Opera for Everyone: Thoughts from the San Francisco Opera on their Wallace project

ImageIn our Wallace proposal General Director David Gockley stated, “Opera is for everyone. We have to find ways to get people into an entry-level opera-going experience in a way that makes sense to them economically and environmentally. We must to get them on a track that goes on to more committed opera-going.”

One of the primary goals of San Francisco Opera’s Wallace Excellence Award was to cultivate demand and increase participation in our free opera simulcasts — and to see whether these events would lead to paid attendance at live performances at the Opera House.

In the fall of 2007, broadcasting a live performance from the stage of the War Memorial Opera House to AT&T Park was a new way to introduce people to the art of opera through a welcoming, easy to attend, popular and free event. Mr. Gockley had produced the first San Francisco Opera simulcast in May 2006 on the opening night of Madama Butterfly, bringing 5,000 people to Civic Center Plaza. It was soon followed by Rigoletto simulcast to both Civic Center Plaza and Stanford University’s Frost Amphitheatre in October 2006 and by Don Giovanni to four indoor venues (Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; Cal Performances/Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley; Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa; and the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at U.C. Davis), in June 2007.

The Opera’s grant proposal to The Wallace Foundation was submitted as we prepared for our first live simulcast to AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, a beloved Bay Area venue, centrally located, easy to reach and attractive to younger audiences and people with families.

At most previous free community events the Opera had captured between 1,000 and 2,000 attendee names. From the first AT&T Park simulcasts, we took advantage of the ballpark’s controlled entrances by offering early access to the ballpark and automatic entry into a drawing for a “Night at the Opera” in exchange for signing up on the Opera’s website. We advertised the simulcast sign-ups in print media, on the radio, in bus stop shelters, by direct mail and stack- dropped postcards, online and through an ongoing email campaign to our database.

As a result, the number of names we captured for future marketing of performances at the War Memorial Opera House was exponentially increased. For Samson and Delilah, of the 10,047 who signed up online for the simulcast, 68% — 6,874 households — were new to our database. For the most popular of all simulcast titles, Aida, in 2010, 21,350 households registered, of whom 10,033 (47% of the total) were new to our database. From Samson in 2007 through Turandot in 2011, we added 48,542 new households of potential buyers.

Over this same timeframe, more than four thousand of these new patrons purchased $1.4 million in tickets through onsite and follow-up discount offers (including first-time single ticket and subscription purchases and repeat purchases through the years), a strong demonstration of the power of the art form to attract new paying customers through a free event, if the introduction is strong enough (a popular title presented in an inviting venue), contact information is rigorously gathered, and the initial “special offer” is attractive enough — in this case a 50% discount.

Each simulcast was marked by incredibly joyful and respectful responses from the large ballpark crowds experiencing the live opera performance on the big screen. It was thrilling to witness 32,000 people watch a performance of Aida in almost total silence, erupt in cheers at the end of the Triumphal March, and then stand to applaud through the end of the curtain calls, before thanking the staff and volunteers on their way out of the stadium.

As part of our Wallace plan, we surveyed those who had signed up on the website for their reactions to the event, asking how they had learned of the simulcast, why they attended, how much they enjoyed it, and if they were likely to recommend SFO simulcasts to others. We asked if

they were interested in going to a performance at the Opera House in the future and about perceived barriers to attendance. Analysis of survey responses helped us refine our simulcast marketing plans, gave us insights into patron interest in and exposure to opera beyond the simulcast, and their experience with opera in general and San Francisco Opera in particular. Over the years, simulcast audiences have grown more diverse, slightly younger and somewhat less familiar with opera than our first simulcast audiences. As noted above, many of them followed their attendance at a simulcast with attendance at the Opera House. We are tremendously grateful to The Wallace Foundation for helping make that possible.

The next San Francisco Opera “Opera at the Ballpark” simulcast to AT&T Park will be Verdi’s Rigoletto on Saturday evening, September 15, 2012. We hope you’ll join us!

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ABOUT THE INITIATIVE

In 2008, The San Francisco Foundation (TSFF) and Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund (GFTA) embarked on a four-year funding partnership to encourage systemic and sustainable structural change in the relationships of Bay Area arts organizations to their audiences, supported by the Wallace Foundation. Community offerings during the grant period (2008-2011) included seminars, workshops, large public convenings, implementation grants, development of a regional shared mailing list, and expansion of the SFArts.org website.

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