Notes from Marc Scorca’s visit

President and CEO of Opera America Marc Scorca (above) was in Madison this weekend to lead a discussion with the Madison Opera Board of Trustees. At the start of the strategic planning process, during which Madison Opera will set long term goals, Marc came in to focus our attention a bit, leading with the notion that “good planning pulls you from the future.” It was an enlightening, positive day, full of spirited discussion, and here are some excerpts:

Marc’s “Trends in the Opera World”

Marc walked us through his lists of ten positive trends in the opera world and ten concerns. This helped everyone in the meeting contextualize Madison Opera’s growth, and along the way sparked some pointed questions and debate (as all lists do). For the blog I’ll just note what I felt to be the most interesting positive and concerning trends:

: “Opera is a multimedia art form in a multimedia world”

  • The rest of the entertainment world is just catching up to opera, in many ways: we’ve been doing the full sensory overload thing for 400 years. Mixing media (music, drama, visual art, dance, technology) is intrinsically operatic. Today our lives are marked by the diversity of media that come at us every minute. You’re on the computer with your iPod on and the TV in the background (well, hopefully not). Opera has always been in the business of coming at an audience with multiple stimuli, and this bodes well for us, especially as directors and designers incorporate new stimuli through technology in their productions (e.g. Jun Kaneko’s Butterfly, Robert Lepage’s La Damnation de Faust).

Concern: “The emergence of multiple audiences”

  • Audience behavior is changing (e.g. less interested in subscriptions, more single tickets being purchased and purchased late), but perhaps the biggest conundrum is what Marc calls “the emergence of multiple audiences.” He says, “There are now audiences wanting to see Carmen for the first time and those who never want to see Carmen again.” This has serious implications for programming, especially in a city like Madison, where we have a strong group of devoted and knowledgeable opera goers in addition to new audiences potentially interested only in a Boheme or Butterfly that arrive every fall at the University of Wisconsin. Add to the mix a faltering economy that is making all ticket buyers more choosy. Balance is key, but it’s sometimes hard to strike.

Comparative Analysis: Fun Facts

  • Between 1992 and 2007, Madison Opera has grown 587% based on expenses. That’s an average of 13.7% per year, a rate almost unheard of and well ahead of other similar sized opera companies.
  • Madison Opera’s artistic expense per available seat is $99.14, and our cheapest seats are just $16, a price that has only increased 56% in the last 15 years. By comparison, the average increase on the lowest ticket price for other similar sized companies has been 173%, who in turn only have an artistic expense per seat average of $80. (Translation: HUGE bang for your buck at Madison Opera!)
  • Two general trends that emerged in looking at development and marketing productivity ratios (which were both very high) was that [a] a small staff is capable of doing A LOT and [b] a small staff keeps costs down which in turn keeps those ratios high
  • 40% of our unrestricted contributed income comes from individuals, 33% from foundations, 15% from guilds and other sources, 7% from corporations, and 5% from government
  • Madison Opera’s main season capacity utilization is at 86%, compared to 78% for other similar sized companies
  • And one last trend that may look slightly freakish is our subscription renewal for fiscal year 2007, which was at 94% (our season has only recently expanded from 2 to 3 productions; this and the increase in quality can attest to that high figure, up from 84% the year before!)

The Future of Madison Opera

Saturday’s meeting was meant to be an assessment of where we are and an organization of our thoughts on where we want to go. Unfortunately I can’t just go blathering about all of the cool stuff that came up in the discussion about Madison Opera’s next steps, but I can say it’s clear many exciting destinations await. Thankfully, our financial ducks are at present all in a row, as the comparative analysis revealed. But the reality remains that nothing huge can really happen in this economy, it’s just too risky. So for now, we go ahead with our strategic planning, letting the future pull us forward while being prudent and always striving to present the highest quality opera possible.

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