The Canadian Opera Company’s end-of-season report, crammed with a long list of accomplishments and accolades, has for years reminded us of the popularity and strength of opera in Toronto’s musical life.
This year’s press release, however, confirms that the good times are over.
Without context, the opening sentence reads nicely: “The Canadian Opera Company has closed another successful opera season with 2011/2012 recording an average attendance of 91%. A total of 125,238 patrons attended the 67 performances of the company’s seven mainstage productions in the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.”
The release fails to mention that this is the third year of steady decline.
In 2010-11, 129,450 patrons attended 66 performances of seven operas. The previous season, 2009-10, 137,000 patrons attended 69 performances, according to Company press releases.
In 2011-12, the COC’s ticket revenue was $11.8 million, down from $12.3 million the season prior. In 2009-10, ticket revenue was $12.94 million.
The COC steadfastly refuses to divulge what it costs to produce an opera, insisting (with valid reason) that there are too many variables to provide a representative number. But a $1.14 million drop in ticket sales revenue over two seasons looks to me like the Company has lost the equivalent cost of producing a mainstage opera.
Barring a surprise financial calamity, this won’t affect next season’s seven operas, which include a new COC production of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, because the contracts are signed and subscriptions have been on sale for some time. But, if attendance doesn’t improve — or if patrons private and corporate can’t come up with extra cash — next year’s season announcement may be considerably less cheerful than previous ones.
What makes this news particularly significant in Toronto is that, as former Canadian Opera Company general director Richard Bradshaw so proudly declared at the opening of the Four Seasons Centre six years ago, opera is the hottest ticket in town. For its first three seasons in its new home, the COC sold out every performance.
An 8-to-9 per cent drop in tickets doesn’t seem catastrophic, but for a not-for-profit organization that needs to spend a lot before it can earn back a single dollar from patrons, this is very scary.
Imagine how the not-so-hot tickets have been doing.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the city’s classical-programming behemoth with slightly more than 100 concerts on its season calendar, has not yet released its attendance and ticket sales (it’s final concert was just last weekend). But any regular concertgoer knows that there have been more empty seats at Roy Thomson Hall than usual over the last few months.
The Royal Conservatory of Music has sharply curtailed vocal recitals from next season’s performance calendar at Koerner Hall. So far, the Corporation of Roy Thomson Hall and Massey Hall hasn’t released a single classical concert date of its own for next season.
I’ve had chats with several other concert presenters who are very worried about their subscription and individual ticket sales. Tafelmusik and Opera Atelier have held their own, though.
One could spend an awful lot of time parsing causes and effects such as artistic choices, the age of the audience, quality of the performances or even huge competition for people’s entertainment spending. But the real reason is the economy.
Since the 2007-08 financial crisis, the middle-class mainstays of classical music and opera patronage have seen their stock and pension investments take a couple of big beatings. A $650,000 mortgage, no matter how long the amortization or low the interest rate, commands a hefty chunk of an average household’s attention. And that doesn’t even begin to address the long wish list that competes with concert tickets for a family’s discretionary budget.
There’s nothing on the visible economic horizon that speaks to a change in this precarious situation anytime soon.
Many of us in Toronto have thought ourselves immune to the plague of financial problems that have beset so many American orchestras and opera companies. Will that continue to be the case?