I had the pleasure recently of attending the Kimbell Art Museum's special exhibit, "The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Clark" (which closes this Sunday, June 17). It's a diverse and carefully selected collection of 73 works, including exquisite Renoirs (a particular favorite of Sterling and Francine Clark), Monets, Sisleys, Manets and many others. My personal favorite? Monet's atmospheric 1867 painting entitled "Street in Sainte-Adresse."
I visited the museum on a Sunday afternoon, and the gallery was bustling with visitors, many of whom had clearly been drawn by this special exhibition. It's worth remembering, though, the idea of "blockbuster" special exhibits is still relatively new. In 1976, the Metropolitan Museum of Art put on the famous King Tut exhibition, and the rest is history. Since then, blockbuster exhibitions have become a staple in the art world, if sometimes a controversial one. Detractors point to the alleged intellectual shallowness of touring exhibitions, and the distraction that they create for museum leadership away from—in their view—rigorous curatorial pursuits. Supporters point to the huge revenue and attendance figures that these exhibits generate, especially from that blockbuster of blockbusters, "Monet and the Impressionists." As one would expect from a world-class museum such as the Kimbell, the works were skillfully and sensitively presented, and it would be hard for me to argue that this exhibit was anything other than enlightening.
Seeing this exhibition got me thinking about the challenge that arts and science non-profit organizations regularly confront: how to introduce their mission via a "gateway," a compelling presentation designed to excite new patrons, benefactors, and audience members about what we do.
In opera, the gateway is a handful of operas, including Bizet's Carmen and additional works by Mozart, Verdi and Puccini. The Three Tenors concert series also played a role in building popular fascination with certain aspects of singing and opera. In science museums, the gateway is probably the Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur; just consider the tremendous popularity of "Sue," the 67-million-year-old T-Rex that towers over tourists at the Field Museum in Chicago. In ballet, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker has introduced generations of children and adults to the excitement of ballet.
Other types of non-profits have re-invented themselves to draw a huge public following. A true innovator, Julie Packard founded the Monterey Bay Aquarium in a disused sardine cannery in 1980. In addition to the organization's excellent scientific credentials, Ms. Packard built the institution to engage the public with a series of breathtaking exhibits, including great white sharks in captivity and the famous jellyfish exhibits. More recently, she has also integrated visual arts into the exhibits, such as stunning glass creations by renowned artist Dale Chihuly. And speaking of Chihuly, I have no doubt that the Dallas Arboretum's decision to install a special Chihuly exhibition will attract huge numbers of new visitors.
For most of these projects, the economics are quite favorable. The Nutcracker is a great money-spinner for many ballet companies; if Tchaikovsky were alive today, he would be proud to know that his composition supports virtually the entire field. Special exhibits for art and science museums spark news coverage, higher levels of community interest and paid attendance, and a healthy improvement in the bottom line. This is particularly notable for these museums, in that typically the "gate"—i.e. admission ticket sales at the door—is a much lower proportion of revenue than other types of support (such as endowment and annual giving).
In the opera world, the situation is more complex, and decidedly more delicate. In part, this is because opera companies now rely on a combination of annual giving and contributions from the endowment to provide up to 70-75 percent of their annual operating expenses. Even the most popular operas – say, Bizet's Carmen or Puccini's La Bohème – cannot take in enough ticket revenue over the course of the run to meet every expense; additional fundraising is required just to keep the production "in the black." On an incremental basis (i.e. the addition of a single performance to a subscription series) it is possible to break even, or to come out slightly ahead. But the economics here look only at the extra revenue, less the costs directly attributable to that performance (e.g. the principal singers and any extra orchestra players). As a result, it is entirely possible for an opera company to sell out its entire season, and still face financial ruin later that fiscal year if it does not raise enough money to cover the gap between revenue and expenses. As a side note, despite their reputation for profitability, many Broadway shows actually lose fistfuls of money; only a small minority turn a profit and make a good return for their investors.
With this type of economic structure, designing the right opera season is both a joy and a tremendous challenge, and there are as many approaches to the task as there are opera company general directors. In my experience, the greatest predictors of single ticket sales are the audience's familiarity with the composer and the opera's title, although there are a few major artists who can single-handedly drive huge increases in ticket sales (Plácido Domingo being one current example).
Opera companies often begin their planning process by identifying one or more projects that are of interest to the artistic leadership of the company. These might include presenting operas to showcase favorite vocal artists; a contemporary work or commission; the most compelling work by a less well-known composer; or a less well-known work by a prolific popular composer such as Verdi. Wrapped around these special projects will be a number of operatic staples with proven commercial appeal. These commercial productions need to be strong enough financially to enable the company to produce less well-known or more contemporary work, and still provide an appropriate level of financial balance across the entire season. The company must also balance repertory selection across multiple years to ensure a good mix of composers, compositional time periods and styles, sung languages, "top 10" versus "top 25" operas, and established versus emerging composers – not to mention creating platforms for conductors and singers that they want to feature.
One key means of achieving this artistic and financial balance is varying the number of performances per production. Opera companies typically require a baseline number of performances to meet subscriber demand, and then can add additional performances to meet anticipated single ticket demand if the economics justify them. When I worked at the San Francisco Opera as Executive Director and CFO, the range was usually between 6 and 13 performances per production; at the Dallas Opera, our range is from 4 to 6 for mainstage productions. (This past spring, the company presented four performances of Tristan und Isolde, and six each of The Magic Flute and La traviata). In both cases, I have used sophisticated financial models to evaluate the impact of adjusting the number of performances. And, if an extra performance or two breaks even or better, it is worth adding to the season to ensure the greatest possible community impact.
Although I fervently hope that the opera world will remain "on an even keel" in the quest for a relative balance of revenue from ticket sales, annual giving, and endowment, I know that all general directors will continue to wrestle with season balance and economics. By carefully managing the interplay between an organization's artistic goals and the financial profile of various works, opera companies can continue to present vibrant, relevant and exciting programming that stimulates ticket buyers, critics and donors. Inclusion of the right popular operas will also keep the "gateway" open for new audiences. In the meantime, I will keep my ears and eyes alert for the next operatic blockbuster. When I find it, you'll be among the first to know.
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column "Off the Cuff" appears every month in TheaterJones.com. His first column can be seen here, the second is here, third here and fourth here, and the fifth here.