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Opera is getting its group on.

A new discount ticket exchange program among opera companies in Canada and the United States has been launched in an attempt to build audiences and boost slumping ticket sales. The scheme is co-ordinated by Opera America, a New York–based organization that promotes the creation and presentation of opera.

According to its research, ticket sales for opera productions in the United States for the 2022-23 season were 22 per cent below prepandemic 2018-19 levels.

“Opera companies are faced with uncertainty about behaviour of the ticket buyers,” Opera America president and chief executive officer Marc Scorca told The Globe and Mail. “We’re trying to manage and embrace new ideas coming out of the pandemic.”

Companies across North America are slashing budgets and staging fewer productions and performances. This summer, Tulsa Opera cancelled its 2023-24 season, while the 94-year-old Chautauqua Opera Company in upstate New York announced it would no longer put on full productions.

“Attendance is not what it was before the pandemic,” said Joel Ivany, who in July resigned from his post as artistic director of Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre, an experimental opera company he founded 13 years ago. “And before the pandemic, it wasn’t all roses, gold and jam-packed houses either.”

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The downturn has had other repercussions in the industry. The Metropolitan Opera Guild, a not-for-profit organization created in 1935 to support the famed New York opera house, announced it would wind down its operations, dismiss 20 staff and discontinue publication of Opera News magazine.

“It really is the result of several years of declining economic fortunes,” Met general manager Peter Gelb told Associated Press. “What they’re suffering is what many non-profits have been suffering, which is a situation where the earned revenues and donations are not enough to keep up with the expenses.”

The good news is Opera America’s research revealed that nearly one-third of all 2022-23 audiences, on average, were made up of first-time attendees. Opera presenters hope the Opera Passport is just the ticket to entice newbies and aria aficionados alike to sample performances outside their hometown.

“Travel is not something we’ve encouraged people to do previously,” said Cheryl Hickman, general director and artistic director of the St. John’s-based Opera on the Avalon. “It’s welcome, and it’s a long time coming.”

Of the six Canadian presenters participating in the reciprocal subscription network, Opera on the Avalon is the only one east of Toronto. Its recent world premiere of February, based on the Lisa Moore novel about the real-life sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland in 1982, played to respectable 70-per-cent capacity crowds at the 983-seat Arts and Culture Centre over two nights. Their online viewership, however, more than doubled the in-person attendance.

“We had people watching from around the world, and a lot of them were first-time viewers,” Hickman said. “Hopefully now they’ll come physically for the next thing we do. In much the same way, this new passport will create awareness about us and other companies.”

The other Canadian participants are Calgary Opera, Manitoba Opera, Pacific Opera Victoria, Vancouver Opera and Toronto’s Tapestry Opera. Discounts of 10 per cent or more on tickets are available to subscribers and donors of the presenters taking part, and to members of Opera America.

Companies big and small have signed up, from San Francisco Opera to Anchorage Opera, from Lyric Opera of Chicago to Barn Opera in Brandon, Vt., from Opera Philadelphia to Hawaii Opera Theatre. Major institutions such as the Met and the Canadian Opera Company are not taking part. All told, of Opera America’s 203 professional presenters, 85 are participating.

“One of our companies in the Midwest said they weren’t going to participate because they had so many sold-out performances last year they had absolutely no need to reduce the price of their tickets,” Scorca said. “Others expressed interest in joining, but haven’t yet. They will be welcome any time.”

The initiative was inspired by the National Stages Program, a U.S. subscription service created in 2015 for travelling theatregoers. As well, reciprocal membership programs are common among museums. For opera companies, the passport was created at a time when performing arts institutions are eager to experiment.

“We’re still in recovery from COVID, and we all realize we operate in a very delicate ecosystem,” Hickman said. “We need to support each other as much as we can. The more we cross-promote, collaborate and offer benefits to our subscribers, I think we’ll all be better off.”

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