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What price opera? Some musings....

When we started Opera Holland Park in 1996, one of our primary aims (and in this we were not alone) was to feature the concept of "accessibility" at the heart of the company. In so many respects this concept becomes ever harder to maintain because, well, things don't get cheaper to provide and audiences are ever more demanding. And when a major newspaper reviews a show, the critic doesn't instinctively consider the cost of our tickets. It is further complicated by the great differences in opinion vis a vis what "accessibility" actually means. In our case, we have fallen back on the fact that we provide 1500 free tickets and a few thousand at £15 and nobody in their right mind would argue against the idea that these seats are very appealing. But after that, you pay £50 and more which in comparative terms is reasonable but in real terms is still pricey. Factor in the economic situation and our core audiences (who are not all wealthy) have to start making some hard choices.

More worryingly, across the business we have also seen the development of a battle between audiences and managements with each side waiting to see who blinks first on ticket offers; the operagoer has learned to wait for big discounts and in return, opera houses are remodelling their finances to try to take this into account (and not always succeeding in making it work).

A bit of me resents this because those audiences will also be first to criticise singers, orchestras or design/ directorial teams. Opera fans tell me they have limits to the cost of tickets beyond which they are not prepared to pay, unless the show features big stars or is at certain houses and even then I am somewhat surprised at the upper level of their valuations. I think audience expectations have been skewed by recent times and I am not always in agreement with their value for money judgements.

I am starting to believe strongly in the idea of dynamic pricing for opera where demand drives the price of a production. In the positive sense, we quickly find the point at which people are prepared to take the leap. Right now, at OHP, one might be prepared to pay £40 but not £50 which leaves you either battling with many others for the £15 seats or not going at all. Dynamic pricing in the theatre would not be as wild and unfettered as the airline equivalent which runs free at the top end. Neither do we have the resources to invest in the software that can handle the mind-boggling algorithms that drive it and airlines use criteria such as fuel prices, distance travelled and other elements of international travel that are not relevant. Ours would be simple, with upper and lower limits, simple formulae based on remaining tickets, rate of booking and a smaller consideration of how far away from the performance we are. One other aspect of our pricing system would likely be that it will not apply during Friends' priority booking periods (and/or a non-Friends early booking period) and that raises the obvious prospect of people making their own judgements on when they should book. On the face of it, early booking is rewarded since it is more likely at OHP that the prices would rise after the early/Friends' period, given the type of work we do and our loyal fan-base, but equally, it might be worth a patron waiting to see if demand slows on some works and a ticket that started at fifty quid drops to forty.

Indeed, these formulae are why we haven't yet convinced ourselves that it is worth doing because we might just replace the current audience versus house ruckus with a different kind of Mexican standoff. Conversely, if £40 is the level it finds, better that than panicked discounting. Lots of scenario modelling needs to be done first but the imperative is NOT to try to squeeze the highest price from everybody (as in the airline world) but in encouraging earlier booking at reasonable prices and as such it is a different kind of flexible pricing. If it produces "more" money for houses it is because it is ensuring they achieve the money they expect and need rather than maximising premium income.

As an example, when we produced our brilliant Turn of the Screw, we offered tickets at a much discounted rate because we wanted people to see it. Nearly 1200 people took up the offer, demonstrating that there was no innate resistance to the opera, but to the prices. Would dynamic pricing have told us earlier at which point people thought the opera was worth seeing, rather than the relatively rock bottom price people eventually jumped at? If you look at it from our point of view, the production was worth far more than some people paid so in a dynamic pricing scenario, there will have to be a point at which the prices will go no lower and if empty seats is the result, perhaps that should be so. The argument that a seat is better filled for twenty quid than empty and thus producing nothing is one we have all long believed in but the obvious road that puts you on is to forming habits in audiences who demand more and more crazily discounted rates. Getting the price right in the first place is vital, as is ensuring a measured, planned booking cycle, because eventually the race to tuppence ha'penny last minute tickets means shows just won't get done. "Wall to wall Tosca", anyone?

Whatever we do I believe houses are going to begin taking a firmer stand on the value they place on their work but, hand in hand with that, companies will also have to think carefully about where they kick off their pricing in the first place. It is ironic that audiences have driven houses to more and more offers, lower prices and virtual giveaways, yet the debate is still about accessibility.

Perhaps it is time for producing companies to put their audiences to the test, not by increasing prices but by meeting them half way and then sticking absolutely to their guns? OHP has made some bold decisions on its 2015 prices with reductions on some seats ranging from 3.5 to 28%, and that includes popular operas. None of us likes empty seats but the time has come to stop teaching audiences to behave in a way that means those seats are filled for far less than they are worth or is viable. It has become a race to the bottom of the financial practicality of running opera companies and in that, we will all be losers. One other consequence will be the inevitable pulling in of artistic horns by those companies who don't have multi-million pound subsidies.There are other things to explore too such as finding ways for people to pay regular small amounts over a period of time so that festivals don't require big, one-off expenditures.

It seems strange to use such combative language with talk of "battles" and even weirder that I, from a venue whose prices are still among the most reasonable of larger scale producers, is making the point. But with people finding more reasons to give live theatrical performance a swerve, those who believe in it and understand its power have to make fair decisions about what their entertainment is really worth. Nobody looks a gift horse in the mouth - I understand that entirely. But if you take the gifts for granted, you are kicking the horse in the gonads as well. I hate even a handful of empty seats at OHP because we are unused to it, but I think we are going to have to start readjusting our expectations and putting up with it more because only then will we find the happy balance of provider and consumer in a world where very few, if any of us, have profit as a motive. If theatres are half full, or only full on radically discounted rates, the sums won't add up. There is also one other alternative; houses will seek to make more from the smaller group of the public who can afford very high prices. Not a road for OHP I hasten to add, but that model is after all from where opera gets its elitist reputation and it is a scenario that those who oppose subsidy of the arts wish upon all of our culture.

In trying to subsidise much cheaper seats at one end, rather than making the wealthy pay much more (and the dynamic in a venue's audience that creates) it might be better if more pay evenly and reasonably in the middle. If we ask the wealthy to pay £120 for a seat so others can pay £20, that is superficially a good thing I suppose, but it also means the qualitative and environmental demands of the higher fee payer increase accordingly, production and facility costs will rise, those audience members who balk at "luxurious" atmospheres will resist and thus the cycle continues and is unsustainable as far as the wider opera loving audience is concerned. Sponsors and donors contribute to ticket subsidy but there is a limit to that, even though we would all love somebody to dump a million into the pot to ensure prices are cheaper. Yet we would again have to confront the expectation this would form and the likelihood of finding regular gifts like that.

I can hear people saying that perhaps the cost of producing opera, expensive at the best of times, needs to find a new balance too. I would agree with that view to some degree; but can we expect singers and orchestras to start dropping their fees? Maybe, maybe not. In most of the opera world, singers don't get hugely well paid for what is, after all, a high degree of skill and artistry. Most of you reading this will understand that acutely because you love what they do and value it. Which brings me right back to my original point....

Comments

  1. I have attended many many operas over the last few decades, but prices seem to me to now be too high to make attending a regular worthwhile event. I have enjoyed performances at Covent Garden, ENO, and excellent regional theatres with touring from the Welsh National and Glyndebourne, seeing stars such as Bryn Terfel, Kiri Te Kanawa, Pavarotti, Domingo and many more.

    I am now much more likely now to go to a local cinema to watch a live or encore screen arts performance of an opera from a great house with a great star, eg from the Met or Covent Garden.

    You have the benefit of extras like pre performance and interval interviews, you don't have to travel a long way to London or other theatre, incurring cost of petrol/parking, train, tube, taxis etc, and either the added cost of accommodation in town or the inevitable very late arrival back home.

    To me it is a no brainer to pop along to the local cinema to see a live performance from the Met for £10-20, and I can be home fifteen minutes after the screening is over. You are much less tired when you arrive at the theatre, and much less tired when you get home.

    Yes you lose a little of the atmosphere from attending the live performance, but the gains in having the best view in the house, the multiple camera angles, and the vast savings in time and money to me vastly outweigh the minor disadvantages.

    I hope attendance of screen arts performances expands massively, as then perhaps some of the revenue can be used to make attending live performances a little cheaper again, and better value.

    You can also often later buy the DVD's of these performances, and then have them to keep and rewatch for ever as many times as you like, all for much less than the cost of attending live.

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  2. Of course, in addition, the view in a screen arts performance betters any theatre seat due to getting to watch every moment from the best camera angle, so it cannot compare to watching a live performance from a cheap seat, as it compares more than favourably to watching from a top price seat.

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