Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Opera Fans From Out of Town

For many business people, the last weeks of August represent the slowest time of the year. However, because opera is such a labor-intensive art form, anyone employed at the Santa Fe Opera or New York City Opera this month will tell you that things are far from dull. The restaurants, boutiques, bars, and parking lots that surround an opera theater receive constant and very loyal patronage from subscribers, performers, stage crews, and administrative personnel. And yet, opera's marketing personnel continue to ignore the business travelers whose demographics so neatly coincide with the economic profiles of their regular donors and subscribers.

When the Seattle Opera inaugurated its Pacific Northwest Wagner Festival, studies demonstrated that each tourist dollar coming into the city during the two weeks that Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung was performed got recycled at least seven times within Seattle's economy. The Santa Fe Opera's box office sales have had such a strong impact on the city's tourist industry that hoteliers once lobbied General Director John Crosby in hopes that he would embrace a less daring repertoire.

Beverly Sills struck gold several years ago by reformatting City Opera's Lincoln Center season so that her company could take advantage of New York's ample summer tourist trade. Opera companies in Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago are now trying to attract out-of-town opera lovers who can fly in for a long weekend.

On a recent flight to Atlanta, I sat beside a traveling salesman who, although he insisted he was not a diehard opera fan, told me he had been so impressed by the Carmen film starring Placido Domingo and Julia Migenes that he will now fly anywhere in the United States that he can schedule a business meeting in order to hear Migenes perform. After I gave him the dates of her scheduled appearances in Los Angeles and St. Paul (and told him how to get tickets to the soprano's performances in Tales of Hoffmann and Salome) he thanked me profusely and said, "Mister, you just sold a subscription to that new opera magazine you've been telling me about."

Many people whose professions require a frequent flyer lifestyle would much prefer to attend a live performance than sit alone at night in some hotel room watching CNN News, the same old re-runs of Love Boat, or Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant beating each other to a pulp. Like my seatmate on the flight to Atlanta, these people are conducting lives that have recently earned the description of "upscale." Yet opera companies pay them little attention. The economic ripple effects of Charleston's Spoleto Festival, Seattle's Pacific Northwest Wagner Festival, the Santa Fe Opera's summer season, and the New York City Opera's revised schedule have made hundreds of opera professionals reexamine the relationship between tourism and the arts. But they routinely overlook the segment of the arts market which has become the mainstay of the travel industry: the frequent flyer.

It's time for America's professional opera community to wake up and smell the coffee -- especially the brew that's being served every day at an altitude of 30,000 feet.

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This article originally appeared in the September 1988 issue of Opera Monthly magazine.

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