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Posted by on Jan 10, 2013 in Articles, new articles | 0 comments

TWO NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS FOR OPERA COMPANIES

TWO NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS FOR OPERA COMPANIES

Posted by Melissa Wimbish

This article/open letter was written by director/choreographer Lawrence Edelson. Recognized for his ability to make opera “relevant and understandable” (Opera Now magazine), he now offers the still-standing opera companies some REAL advice. Don’t worry, this isn’t just another artist on a soapbox talking about the demise of opera and how if the United States were more like Europe and respected the arts we would be better off. (Not that I don’t agree to some extent, but that argument isn’t really getting us anywhere.)

As one reader commented, “this is right on target. a must read for everyone in the arts.” It’s a lengthy one, but absolutely worth your time especially if you are involved with any sort of arts administration. If this saves just one opera company, praise be:

Two New Year’s Resolutions for Opera Companies

by Lawrence Edelson

As we begin the new year, I’d like to propose Two New Year’s Resolutions for Opera Companies that I guarantee, if truly embraced, will increase both earned and unearned income, and will make them more valuable members of the communities they serve:

  1. Get to really know the market for opera in your community – and explore segmentation and targeting strategies that are not based solely on socio-demographic factors.
  2. Take time to understand the perceptions that influence consumer behavior when it comes to opera – and accept that even though some perceptions may not be realities, they are still dramatically impacting the potential for your company to serve the public.

In order for opera companies to be successful, they must really know the market for opera in their communities.  Knowing the market impacts not only programming choices for the primary season offerings, but also decisions related to educational programs, community engagement, and ancillary programs – not to mention fundraising, which, of course, is intricately linked to understanding the different constituencies that a company serves – and has the potential to serve.  So why don’t more opera companies have a better understanding of their communities? The answer requires going into some depth – so this post is a bit on the long side – but it ties together the themes I explored in my two posts last month:   Opera’s Depopularization and  Marketing and Advertising are not the Same Thing.

Knowing the market may seem obvious, but many companies do not really understanding the type of information that they should – and can – gather. Often, market research at opera companies involves finding out preferences, such as people’s favorite operas, their favorite singers, and their preferred performance times. Other commonly collected information includes age, ethnicity, and income. While this information is all valuable, it is not always actionable, and it does not provide companies with crucial information that they need to know.

While not quite “new” anymore, the 2001 RAND study, A New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts, has some exceptional advice for arts organizations. The study suggests that companies must recognize the connections among three central elements of the participation process: participation goals; target populations; and factors relevant to the decision making process.  Before launching into this discussion further, it is important to note that “participation” is not simply about attending performances.  While purchasing tickets is one participation activity, doing an activity is a form of participation, as is volunteering and donating. Hence the interrelationship between this discussion and fundraising strategy.

WHAT ARE THE GOALS?

The first step an opera company must take is to identify their participation goals.  It is very common for arts organizations to make the mistake of oversimplifying their goals, such as simply setting a goal of increasing audience attendance for their season.  The RAND study outlines three distinct goals:diversifying participation, broadening participation, and deepening participation.  The target population for each goal is different, and the factors relevant to the decision making process are also different.  Therefore, an essential first step is to establish and clearly understand what a company’s goals are in order to establish strategies that align those goals to the tactics necessary to engage target populations given the factors unique to each population.  For example, simply setting the goal of increasing attendance doesn’t address whether this involves bringing new people to the opera (diversifying), or getting current attendees to come more often (deepening). The target populations for each of these two sub-goals is actually very different, and equally important, the relevant factors involved in their decision making processes are also different. Hence, the strategies to engage them must be different. Oversimplification of the goal results in oversimplification of the process required to really achieve the desired results! The RAND study concurs with the assertions of many marketing and management professionals, including Thomas Wolf, who insists that an understanding of market segmentation is essential. There are various constituencies whose satisfaction must be addressed, and different strategies must be developed for each group.  This all may sound obvious, however, the most common methods used to segment the market for opera are not the best strategies available to us. 

Most previous research and techniques employed by opera companies focus on the who, what and how of participation, rather than why people behave in the manner that they do.  Socio-demographic information is “not sufficient for defining discrete market segments, understanding how they function, or predicting consumer behavior.” (Schreiber 41) In order for an opera company to design effective engagement strategies, they must know what motivates participation, specific information about lifestyles and programmatic interests, and where their target populations are in the decision making process.  Over 75 percent of the organizations surveyed in the RAND study defined their target populations in socio-demographic terms, rather than behavioral or attitudinal terms. The study asserts that matching target populations classified by their inclination to participate with the specific participation goals of a company is the best way to develop effective strategies.

In order to influence behavior in different target populations, we first need to look at how the decision-making process works. Although a consumer does not necessarily go through this process consciously, there are four periods, or stages, that can be considered:

  1. The Background Stage is the period in which the inclination to participate is formed based on an assessment of background factors.  Personality, prior experience, socio-demographic and socio-cultural elements all factor into this stage. This period in the process is exogenous to the participation decision, as the factors have already been established.  Modification of background beliefs requires actual participation.  Therefore, it is not practical or useful for an opera company to attempt to deal directly with background issues.
  2. The Perceptual Stage is the first period in which an opera company can be effective in strategically influencing consumer behavior.  It is during this stage that a person develops or does not develop an inclination to participate in opera.  This decision is influenced by an individual’s attitude towards opera, including their perception of the cost and benefit of participating, their perception of how much (or little) they will enjoy the experience, and by their understanding of the social norms of their reference group (friends and relatives).  The beliefs and attitudes of the social group with which people identify can be in conflict with their own, and this conflict can influence behavior both beneficially and detrimentally. If an individual’s social group likes opera, but the individual does not, the power of the group’s interest in opera can be strong enough to induce participation. Conversely, negative perceptions of opera within social groups can discourage participation.  There are many other issues at play as part of the Perceptual Stage which are important to discuss, but first, a quick look at the next two stages, which assume a consumer is already inclined, to some degree, to attend or support the opera.
  3. The Practical Stage correspond to the goals of broadening participation which targets people who are already inclined to participate, but who have barriers, either real or perceived, that must be overcome in order to do so. The difficulty in overcoming the obstacles depend on the strength of a person’s inclination to participate. Companies must clearly identify what the barriers are.  It is important to remember that there is already a desire – at least on some level – to participate in opera for this target group. Companies need to focus on developing strategies to address the barriers to participation head on if they wish to engage those in the practical stage.  The issue here is not selling opera per se, but rather finding ways to elminating the barriers to participating in an activity where there is already interest on some level!  A company that focuses on the wonderful cast they have, their sparkling new production, or the great reviews they’ve received is not addressing the needs of this target group. It’s not that the cast, production or reviews have nothing to do with the decision making process, but rather, it is more important for companies to focus on what this target group perceives as obstacles to participating. Of equal importance, it doesn’t matter whether the barriers are real or not. Both perceived barriers and actual barriers to participating must be addressed.
  4. The Experiential Stage correspond to the goals of  deepening participation, which focuses on increasing the frequency of current participants’ attendance, as well as encouraging them to participate in the organization in other ways. A person’s reactions to their previous experiences with opera are influenced by a variety of factors, including the depth of their knowledge about opera, the extent to which the social aspect of participating is important to them, and how much personal fulfillment they derive from participating.   After a person attends the opera, their reaction to the experience influences their subsequent participation decisions. As with most activities, the more a person knows about opera, the more likely they are to enjoy it.  In addition, specific experiences can change a person’s expectations – for better or for worse! Quality of the experience is of course crucial here – but it is important to remember that different people have different ideas of what makes a quality experience, so again, perception is crucial.

PERCEPTION IS EVERYTHING

I feel it is crucial to focus on the Perceptual Stage, not only because perception itself plays a role in all stages of the participation building process, but because this particular stage is really where opera companies can be proactive about changing attitudes towards opera in the United States. Although we need to both broaden and deepen participation from those who already have some inclination to attend, the future of opera depends on diversifying participation – building new audiences from those who do not already attend.  Though this is perhaps the most challenging target group to infiltrate, it is the largest population, thereby being the largest potential addition to a company’s participation. (Remember Drucker’s quote from my last post: “…non-customers always outnumber customers. The most important knowledge is the potential customer… )  The 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, found that only 2.1% of the population – representing 4.8 million people – attended an opera in the year before the survey date, while 34.6% of the population, representing 77.8 million people, attended any of the core arts activities. Without diversification, opera will continue to become more and more marginal in American society, until it eventually becomes extinct.

Foreign language operatic repertoire, the word opera itself, and the opera house as a performance venue have many pre-existing, often strongly negative associations for a substantial percentage of contemporary American audiences. In considering people’s attitudes towards opera, OPERA America’s early study, Motivating Opera Attendance: Comparative Qualitative Research in 10 North American Cities 1996, is quite useful. The study revealed six primary assumptions made by people prior to their attendance at their first opera performance – perceptions which which continue to be widespread:

  1. there is no story line or they would be bored;
  2. they did not expect to be able to understand what was happening;
  3. they anticipated negative or depressing stories;
  4. it would be painful to listen to;
  5. they had negative, cartoon-like images of opera;
  6. and they didn’t think that the performance would be of high quality.

The OPERA America study also revealed other very useful information.  There was an overwhelming fear of ignorance among potential attendees, with concerns ranging from when to clap, to which opera might be suitable for a novice. Other powerful stereotypes continue to prevail among many people when it comes to opera audiences: they are very affluent; they are very knowledgeable; and they all attend the opera in formal wear. Importantly, the lack of self-identification was seen at all income levels and in all age groups.

Both the OPERA America study and the RAND study found that a key motivator to first time participation is being taken to the opera by someone in an individual’s social or family group;  however, if an individual’s social group does not like opera, but the individual does, he or she is often less inclined to participate due to the influence of that group. The power of a person’s reference group should not be underestimated.  The effectiveness of efforts to change the inclinations of an individual will vary depending on the strength of that inclination.  It is useful for opera companies to remember that people often participate not only for personal benefit, but for the social experience. Because changing an individual’s inclination is very time consuming, organizations should not ignore the possibility of dealing with the attitudes and behaviors of social groups.

It is also important to keep in mind that while some people may choose to attend the opera because they aspire to belong to what they perceive as the social elite, many people shun the opera because of these very same perceptions.  Social-cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai describes five categories of luxury goods that are dependent on a special register of consumption.  As opera is often perceived as a luxury good by a substantial portion of society, let’s look at these categories:

  1. restriction, either by price or by law to elites;
  2. complexity of acquisition, which may or may not be a function of real “scarcity”;
  3. semiotic virtuosity, that is, the capacity to signal complex social messages;
  4. specialized knowledge as a prerequisite for their appropriate consumption, that is, register by fashion and
  5. a high degree of linkage of their consumption to body, person and personality.

(qtd. in Collins 25)

All of these are, without a doubt, perceived as being part of opera’s identity for a significant portion of contemporary American society.  So, what can we do to actively combat the perception of opera as a luxury good to this significant segment of the population?

Opera is expensive, but relative to many other leisure activities, it is not proportionally more so than many other activities including popular music concerts and sporting events. For almost every leisure activity, including opera, there are a wide variety of pricing options available. Lowering ticket prices as the expense of producing opera increases is simply not a sustainable business strategy. We should certainly do everything possible to provide tickets at a variety of price points, including low cost tickets for those who are genuinely cost sensitive, but the most important restriction to address here is the sense of opera as belonging to the elite. 

Historically, when operas were in the vernacular and were presented at easily accessible venues, it was not perceived as a luxury good in many countries. Outside of the United States, during many different time periods, opera was a populist form of entertainment.  In effect, the perceived lack of relevance of opera’s core repertoire to a significant portion of society, combined with the perception that it is a more expensive form of entertainment than other options, creates a restrictive barrier for potential consumers. If we want to ensure that opera appeals to a broad cross section of society, we must  do everything in our power to eliminate the perception that opera is inherently linked to a social hierarchy that devalues the taste of the masses.  By reinforcing the message that opera is complex and sophisticated while simultaneously linking that sophistication to class (whether consciously through the nature of our marketing language and collateral materials, or unconsciously by continuing to produce in venues and/or suggest codes of behavior for attendance that on their own reinforce class differentiation) we solidify consumers’ pre-judgment of opera as a luxury product that they may feel is above their social, intellectual, and/or financial means.

The associative value of consumer consumption, or “the linkage of consumption to body, person, and personality” should not be underestimated. It is because grand opera carries with it “the vestiges of a previous path, the path of elite, rarefied pleasure” (Collins 25), that it can be desirable; however the association with elitism that is desirable to some is feared or even despised by others.  By understanding that a “consumer’s major goal is affirming his idealized self-image in a direct, sensory, emotional, fantasy way”, (Schreiber 45) and that for many people, attending an arts event affirms the image they have of themselves, it should not surprise us that many people don’t attend opera because they do not think they will fit into the typical opera audience, or that they don’t belong in an opera house.

It is perhaps most vital that we understand, believe, and successfully communicate that everyone, regardless of their race, income level, or formal educational background, has sufficient education to enjoy opera.  Redefining opera as “art” was “tantamount to saying that a certain education is necessary to understand it at all: which is a convenient way of policing culture, and making sure it is kept as the property of an elite.” (Storey 37).  Unfortunately, many musicians and administrators alike still subscribe to the notion that enjoying and appreciating art should require extensive work on the part of the audience.  In a 2005 New York Times interview, composer Charles Wuorinen asserted that “there has been an attempt, largely successful, to confuse what you might call art and what you might call entertainment. I think there’s a very simple distinction, and it doesn’t diminish entertainment in any way because we all want it and enjoy it. Entertainment is that which you receive without effort. Art is something where you must make some kind of effort and you get more than you had before.” Conductor James Levine quickly agreed with Wuorinen. While I deeply respect both of these artists, I have a real problem with the assertion that you have to make an effort to appreciate art. I also take issue with the implication that one comes away from “entertainment” without getting anything out of an entertaining experience. Everyone can appreciate art – and everyone can appreciate art in different ways. As long as we perpetuate the myth that one needs to be educated or make an effort to enjoy and appreciate opera, we are doing ourselves a massive disservice. Opera may be art – but it is is also entertainment.  

For those who have extensive knowledge of opera, and passion for it, part of the thrill of going to the opera may be the effort it takes to have a deeper connection with the material; but, if everyone assumes that such effort is part of going to the opera, it prevents an enormous portion of the population from even giving it a try!  The widespread perception still exists that substantial advance preparation is required before attending an opera. (Stevens 38)  This perceived need for advance study not only fortifies the image of opera as a luxury item, but also delays an individual’s decision to participate and reduces the chance of spontaneous participation.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

First, go back to the beginning of this post. The two New Year’s Resolutions can be simplified to two core ideas: get to know the market and proactively address perceptions.

There is great potential to reach diverse audiences, but we need to effectively segment the market in order to develop effective strategies to build participation. We have to understand the perceptions of different market segments, and be willing to address them.  And, when it comes to the biggest portion of American population – those who are not already inclined to participate in opera – as long as our organizational behavior reinforces the idea of opera as exclusive, elite, antique, foreign, or in some other way not related to our potential audience members’ lives and self images, that significant and vital part of our communities will not consider participating.

As I discussed in my post last month, to turn opera into “high culture” it had to be withdrawn from the everyday world of popular entertainment, especially from the heterogeneous dictates of the market and the commercial reach of cultural entrepreneurs.   Opera was “actively appropriated from its popular audience by elite social groups determined to situate it as the crowning glory of their culture, i.e., so-called “high culture.” In short, opera was transformed from entertainment enjoyed by the many into Culture to be appreciated by the few.” (Storey 37)  In order for us to combat the problems facing opera in America today, we must develop strategies that confront the initiatives that appropriated opera from the general public. 

Bruce. A. McConachie argues that between 1825 and 1850 elite social groups in New York developed three overlapping social strategies that gradually separated opera from the everyday world of popular entertainment. The first was to separate it from the theater by establishing buildings specifically for the performance of opera.  Second, they “also worked to sharpen and objectify a code of behavior, including a dress code, deemed proper when attending the opera. Finally, upper-class New Yorkers increasingly insisted that only foreign-language opera could meet their standards of excellence – standards upheld by behavior and criticism employing foreign words and specialized language impenetrable to all but the cognoscenti.” (qtd. in Storey 33-34)  By the end of the nineteenth century, opera had effectively isolated itself from other forms of entertainment.   It is certainly no coincidence that the three strategies initiated by the social elite in the mid-nineteenth century continue to be the source of the most powerful barriers to participation for contemporary audiences. While American Lyric Theater is specifically focused on combatting the third of these strategies by nurturing composers and librettists and developing new operas for new audiences in English and Spanish, every opera company can address these issues while still being true to their individual missions.

Paul DiMaggio similarly argues that “to create an institutional high culture, Boston’s upper class had to accomplish three concurrent, but analytically distinct, projects: entrepreneurship, classification, and framing.”(qtd. in Storey 35).

By entrepreneurship, DiMaggio refers to the creation of an organizational form that members of the elite could control and govern. To some extent, this form remains intact today.  It is not uncommon for major funders and board members to influence planning at all levels, and companies are unfortunately often diverted from their missions and/or programs by their desire to keep those donors happy. While donors are almost always well intended – and we all are incredibly grateful to the donors that make opera possible in the United States – it is our role as opera company leaders to educate those donors to these very issues that have unconsciously become part of the cycle that perpetuates the problems we are facing.  Of course, to blame donors for being generous is ridiculous! Our donors (and here I include board members, foundations, government agencies, corporate partners, and our general donor constituency) must truly become partners with the organization. They must not be made to feel like ATMs!  Their interests, preferences and passions are important and should be respected – but at the same time, the conversations we have with our donors should be deeply personal and should allow for time to educate them to the challenges we face. Those challenges aren’t simply “selling tickets” or “producing opera.” The more our donors understand the background to the challenges we face, the more likely they are to support initiatives that really address them. While foundations tend to be responsive to clearly identified trends in the field, the education of individual donors as part of the cultivation process is particularly crucial – especially when they have a passionate love of opera that sometimes obscures the larger issues at hand.

By classification, DiMaggio refers “to the erection of strong and clearly defined boundaries between art and entertainment, the definition of a high art that elites and segments of the middle class could appropriate as their own cultural property; and the acknowledgment of that classification’s legitimacy by other classes and the state.” (qtd. in Storey 35). In order to knock down those boundaries, everything we do as opera companies needs to be inclusive. We must provide opportunities for people to experience opera as entertainment without risk, and we must truly embrace that the idea that opera is entertainment which needs not contaminate or invalidate the integrity of our artistic endeavors. We must address both the real and perceived barriers of our potential audiences, and make sure that everything we do as opera companies reinforces the idea that opera is for everyone.

By framing, DiMaggio refers to the new etiquette of appropriation, and the relationship between the work of art and the audience. “For more than a century, this was how status had worked in America.  You made some money in one commercial enterprise or another, and then to solidify your social position and to distinguish yourself from others, you cultivated a distaste for the cheap amusements and common spectacles that made up the mass culture.” (Seabrook 17) If we continue to communicate, by words or actions, that opera belongs to a “better” class of art and audience, we continue to reinforce the distance between an enormous portion of society and opera. We must be proactive about being inclusive. This goes beyond collateral marketing materials but must be part of the ongoing activity of a company beyond its mainstage season. Opera companies will only be truly successful if they are integrated parts of their communities – not simply producers or presenters of some exotic art form for the minority of the population that “understands” – or even worse – “deserves” it!

While much of what I’m discussing has to do with “repositioning” in marketing-speak, we also have to look at our actual operational models and program activities. Opera companies can devise different messaging strategies to reposition opera and their companies in the community, but messages without actions have limited effect. Programs need to be developed to show prospective audiences that opera is entertaining and relevant to them – and doesn’t required extensive knowledge before they have bought a ticket. The internet has made cost-effective strategies for demonstrative positioning to be within the reach of any opera company, but most companies still have a long way to go in optimizing that potential. In addition, the visceral live participation experience is crucial in building audiences for live performances. With the increased amount of media participation options available (such as opera in movie theaters and on the internet), we are likely to see an increasing amount of cannibalization of the live opera audience – especially younger audiences who are already more inclined to participate in leisure activities through media as opposed to attending live events. Opera companies need to find ways to get free samples of their live “product” in front of large numbers of prospective audience members in the most entertaining and accessible ways possible.  These strategic initiatives have the potential to effectively engage significant and diverse segments of the communities a company serves. The benefits these initiatives provide go beyond well beyond repositioning.   Initiatives that are developed to engage the community may be marketing based, but they also can provide a bridge to new sources of funding and ultimately can provided significant return on investment in the form of new sources of earned income as well.

Responding to the demands of the market does not mean that the quality of the artistic product needs to be diminished. There continues to be a great deal of fear on the part of artists and administrators that, by consciously appealing to the tastes of contemporary audiences and by modifying what we present, as well as where and how we present it, we risk selling out our artistic vision.  This is certainly a possibility if the marketing mindset is not kept in check.  For an opera company (or any other organization with an artistically driven mission), the tipping of the scale must always favor artistic integrity.  However, when the ratio of artistic integrity to market appeal is 99:1, are we really serving the public?  There will always be an audience for projects and products for which the ratio is reversed.  When the ratio of artistic integrity to market appeal is 1:99, we end up with entertainment not completely lacking in artistic merit (though some might argue otherwise), but that is so strongly influenced by market factors that artistic integrity is most often sacrificed in hopes of broadening appeal and financial return. The key is to ensure that marketing strategy is working on behalf of opera, not despite it.  If our market response is effective, opera as a product for predetermined “elite” or “cultured” social classes will begin to diminish, and audiences for opera will diversify and grow.

Tenor Jon Vickers claimed that opera is “being invaded by those techniques that are corrupting our society – big PR, the personality of cult, techniques which create hysteria but do not elevate man. They degrade our art… We cannot compromise… We mustn’t smear the line between art and entertainment… You cannot bring art to the masses… You never will.” (qtd. in Storey 40).  With all due respect to the great tenor, such vitriol epitomizes the destructive, closed-minded thinking that subconsciously (or consciously) exists, if not so politically incorrectly, in the minds of many in our field.  If such a mindset is allowed to be pervasive, everyone who cares about opera would eventually be out of work, and the only singing any tenor would be doing would be in the shower! Doesn’t opera deserve a better future?  It’s the beginning of a new year… let’s all take time to really look at what we are doing – and what we have the potential to do – to make a difference for opera and our communities in 2012 and beyond!

FOR FURTHER READING, here are the books I reference above:

Collins, Jim. Introduction. High-Pop: Making Culture into Popular Entertainment. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

Drucker, Peter F.. Managing the Non-Profit Organization: Principles and Practices. New York, Harper Collins,1992.

Storey, John. ““Expecting Rain”: Opera as Popular Culture?.” High-Pop: Making Culture into Popular Entertainment. Ed. Jim Collins. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.32-55. 

Wolf, Thomas. Managing A Nonprofit Organization in The Twenty-First Century. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. 

AND DETAILED STUDIES, for those who really want to dive in:

Bradshaw, Tom and Bonnie Nichols. 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.Washington: National Endowment for the Arts, Research Division, 2009. 

McCarthy, Kevin F. and Kimberly Jinnett.  A New Framework for Building Participation In the Arts.  Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2001. 

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