Making Opera Relevant in the Current Economy

The current state of San Diego Opera is a quintessential representation of a broken traditional model. Opera companies must consider a change or a sober look at the way they do business. In this era of open source support for the growth of business, we’re witnessing an unprecedented degree of transparency and collaboration. If a consumer is interested in a product or company, most are now asking many other questions besides how beneficial it will be to their lives. Consumers are not only curious about the overall quality of what their money is buying them, but they’re also investigating the track record of a company and the likeability or trust-ability of it’s creators. Google and Amazon reviews collect immense data to help answer some of these questions and also show market interest. Seldom will the four-flushing charlatan make big profits with his magical elixirs off of unassuming crowds nowadays. Opera companies might consider recognizing this open-source trend and providing a bit more transparency to their efforts. Today’s community doesn’t understand the final opera ‘product’ and if the line of communication is opened sooner, an eager community might have an opportunity to learn and, more importantly, be heard. Such a communication would result in an increased financial prospective.

1965: Roger L. Stevens, with President Lyndon B. Johnson, is sworn in as first Chairman of the National Council for the Arts. Photo via Wystan on Flickr
1965: Roger L. Stevens, with President Lyndon B. Johnson, is sworn in as first Chairman of the National Council for the Arts. Photo via Wystan on Flickr

Since 1965 the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has awarded over $4 billion to support quality in arts nationwide. The agency has done marvelous work for the community, but did you know that more money was raised for the arts on Kickstarter.com in 2012 than the NEA was able to distribute? Crowd-sourcing has become an invaluable asset for start up companies and innovative projects. Sites like Kickstarter.com give the investor the ability to see the project or product, understand how it works, how much money is needed to complete it and who the people are behind it. It’s absolute transparency. Passionate people are eating it up because they feel like they are actually a part of the creation of something special. A priceless entity for one’s dollar.

Crowd sourcing helps to expand the community and directly connects an audience waiting to support something relevant. On Kickstarter, it’s an exponential expansion, but for an arts organization to increase the amount of people who are in-the-know from a few hundred to a few thousand results in vast advantages economically and socially. Much pressure is put on the GM of a company to raise the proper funds. Truly, much financial gain can be accomplished when the GM spends most of their time on a plane and travels to Switzerland, Vienna, San Francisco (i.e. the world over) for a beautiful lunch with a patron. However, the model of a few patrons sustaining an entire company is dying. The entire company needs to reinvent and refine its sales pitch. In the past two or three decades, marketing emphasis has shifted from singers to conductors, directors and designers. Stripped down, opera can’t be opera without the singers, so wouldn’t that make them the single most important aspect to the art? The trend of detracting marketing spotlight from singers has been a leading cause to opera’s slow adaptation to 21st century standards. A refocus is necessary. Lauded singers will not only inspire celebrity-esque conversation, but more importantly they will increase numbers of people engaged. The reason is simple: social networks are chalked full of singers actively connecting to the community and it’s an oversaturated field. If companies learned how to amplify the singer voice in their community (not just on stage), engagement would follow. People want to follow people; not overly artistic, and sometimes extraneous, ad campaigns for a finished product too foreign for the inexperienced mind.

The business models and agendas of today’s artist management agencies are also broken. They are failing at finding innovative ways of marketing rising stars and established singers. The internet is a powerful communicative tool. Much more promotional exertion should be considered than mere websites, a few Youtube clips and performance shout out tweets.

Such business philosophy is important for the recently reshaped board at San Diego Opera to consider. At this point, they not only have the full attention of a hopeful and eager to help San Diego community, but nearly the entire American opera community as well. New horizons won’t wait for trains built on old, rickety tracks. Evolution is inevitable; more opera engineers are needed in the drivers’ seats that aren’t afraid to build new tracks with the ability to take untried minds to new places. The consequences could be devastating to traditional models, but what is gained is relevance.