Readers of this column will be aware of the myriad challenges facing American opera companies. In the hopes that the current stock market rally does truly reflect the “green shoots” of a genuine economic recovery, I felt inspired to look into my crystal ball and predict the shape of opera companies a decade from now. There are dramatic changes taking place in the opera field, but opera as an art form has shown remarkable resilience and flexibility over its 400-year history, and I feel confident that the art form will survive—and even thrive—in a Facebook and Twitter world. Here are 14 important trends, split into four categories: Structure and Mission, Patrons, Performers and (last but not least) Programming and Artistic:
Structure and Mission
Focus on community service and impact: As I have described in previous columns, community service and demonstrated impact are paramount in a world where many opera companies rely on fund-raising and endowment draw for the majority of their support. The Metropolitan Opera is a great example—the Met HD broadcast series reaches far more patrons in movie theaters than the Met attracts to live performances in the opera house, which has driven a rethinking of its mission and measures of success.
“Hollowing out” of the field: Looking into the future, I feel confident that the largest opera companies will survive for the long term, no matter how difficult the short-term pressures may become. The future looks bright, too, for small opera companies, since fixed costs are low and the level of fund-raising required is comparatively modest. Unfortunately, over the last decade, many worthy mid-sized companies have disappeared (e.g. Opera Boston, San Antonio Opera—although a new company is being formed this year), and some have also been forced to merge in order to survive.
Continued emergence of small opera companies: Much of the growth in the field over the last 20 years has occurred among smaller opera companies, and many major cities benefit from having numerous small companies clustered around a large opera organization. For example, the San Francisco Bay Area has more than a dozen high-quality smaller companies, in addition to San Francisco Opera and Opera San Jose. One of these is Opera Parallèle, whose Artistic Director Nicole Paiement conducted TDO’s production of The Lighthouse in 2011 and will return to Dallas to conduct Death and the Powers in 2014.
Mergers in smaller arts communities: In some cities, the opera companies and symphonies have merged (e.g. Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Dayton), resulting in some economies of scale. I predict that this will remain a very special case, limited to communities with a smaller opera company; symphony and opera are very different art forms, and persuading two Boards and sets of donors to merge is a veritable minefield of complexity.
Bi-modal” audiences: Moving forward, I see opera companies developing two relatively distinct audiences, side by side: the opera house audience and the community audience (meaning the audience served through special events such as flash mobs, simulcasts, family programming, and free community events). Experience to date shows that there is, at best, only a moderate level of overlap between these two audiences, but many General Directors I know are hopeful that the community audience can be encouraged to become single ticket buyers—and ultimately subscribers—over time. The notable exception to this general rule is San Francisco Opera, which has been able to show a direct return on investment from its free public events.
Continued—and dramatic—unbundling of subscriptions: As noted in my last "Off The Cuff," on a national level single tickets now outpace subscription tickets, requiring marketing organizations to spend considerably more to drive the same volume of attendance. (We are relatively fortunate at The Dallas Opera, as next year’s forecast shows subscription seats still ahead of those sold as single tickets, but we, too, are fighting the same trend). Patrons are increasingly unwilling to buy a complete subscription package, preferring instead to select the particular operas they wish to experience.
“Red-lining” the fundraising model: Many opera companies are raising up to 75 percent of their operating budget from annual giving and endowment draw. I believe that the opera field has reached the practical limit on the percentage of budget raised by these methods (apart from some special cases such as New York City Opera), and as the stock market improves we should see some rebalancing towards ticket sales. I still hope that, as a field, we can make it back to 40-40-20—i.e. 40 percent of the budget from ticket sales, 40 percent from annual giving and 20 percent from endowment draw, as that seems a healthy and sustainable model for long-term growth.
Growing talent pool: One of the important outcomes of the Internet’s popularity is the trend towards self-expression, self-branding, and even—to sound altogether Californian for a moment—self-actualization. So while many opera companies are emerging from a very difficult period, with depressed demand for tickets, young artist programs grow more competitive every year. In the recent Opera News interview of Sheri Greenawald from the Merola Opera Program, she notes that Merola had 974 applicants this year, of which 500-600 will receive auditions. Ultimately, only 23 singers will be selected. Now that’s competitive!
Ever-expanding skill requirements: Opera singers have always needed to sing well, but audiences were quite tolerant of deficiencies in other theatrical skills. Now opera singers need to sing better than ever, but they must also act well, move well, be attractive onstage presences, and, increasingly, be genuinely telegenic to support public outreach projects such as sports stadium simulcasts, movie theater broadcasts, and other media projects.
Singers expecting more from their lifestyle: Singers used to resign themselves to lonely, itinerant lives, as they traveled the world from one production to the next. Increasingly, the top singers are basing their performing decisions, at least in part, in how far the production takes them from home, and for how long. Some prominent singers have chosen to focus their careers primarily in Europe—with perhaps an occasional foray to the Met—as travel times within Europe are so much less than within America.
Programming and Artistic
Emphasis on new works and commissions: In past OTCs, I have written extensively about the growth of new works and commissions, and described how even very small opera companies with budgets under $1 million are still quite active in producing new work. This is a tremendously exciting development for the field, but one that also has a counter-intuitive outcome: it has actually become more difficult to find production partners than it was a decade ago, since virtually every company has multiple projects on tap.
Focus on “classics” and “exotics”: Puccini and Verdi are here to stay, as are other famous “classics” – think Carmen, Barber of Seville, Don Giovanni, and the like. These works are well-written, and well-known, which makes them reliable sources of single ticket sales. As noted above, much of today’s programming also emphasizes new works and commissions, as well as occasional lesser-known masterpieces. The losers are the “middle of the road” operas—not popular enough to be a “classic,” but not quite obscure enough to be an “exotic rarity.”
Increased use of video and onstage technology: Just as today’s 50-year-old opera-goer is heavily (if perhaps subliminally) influenced by Music Television from when he or she attended college (bringing some of those expectations to live performances), the explosive growth of online media today means that future generations will be heavily conditioned to expect elaborate video and projections in productions. This expectation will tend to increase costs over time, as the growth of media onstage will not completely replace conventional constructed sets (although as a side note, opera companies are investing much less in new sets of standard repertoire than they did a decade or more ago).
Inclusion of American musical theater in operatic programming: Partially as a defensive measure, and partially because opera singers bring unique talents and interpretations, leading opera companies such as the Chicago Lyric and San Francisco Opera are programming select American musicals performed with opera singers. And why not? If the English National Opera has produced witty and stylish Gilbert and Sullivan operas, why should American opera houses shy away from producing Oklahoma! or Show Boat?
In conclusion, opera in America is undergoing a time of tumultuous change, reflecting in microcosm the sweeping social changes of the past 15 years. It is difficult to overstate how significant the growth of the Internet - plus ubiquitous personal computers, digital cameras, video recorders and iPhones—is to every aspect of our cultural lives. The Internet has fostered greater interest in self-expression, thereby increasing the “supply side”—more singers, more composers, more performers, more blogs and video - but has also weakened the “demand side”, since consumers are now much more particular about where and how they choose to spend their time. This, I believe, is a key reason why subscription sales are much more difficult in 2013 than they were a mere decade ago, since every subscription inevitably includes some operas that are of less interest to a particular patron. Faced with this compromise, many patrons choose not to subscribe at all, and to purchase only the specific operas they find appealing. This trend, unfortunately, reinforces the dominance of the repertoire's "tried and true" and occasional “exotics,” but also runs the risk that audiences will no longer agree to attend an unfamiliar work they would have enjoyed, had they purchased it as part of a subscription series.
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column "Off the Cuff" appears every month in TheaterJones.com. Here is a list of previous columns:
- January 2012 "A Scheme of Delight"
- February 2012 "Visiting Wagner's Bayreuth"
- March 2012 "Commissioning a Successful Opera"
- April 2012 "The New Opera Audience"
- May 2012 "Rivers and Deltas of Musical Time"
- June 2012 "Operatic Blockbusters"
- July 2012 "Maximizing Dallas Opera's Community Footprint"
- August 2012 "The Santa Fe Festival Model"
- September 2012 "Postcard from Glyndebourne"
- October 2012 "Verdi's Egypt: Cracking the Code"
- November 2012 "It's Not Just Contemporary Anymore"
- December 2012 "Singing the Blues"
- January 2013 "Puccini's Golden Dozen"
- February 2013 "Opera and Popular Culture"
- March 2013 "A Dangerous Experiment"
- April 2013 "The Case of the Jealous Mezzo"
- May 2013 "Winning the Red Queen's Race"