom line. Which hardly refutes what Peter Gelb said. Instead, it provides supporting evidence suggesting that he’s right.
More coming. We still need to look at the health of opera in Europe. And at why Peter Gelb sits in the center of so much commotion.
Two points to remember:
When you want to know how an entire field is doing, don’t cherrypick your facts. Get comprehensive data.
And when you do discuss an individual case, put it in the proper context.