Last month, the Vancouver Opera announced that it was going to have one more year of a regular season, then switch to a “festival” structure. That is, instead of four productions spaced throughout the year, it was going to have a concentrated three-week burst of opera once a year. Or at least that’s how the story seemed to run. Yesterday, I went to a town hall for subscribers. General Director Jim Wright spent 30 minutes laying out the Opera’s business situation, and an hour in a lively question and answer session. It was informative, and placed the Opera’s strategy in a much better light. After the session, I reviewed the news coverage of the announcement. I was surprised that more than half of the story about the Opera’s business situation was in those news articles. However, it wasn’t put into quite the compelling context that Wright give in the town hall.  So take a look at:

I went to the town hall very interested in getting solid information on the strategic situation. Wright, happily, had lots to share. He passed on market research from Opera America (an organisation supporting opera, not limited to the USA) and the leadership’s own observations. The audience, ticket sales, and donations for traditional large-house opera are in secular decline world-wide. Vancouver music director Jonathan Darlington conducts to half-empty houses in Dresden. The Wiener Staatsoper doesn’t reliably sell out anymore.   The New York Met is finding their broadcasts cannibalise their own ticket sales to ex-subscribers in the New York hinterlands. Warhorses like Tosca, lesser-known Mozart like Clemenza di Tito, new works like Nixon in China, all lose money for Vancouver Opera. Other opera companies report similar problems.  Interestingly, the “big opera” value proposition doesn’t sell: folks here won’t pay $100 for an opera ticket (though they apparently will pay that much for a celebrity opera star or a One Direction show).

I hear people around here gripe that if only the Vancouver Opera would program different shows (newer! the warhorses! comfortable, but not warhorses! anything but musicals!) the audience would return. I don’t believe that. Wright’s presentation says in effect that they tried this approach, and it doesn’t work.

The opera audience and donor base are dying off. The 80-year old long-time subscribers report that they can’t interest 50-year-old children in subscriptions, let alone grandchildren. Sunny southern climes lure away audiences in the winter. Skiing lures away those who stay in town. Fewer and fewer people are willing to pay money for a performance 13 months in advance. A $25,000 annual donor gets too old to attend, and there is no younger cadre of donors to replace them. Vancouver remains a branch office town, without the range of rich corporate headquarters of Seattle, Toronto, or San Francisco. Thus the corporate donations are market-budget size, not let’s-make-a-mark HQ sized.

This jibes with my ant’s-eye view of the local arts scene. I subscribe to the opera and symphony, but fitfully, not religiously. I don’t have a group of friends that goes to concerts with me and reinforces my interest.  I’ve been part of the Vancouver Bach Choir  and two community opera companies.  All of them suffer from poor ticket sales, and last-minute rather than advance purchase of what they can sell.

What does work? According to Wright, new operas are getting written and premiered. (No word about second productions, though.) Small opera companies, with a smaller orchestra and simpler sets and fewer productions in cheaper houses, are able to make ends meet. (City Opera Vancouver lists 24 local opera companies, 20 of them small.)  And festivals.  Vancouver has a long list of festivals that thrive: a film festival, a jazz festival, a fringe festival, and so on. Elsewhere, the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has a festival close to what the Vancouver Opera wants to try.

Is the opera making this change because they are broke?  A question like this is in their Q&A. Disappointingly, they respond with spin, like “well supported by generous donors”, and “fluctuating demand and changing demographics”. Tovey rightfully rakes them over the coals for their spin. I think they should be more forthright. I think the answer is: No, they aren’t broke this year or next. They’ve been making a few percent one year, losing a few percent another year, and holding things together with one-time fundraising. But if they try to keep the status quo, they believe they will become at grave risk of going broke, or at least of withering away to irrelevance. They say a festival model will let them provide what Vancouver seems to want to consume, in a way that is still artistically substantial. It is lower risk than the status quo.

Interestingly, they believe that the festival model saves them money, but not massive money: about $1 million out of a $10m annual budget, or 10%.

The straight talk at their town hall was a big improvement over the spin in their written materials. I hope they take the hint, and start communicating better.

There is one final town hall session, on Tuesday August 18, 10:30am – noon. If you are interested in the Vancouver Opera’s situation and strategy, or the business of arts in Vancouver, you might find it informative. If you’re a subscriber, you may find an email with the details. Or, RSVP to the VO Ticket Centre +1-604-683-0222 and they’ll tell you where to go.