I returned a few weeks ago to Dallas from Philadelphia, where I had been attending the Opera America Board meeting and annual conference. Having been to a number of these conferences over the years, I would describe the mood of my fellow opera leaders as more somber than usual. It is quite clear that the lingering economic recession, limited stock market growth over the past decade, and profound changes in how audiences are spending their entertainment dollar are weighing heavily on many opera companies across the United States.
In one panel discussion, a number of companies presented their strategies for how they are doing more with fewer resources, and an important new concept emerged. Several of us spoke about the need to maximize our "community footprint"—a term that captures not just the opera's mainstage and chamber opera performances, but the company's total impact on the community. I believe that this measure is extremely important and will become more so, over time.
As I described in a recent Off the Cuff column, opera economics are becoming increasingly dependent on donations and endowment draw, rather than ticket sales. Whereas a generation ago it was quite typical for two-thirds of an opera company's budget to come from ticket sales, and the remainder from endowment draw and annual fundraising, now the tables have turned; it is not uncommon for opera companies to receive up to 65-75 percent of their operating support from annual giving and endowment draw. For a chamber opera series, the fundraising requirement may be as high as 80 percent of total expense, although the absolute dollar amount that needs to be raised is often far less.
While this balance of contributed income and ticket sales for opera companies may be the "new normal," it is certainly scary. As a distinguished venture capitalist friend of mine, and former chair of a major America opera company, once put it: "if anyone had ever pitched me this as an idea for a new business, I would never have invested in it."
This shift in economics has not only made a major change to the operating model of a modern opera company (for example, in the size and experience level of the Development staff), it has also transformed the mission of many companies as well. In a world where donations and endowment draw account for as much as three-quarters of the annual revenue, I believe that opera companies must earn the right to rely on this level of public support by maximizing their community footprint. And, like many executives, I believe that measurement drives organizational behavior very powerfully, so that it is important for opera companies to measure this impact rigorously.
Recognizing that each opera company will define its footprint in its own way, we include three primary elements in the definition of TDO's community footprint. The first is our core product, which is mainstage and chamber opera. Without performing operas at the highest possible level of artistic quality, we are simply not a successful opera company. The second area, which builds upon the first, is music, theater and opera education for children, teenagers, college students, and adults. The third area is community events, which includes free public simulcasts, free or deeply discounted public concerts, and the like.
In keeping with this philosophy, we have adapted TDO's "mix" considerably over the last two seasons. For the 2011-2012 season which just ended, TDO presented the following community touch points:
- Opera Performances: TDO provided approximately 44,000 tickets, both subscription and single tickets (some full-price and some discounted) for performances in the Winspear Opera House and the Wyly Theater.
- Free Public Simulcasts: TDO reached roughly 16,000 simulcast patrons, spread across an opening night simulcast of Lucia di Lammermoor conducted adjacent to the Winspear Opera House, and the dramatic Cowboys Stadium simulcast later that same season. These captured a much broader range of demographics (e.g. income, ethnicity) than typical single ticket buyers, let alone subscribers.
- Education Programs: Lastly, TDO made approximately 25,000 student contacts, more than double the figure from the previous year. These programs help to encourage future generations of opera goers and supplement school and university programs. They also provide exposure for exciting young performers and aspiring arts administrators on a highly cost effective basis.
In round numbers, this distribution of touch points works out to around 50 percent of total contacts made in an opera house or theater, another 20 percent through free public simulcasts, and an additional 30 percent of all contacts through various educational activities. While every organization must decide its optimum balance for immediate impact as well as the potential for future growth, this distribution fits with our strategic goals for the company—although we hope to boost simulcast attendance still further in seasons to come.
As I noted in an earlier "Off the Cuff" on Audience Development, it is relatively easy to build consensus with boards, donors and supporters around what type of audience we should aspire to develop. The ideal new audience would be young, multi-ethnic, and fully representative of the broader community. It would be equally open to new operatic and cultural experiences as well as to performances of the staples of the operatic repertoire. It would also be willing to support the opera with regular ticket sales (in particular, subscription sales), enthusiastic word of mouth and social media promotion, and significant financial contributions.
Anyone who has read these postings knows that I am passionate about the impact of free public simulcasts, and the impact that they can have on audience development. They have been presented by London's Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, by the Houston Grand Opera, and by the San Francisco Opera in both Civic Center and San Francisco's baseball stadium, known as AT&T Park. They have also been presented by Seattle Opera, the Metropolitan Opera in New York's Times Square, and the Washington National Opera in the Washington Nationals stadium. These simulcasts, and others, have attracted a younger and more diverse audience than typically attends performances in person, even in the inexpensive seats. And, as many readers know, The Dallas Opera presented a simulcast of Mozart's Magic Flute this past April. Underwritten by The Dallas Foundation, the event drew an estimated crowd of 15,000.
TDO recently conducted an electronic survey of its simulcast patrons, with parallel surveys sent to our subscribers and recent single ticket buyers. While the demographics of the simulcast patrons do not yet fit all of the criteria for the ideal new audience, they do represent many of the key elements. Based on these surveys, 6 percent of opera subscribers earn under $40,000 per year; by contrast, 20 percent of simulcast patrons have household incomes in that range. While around one-third (34 percent) of opera subscribers earn less than $90,000 per year, around two-thirds (66 percent) of simulcast patrons do. And, at the high end of the income scale, while nearly half of TDO subscribers earn over $125,000 per year, only 14 percent of our simulcast patrons earn at this level. All of these statistics point to the ability of a simulcast to draw an audience from a wider cross-section of the community.
The TDO simulcast also attracted a more diverse and representative mix of ethnic backgrounds. TDO, like many performing arts organizations across the country, is working hard to attract a truly diverse audience. Based on this survey, TDO's typical subscriber audience is around 90 percent Caucasian, and our single ticket buyers are around 80 percent. This is better than some classical music organizations across the country but, frankly, it's still not good enough. TDO's simulcast patrons, by happy contrast, were a much more diverse crowd. Simulcast attendees were around two-thirds (68 percent) Caucasian. While Latinos and Hispanics make up only 5 percent of subscribers and 10 percent of single ticket buyers, they represented an impressive 15 percent of the simulcast attendees. African-Americans jumped from 2 percent of subscribers to 8 percent of simulcast patrons, and Asian Americans who constituted around 1 percent of subscribers made up 6 percent of simulcast patrons.
Admittedly, the survey data is rough, and we had to rely on survey respondents to self-identify age, income and ethnic background. But for me, these statistics point to the importance of this type of community outreach.
One key issue to consider is whether simulcasts have a direct economic return as a stand-alone project. In 2006, Kenneth Feinberg, then the President of Washington National Opera noted, "There's a central question here—and it is not only a question in Washington but in New York and San Francisco and in all the great opera companies. Will these new technology initiatives raise revenue, or is revenue not the primary goal?" While the jury is still out on this question for many opera companies, San Francisco Opera has recently pointed to a direct return on its simulcast investment in ticket sales. My own view is that while these types of performances are typically not moneymakers when viewed on a narrow return-on-investment basis, they remove opera from its pedestal, build future audiences and secure vital community support—particularly important in a world where donations make up such a large proportion of total operating budgets. At TDO, we are already beginning to invite simulcast patrons to free summer events, and, as time passes and we track conversion of simulcast attendees to single ticket buyers (and, hopefully, subscribers), we will be able to answer this question for ourselves. In the meantime, the simulcasts and expanded education programs make powerful additions to TDO's changing community footprint, giving us the chance to make our mark on successive generations of audiences while constructing a broader-based foundation of future support for the arts in DFW.
By anybody's yardstick, that's what we call a "win-win."
◊ 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, the fifth here and sixth here.