High Notes

Editorial: 7 Ways The Metropolitan Opera Could Bring In New Audiences & Improve Customer Experience As It Struggles With Ticket Sales

Let me preface this by saying that I love the Metropolitan Opera. It is my home opera house and OperaWire.com does not exist if not for the hundreds of nights spent at that house over the past decade.

But it was truly disheartening this week to read that the company is still struggling to fill the theater. The New York Times reported on Monday that the company had only taken in 67 percent of its potential box office revenue this season, a painful reality, especially when compared to theaters in Europe that perpetually sell out thanks to tourism and solid fanbases.

The number was up from the 2015-16 season, but that is little comfort when the number 67 comes back into view.

Considering this situation, I have decided to just point out some things I think that the Met Opera could do to potentially improve its situation in the seasons to come. This exercise has been executed many times before by other publications and we figured we would throw our own hat into the ring.

1. Change the Restaurant Into a More Casual Hotspot

Let’s start things off with the customer service experience. The Met management knows that things need to change in the structure of the building. And while fixing the lobby and expanding it is a must, something must be done about that restaurant. I have personally never gone there simply because it is overpriced. One of the common themes you will see me bring up throughout this post is the notion of status and elitism. I know that the Met is one of the most respected institutions in the world, but that does not mean that its restaurant, a main point for social gathering, should come off as exclusive. Why not turn it into a locale that serves all kinds of food at more affordable rates and stays open after the performance so people can discuss the night over a beer and some fast food? That will make the Met a more attractive place for all kinds of demographics, bringing in more revenue and making the house a destination for hangouts.

2. Open Up on Sundays

Speaking of customer experience, I always thought it strange that while every other major opera house in the country relishes the opportunity to put on a show on Sundays, the Met remains closed during the final day of the weekend. I recognize that there are contracts to re-negotiate and that the Met employees deserve at least one weekend day off, but the reality is this: people work during the week and the choice between catching a six-hour marathon of a Wagner work and getting some much-needed shut-eye in the middle of a busy work week will likely not go in the Met’s favor. But on weekends, when families naturally spend time going to shows and such, it simply makes sense for the Met to keep its doors open.

3. More Family Operas

Speaking of families, the company has done a solid job of incorporating its holiday presentations for younger children. These experiences are among the most engaging I have witnessed with the kids actually interacting throughout the performance. But isolating these events to just the December holiday season limits the potential to continue building up your base of future opera lovers. Moreover, limiting to just one opera per year also hinders the potential growth opportunities. With more modern operas being based on fairy tales and famous children’s stories, such as “The Little Prince” and “Pinocchio,” there is a wide breadth of content that the Met could put on to keep parents and kids coming back for more opera throughout the season.

4. Pick a Production Style

Peter Gelb’s strategy for picking his new production should make sense. He has his directors keep to rather traditional productions that do not alter the story of the opera too much (or at all), but he manages to get them to scale back on the scale of the sets, thus making them more cost-effective. The problem with this is that the traditionalist audiences aren’t falling for these sets, claiming that they lack the depth and realism of previous marvels. That’s why “La Bohème” continues to sell out.

On the other side of the spectrum, the younger audiences aren’t falling for these new productions either because they often don’t offer new perspectives that create fresh and timely experiences. While speaking with conductor Daniele Rustioni about his new work at Lyon, he remarked that the house sells out all the time and that most of the audience is comprised of Millennials who can’t get enough of the edgy new concepts that the house commits to. With so much content to distract them, millennials want opera to immerse them in new and unique experiences.

Obviously, this creates a problem for Gelb and company. On one hand you have to maintain your existing and loyal fanbase that keeps the engine revving. But at the same time you know that if you don’t cut through the content glut to get to the newer generations and your, hopefully, future loyal customers, your company will have no future.

Sticking to one style is essential to at least keep one fanbase happy instead of making two unsatisfied.

5. Have Two Productions Per Opera

This might seem a bit crazy, but one might also suggest having two productions for the same opera. The logistics would be difficult to work out but by having a starkly traditional version of a show and then an edgier and more modern approach, you can actually make the two aforementioned groups more interested in attending. While over the long run it might not seem like a fiscally responsible decision, in the short run, this might serve as a barometer to see which style of production is really the key to long-term success and garners more loyal audiences.

6. Bring More Opera That Caters To Different Audiences

While we are on the subject of the operas and production, let’s talk about the repertoire. The Met puts on the greatest masterpieces in the history of the artform and, given its vast schedule, it has room for rare gems that would otherwise get overlooked. The Donizetti Trilogy is the most prominent of these examples; what company has showcased all three with one artist in recent years? But yet the standard repertoire is not enough to bring in newer audiences. And new modern operas isn’t the solution either.

Where are the LGBT operas, which would help bring in a new and diverse audience that loves opera? What about Spanish-language opera? The company gives the subtitles in Spanish at every single performance, so one would be led to believe that a prominent audience is Spanish-speaking. And those are just two of many potential groups the Met could cater to more directly.

Which brings us to the musical. In a year where Leonard Bernstein’s centennial is being celebrated, it remains quite surprising that the Met did not schedule a Bernstein work for its upcoming season. Something that has operatic roots, such as “West Side Story (its overture did, after all, kick off the Met’s 50th Anniversary gala).” Or “Sweeney Todd,” which has been dominated by Met regular and operatic icon Bryn Terfel. That is sure to bring in a massive crowd and boost ticket revenues. Just ask Lyric Opera of Chicago how that yearly program is working out for them.


7. Don’t Play All Your HD Cards

Next season, every new production is going to be showcased worldwide in movie theaters. While I have no doubt that the Live in HD series is profitable, it is but one performance per opera. If you show the new production to the whole world, then it will stop many from venturing out to the house to see it firsthand, securing profitability for one performance, but leaving the remainder to chance.

Showcasing half of the new productions and then joining them with other revivals on the HD slate would at least leave some mystery to the new productions, forcing people to actually come to the Met to find out what the new experience is like.

What do you think the Met needs to do to improve its audience experience and draw in newer crowds?

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5 Responses

  1. The question is: do they simply want tickets sold and butts in the seats OR do they want more money from the tickets? If the answer is the former, then perhaps reduce or at least don’t raise ticket prices and market rush tickets and coupon codes. If it is the latter, then there is a bigger problem of identity, marketing, and recruitment.

    I totally agree with the Sunday matinee idea. I also think making major cuts to some operas may be necessary. I know that it is controversial, but the attention span of the American public right now seems pretty short. I recently attended OperaDelaware’s production of Semiramide, which was cut down by over an hour, making it much more digestible.

  2. Yes …and….how about doing more operas in English I don’t personally care that much since I speak Italian, French and german, but…….Britten has had some good productions, but not nearly commonly enough. There are plenty of English language operas undone in this country. How about Wilfred Josephs’ “Rebecca” – it’s a famous novel and movie with a story old movie buffs already know, got great reviews in Britain, yet…..nothing over here. And by the way, $14 for a thimble of wine out of a $9 bottle is disgusting. Not to mention the leg room upstairs. The days of no leg room for the paupers ought to be long gone. $100 is a LOT to some of us coming in for a three-day binge

  3. Jury still out on whether live HD & the Met’s fab subscription service take away live audiences. I don’t buy it – in my experience anyone I take to an HD screening becomes all the more enthusiastic to see the real thing live. And the more they see the more they get to know and love opera. To me the main deal is the inflexible and very expensive tickets. Surely it’s better to drop your prices to make the top priced seats affordable for more people and compensate for loss of revenue through increased occupancy?

  4. I completely agree with the idea about having Sunday performances. Considering that so many operas have three hours of music and the allowance necessary for two intermissions means that many people aren’t going to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning at the office.

    The Met also needs to appeal more to the Hispanic audience. That means ad campaigns, promotion of stars like Marcelo Alvarez, and producing zarzuelas like EL GATO MONTES that resemble grand opera.

    Coupon code discounts wouldn’t hurt, either. A seat sold at a discounted price is better than one never sold. Their current conditions for group discounts are unworkable for many groups that would happily come more often.

    Two different productions of a popular opera is an intriguing possibility. “Edgier” and “more modern” is not necessarily “better.” I didn’t like the Willy Decker TRAVIATA and I know lots of people don’t like the Vegas-themed RIGOLETTO so it would make sense to have two different productions of these in the same season to please as many people as possible.

    But there is still the issue of an educational system that shunts the arts aside for other things it deems “more important” or “easier.” Catering to the short attention span does not serve the arts and will feel like a rip-off to those of us who appreciate opera. The educational system needs to understand that it is shortchanging today’s youth by neglecting their need for cultural exposure.

  5. I agree with some of your points. However, I think they need more outreach to the general public in areas where the general public will be- like libraries etc… I started an opera outreach company in Long Island and find that the people I serve are very interested in Opera but lack the the funds to go or lack the attention span to sit through an entire opera. They tend to like short scenes and explanation before being interested in viewing the entire opera. While the MET guild provides an amazing program in lectures, tours etc… there is still a void because their programs are geared to those who are familiar with opera instead of those who know nothing about it.

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