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Back in May, American Theatre had an article about audience building efforts Opera Theatre St. Louis (OTSL) undertook with funding from the Wallace Foundation. In my experience, there is always something to learn from these projects funded by the Wallace Foundation, especially since the case study reports tend to be honest about what things didn’t go well. So it is worth the time to read this short article.
One of OTSL’s efforts that drew my attention was their Opera Tastings project where they would pair tastings of food and wine with short opera performances. What I really appreciated about their effort here was that they took the program a fair distance from their home rather than concentrating on the St. Louis city limits. (my emphasis)
Hosted in a local restaurant or venue, the evening pairs 11 samples of food or drink with 11 operatic excerpts. The evenings have taken place all over St. Louis: in predominantly Black neighborhoods, in Chinatown, in Southern Illinois, or as far away as Columbia and Fayetteville, Mo. (120 miles and 145 miles, respectively).
“If the intent is to draw people in who surround you, then most of our organizations are finding that they have to be more present in the community,” says Ramos. “It’s how you build relevance. It’s how you show the work.”
Newcomers, in other words, discover what type of opera they enjoy, instead of being told why they should enjoy opera. More than three-quarters of Opera Tasting attendees are new-to-file (i.e., first time patrons), and every attendee gets $10 in “opera bucks” to redeem for a ticket to an upcoming show.
As I mentioned before, an aspect of these programs I have valued is the fact they were open about what went wrong. This type of reflection is a core part of Wallace Foundation’s ethic of “continuous learning” according to the article.
There was enough of an upside, despite the cost, to make the Opera Tastings worth retaining and refining. (my emphasis)
A lot of those opera bucks get redeemed: Right now an average of 42 percent of Opera Tastings attendees go on to buy tickets. What’s more, audience members who come to OTSL through Opera Tastings tend to buy more expensive tickets and become donors at a faster rate than expected.
One caveat: The tastings are costly to produce, costing $7,100 per tasting in 2018. And the true cost of audience recruitment may be obscured by the subsidies covered by opera bucks as well as discounted ticket prices
“It’s an expensive way to acquire new audience members,” admits Timothy O’Leary, general director of Opera Theatre from 2008 to 2018. And the majority of people who attend, 58 percent, never buy a ticket. The challenge now is to see how the tastings might be sustainable without Wallace support.
The article also talks about other programs like their Young Friends program which they estimate has a $16,000-$17,000 impact and their Opera Kids Camp for children to attend while their parents are at the opera. Take a look to learn more.