The faltering opera canary in Toronto’s musical mineshaft sings of troubling times

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?

John Terauds


4 thoughts on “The faltering opera canary in Toronto’s musical mineshaft sings of troubling times

  1. John, thank you for an insightful post on the COC and for reading between the lines.

    A dear, dear colleague of mine in Arts and Culture in Vancouver shared with me some of his thoughts after the stunning, (but long overdue to some), closure of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company.

    Here I go: The old models we have trusted in our society such as Government for and by the people; financial institutions, like the banks who we had confidence in basically now asking for handouts from we the people; the social unrest, especially with our youth, (all over the world), are simply broken and they don’t work anymore.

    I can say the same for arts and culture institutions who still rely on an old model of subscribers and subscriptions revenues – these are non-renewable, (pun intended), sustainable models. We are not managing well how to teach these models to our current generations be they X, Y, M or whoever.

    The Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company was to celebrate 50 years in the Vancouver Arts and Culture community; instead it did not celebrate and went out with a bang…or a whimper. Because, the Vancouver general public and the theatre public that supports other “newer model” theatre such as Bard on the Beach, and the thriving experimental theatre scene in our town, just does not care about non-relevant product; their silence is deafening.

    I foresee the same thing happening to our other major performing arts institutions, be they in Vancouver or Toronto.

    It comes down to good and innovative management of a sustainable plan for the future that I fervently believe must include digital media.

    This includes, minimally, live streaming and embracing all the new technology.

    Goodness knows that there are success models of BRAND name cultural institutions embracing digital media successfully in Europe, the USA and Asia.

    And yes I hear all the time the same old “tune”, even from the General Director of the COC; “live-streaming is too expensive.”

    I don’t believe this for one nano-second, and a sustainable model needs to be developed in collaboration with all involved in the live performing arts; including the audiences of today and the ones we don’t even know.

    The good news is that I am working on this in Vancouver with like-minded, courageous, and motivated people in the arts and culture community and the business entrepreneurial community too!

    The future is coming home to create a new and sustainable model based on “demand” and reasonable “user fees”; Stay tuned!

  2. Sorry folks but there IS something incontinent, and uneconomical in both monetary and other senses, in an artform that takes the length of time, the resources, the people, the money, to tell its stories. Those enormous, ugly sets to distract from the acting, to convince the audience that there is anything remotely of merit aside from the actual MUSIC itself.

  3. It was only to be expected that the COC would enjoy a “honeymoon” with its new opera house, the Four Seasons Centre. But now that the FSC is merely “new-ish,” the honeymoon is probably over. While 91 percent is still a very respectable attendance rate — for what was probably the most adventurous season in the COC’s history — any slide in attendance is worrisome. As next year’s programming is much “safer,” the downward trend in attendance may well reverse itself. If the numbers aren’t better at the close of next season, then the COC will really have something to worry about!

  4. This comes on the heels of a depressing story about Seattle Opera – and from my vantage point in Portland, Seattle appears to be booming.

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