Keith Cerny
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The Turning of the Tide

In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny ponders lessons from the recent San Diego Opera ordeal, and it's good news for opera lovers everywhere.

published Sunday, June 1, 2014


Dallas — As anyone who follows the opera world knows, the San Diego Opera has been subjected to intense media scrutiny for several months. While there are literally hundreds of articles available online (thank you, Google), I’ll note just four key dates:

  • March 19, 2014: In a surprise move, the former General Director of the San Diego Opera (SDO) recommends to the company’s Board that it close at the end of the 2013-2014 Season. The SDO Board votes 33-1 to cease operations, in an orderly way, following the final season performance on April 13.
  • Two days later, Board member Carol Lazier begins emergency effort to rescue company and reverse the closure vote; a national media backlash begins against the sudden closure decision.
  • Late March: Marc Scorca, President and CEO of Opera America, assembles a taskforce to assist in the rescue effort. Taskforce includes General Directors of Opera Philadelphia, The Dallas Opera and Fort Worth Opera, and Opera America Field Consultant Kevin Smith.
  • May 16, 2014: San Diego Opera Board formally reverses closure decision, and announces a reduced 2014-2015 Season with three opera productions and a 50th anniversary celebration. The Organization announces plans to continue with core of 25 Board members and a smaller staff.

While this is clearly good news for the opera field, there is much work remaining to stabilize the West Coast company and reassure the community about SDO’s long-term future. I make no apology for my belief that San Diego Opera should do all that it can to stay in business and present great opera, for the benefit of the people of San Diego as well as the artists themselves.

While there are many lessons that can be learned from the San Diego Opera story, I want to focus on just one: the importance for any opera company (or symphony or ballet, for that matter) to build a public following.

For too many years, opera companies were not only saddled with an elitist, out-of-date image, they positively encouraged it. Patrons were asked to treat the opera experience like a religious pilgrimage, with a degree of formality and self-importance that put off many potential newcomers to the art form. Unfortunately for opera, popular culture was moving in another direction—one that encouraged informality and individual tailoring of entertainment options. To reinforce this point, you need only follow the transition of TV programming over the last 30-40 years from a handful of national networks with lockstep programming and formats, to the extraordinarily rich range of options available today through, literally, hundreds of cable channels. And that doesn’t even begin to address the new technologies that allow consumers to download content on demand and “time shift” popular programming.

Opera companies in America have responded to these seismic changes in popular tastes with some changes of their own, including new start times, special events and programs for younger patrons, and shifts in repertoire to reflect more contemporary tastes. These changes, while important, have not been sufficient to stem the tide and, in many cities, the decline or even collapse of existing opera companies.

But, finally, there is now encouraging news. Many American opera companies are employing a powerful new motivating principle as a key element of their strategies, which is, simply put, to define opera as a type of broad-based “public service.” Yes, at their core, many opera companies are devoted to presenting great artists on a conventional stage, accompanied by live orchestra. But in a world where up to 75 percent of the budget comes from contributed income and endowment draws, opera companies must “earn the right” each year to raise the huge funds necessary to continue operations. We will continue to raise some funds from long-term opera donors in support of particular artists or revival productions, and this is an ongoing element of our collective fund-raising strategy. However, simultaneously, we must be able to prove our worth by demonstrating that we appeal to broad sections of the community, and raise funds in support of those programs. This is not an impossible task; after all, in many German opera houses, patron demographics inside the opera house duplicate the broader community outside.

At The Dallas Opera, we have focused our community outreach energy in three areas: education, family programming, and free public simulcasts. Taken together, these programs have huge impact. For the fiscal year just ending, TDO will have had approximately 87,000 patron contacts. Around 33,000 of these were for paid tickets in the purpose-built Winspear Opera House. TDO reached an additional 27,000 people through simulcasts and community events (e.g. family performances, lobby activities, audience, community performances, community partnerships, and dress rehearsals) and another 27,000 through education programs (e.g. school focused performances and teacher training, camp and after-school programs, young artist program, vocal competition, and pre-performance lectures). Put another way, for every patron reached inside the opera house, The Dallas Opera reaches almost two more in the greater community—a statistic of which we are very proud.

Focusing for the moment on simulcasts, TDO has generated significant national attention on its free public simulcasts, including significant coverage in relation to the San Diego Opera saga. Over the last three years, TDO has reached over 40,000 patrons in free public simulcasts in the football stadium, at Klyde Warren Park near the Opera House, and other venues in the Arts District. While the performances and parking at the stadium are free, we ask patrons to request tickets in advance, which allows us to capture their e-mail addresses and develop a marketing relationship with them.

We have surveyed this stadium simulcast population, and found, as we initially hoped, that it represented a younger, more ethnically-and-income-diverse population, and one more reflective of the community at large. The differences were most striking in the area of income demographics. As an example, the percentage of patrons with modest household incomes (less than $40K), was more than three times as high for simulcast patrons compared to subscribers, and approaching double that of single ticket buyers. Nearly two-thirds of the simulcast attendees had total household incomes under $80K, versus one third of our subscribers. In terms of ethnic makeup, the simulcast patrons had more than double the percentages of Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American attendees when compared to our subscribers. The simulcasts also attract far more families than subscription performances in the Winspear Opera House (although we do attract a large number of families with our $5 family programming, reaching approximately 8,000 patrons each year through that program). While there is still work to do to enable TDO to reach a fully representative cross-section of the community, the free simulcasts have clearly helped TDO to share the gift of opera with everyone, and develop a level of support that we would not enjoy if we performed solely in a conventional opera house setting.

When we examine the marketing data, it is clear that simulcast attendees were drawn literally from every corner of the Metroplex, from east of Dallas to west of Fort Worth (and beyond). We plotted attendance using the mapping software Maptitude, which Opera America rolled out last year showing that the opera does, in fact, draw patrons at all income levels. We were particularly gratified to see the large number of simulcast patrons who live in Arlington, not known for making the drive to the opera house in Dallas. You can see a graph that plots the attendance for TDO’s three stadium simulcasts is below, which include Mozart’s Magic Flute in 2012, Puccini’s Turandot in 2013, and Rossini’s Barber of Seville in 2014.

Photo: The Dallas Opera

Returning now to the San Diego story, it is clear that any modern opera company needs as broad-based community support as possible. To help restore the company, the new leadership created an online crowdfunding campaign that quickly raised $1 million. After a $500,000 match was announced, the company raised an additional $500,000, leading to more than $2 million in fundraising in a very short period of time. These donations, plus a $1 million donation from the new Board President, Carol Lazier, allowed the company to reverse the tide, and ultimately vote to remain open (albeit with a somewhat reduced programming schedule and fewer staff). While the company may have drifted away from securing broad community support in recent years, the threat of closure, coupled with effective PR and marketing, galvanized local citizens as well as opera lovers across the country (If you Google “San Diego Opera closure,” there are nearly 2,000 links referenced). And, in this challenging era for all classical performing arts organizations, I personally believe that companies, large and small, need to be inspired by the famous words of Dylan Thomas:


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


A little morbid?  Perhaps. But as we contemplate the next historical phase of a 400-year old art form, we must be prepared to rethink, reinvent, renew—and yes, rage—against the underestimated threats of complacency and redundancy. Opera remains the most elaborate and multi-faceted of all art forms, and one worthy of a full renaissance. For all of us who devote our professional lives to the operatic art form, the San Diego Opera story is both heartening and reassuring because it shows that with the right leadership and enthusiastic support from the community, staff, unions and the industry, an opera company facing a very difficult situation can turn the tide rather than “go down for the third time.” 

Good luck—we are all rooting for you! 


◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in Below is a list of previous columns:

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The Turning of the Tide
In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny ponders lessons from the recent San Diego Opera ordeal, and it's good news for opera lovers everywhere.
by Keith Cerny

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