A friend of mine saw the Canadian Opera Company's recent Falstaff production twice, but he was lucky, and willing to stand. The company sold 99 per cent of available seats for Verdi's opera, and managed 91 per cent capacity for its concurrent production of Madama Butterfly.
While fans packed the house, however, the company quietly released the details of another, less happy story. Its latest financial statements reveal that the COC spent about $2.9-million more in 2013-14 than it took in. A cash transfusion of nearly $2-million from the COC Foundation reduced the net deficit to a still-daunting $952,000 - and that was with average attendance of 94 per cent for the season.
Clearly, selling almost all the tickets isn't doing it for the COC – and hasn't for at least five years. Average attendance neared 100 per cent in 2008-2009, but the company still needed rainy-day cash from the foundation to cover a $1.6-million operating deficit.
The main problem, according to board chair Philip Deck, stems from a choice made nearly a decade ago, when the Four Seasons Centre was nearing completion. The COC added a seventh opera to its yearly calendar, meaning that its spring mini-season would have three productions, not two.
The expense and effort of fielding a third spring offering soon turned out be greater than the benefit, says Deck. The COC decided to drop the seventh opera four years ago, but with a production cycle that runs about that long, it was only this year that the decision could take effect.
"That deficit [of $2.9-million] will get eliminated this year," says Deck, adding that the smaller production load alone will reduce the fiscal gap by about $1.5-million.
The COC's real operating cost last year – after amortizations related to the house – was $38-million. Its last pre-Four Seasons report in 2006 showed a $22.4-million budget, and a small surplus. The seventh opera wasn't being done then, but even if you deduct the rough cost of that show from last year's numbers, expenses have gone up about 60 per cent since the house opened.
Much of that, Deck says, is due to the Four Seasons, which seats 2,200, compared to 3,400 at the company's former theatre, the Sony Centre. The COC must do 50 per cent more shows to sell the same number of tickets. The cost of each show has also risen, from $220,000 in 2007-2008 to around $290,000 last year, mainly because the company hires better talent and has a bigger pit.
While Butterfly was meeting her tragic end at the Four Seasons, the National Ballet of Canada announced a small surplus for its latest fiscal year, on a budget of $27.6-million. The company did eight programs in the same theatre, where it paid rent to the COC. Like the COC, the National does more many shows at the Four Seasons than at the Sony Centre - 24 more than the opera did last year.
The ballet's executive director Barry Hughson said the season left the company "in the best condition, artistically and fiscally, in its history." Compare that to COC board president Tony Arrell's mournful comment that the COC had just finished "the most difficult season in recent history."
No doubt opera is more expensive to do well, on average, than ballet. But perhaps the landlord in this story could learn a few lessons from the tenant.