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After weathering a tough season of shortfalls and layoffs, Vancouver Opera is back in the black – to the tune of a cool half-million. Now as the opera company embarks on an important season that will see it host the OPERA America Conference, VO is contemplating other ways to draw people in, knowing there are only so many greatest-hits-of-opera it can rely on to feed the box office.

In 2010-11, VO reported a "significant operating loss" of $831,000 on a budget of $9.7-million, so the estimated $500,000 surplus in 2011-12 marks an encouraging turnaround. (Exact figures are expected later this summer, once audit results are disclosed.)

Still, VO officials say the future is going to be challenging for opera companies, and they are no exception. Smart programming that includes a mixture of classics, innovative new works and thinking outside the box they say, will be a key factor in continued success – and staying out of the red. While the company believes the recession contributed to troubles in the previous season, the programming of two unfamiliar operas – Mozart's rarely seen La Clemenza di Tito and the world premiere of VO's homegrown full-length work, Lillian Alling – in a season of four is now acknowledged as a misstep.

"We didn't help ourselves with two unknown works," says James Wright, VO's general director. "We know that people are going to think twice about spending $250 for a pair of tickets for something they've never heard of."

This past season – with West Side Story, Roméo et Juliette, The Barber of Seville and Aida – subscriptions were just about restored to pre-recession levels, after a loss of about 900 subscribers over the previous two seasons.

"I think it was the strength of the repertoire," says Doug Tuck, VO's director of marketing. "All of [the shows] were popular and I think the combination of them all is what drew people back."

West Side Story, the Broadway musical which opened this past season, sold 10,046 single tickets – a company record. By contrast, Clemenza the previous season sold fewer than 2,400 tickets.

The company also marked a significant cost saving with its move a year ago to a consolidated space, the O'Brian Centre, which it estimates saved about $300,000 this year in operating costs.

And its splashy annual fundraiser, Overture – where the well-heeled crowd was treated to a performance by Jennifer Hudson – brought in far more than budgeted, estimated at this point at well over $500,000 net.

Only the season closer, Aida, came in under target – but still performed better, the company believes, than Don Carlo would have. The Verdi work was originally programmed; the switch to Aida was meant to boost the season in light of the previous year's disappointments.

But as the Aida results demonstrate, nothing is a sure thing any more and programming is becoming more challenging. Wright points out that other North American companies are also reporting a drop in attendance for productions such as La Traviata and Lucia di Lammermoor. But he adds that even if these productions were absolute box office certainties, there are a number of reasons why opera companies don't want to rely on them entirely.

"We are all trying to find the right balance of popular, newer, traditional," says Wright. "We cannot do three or four blockbusters a year because, as you know, we'll be out of repertoire in three years."

(La Bohème, which opens the upcoming season, is being repeated after a five-year absence. Wright says he would be more comfortable with a six-year gap between productions.)

"We also know from within the industry, those companies that have gone totally to the corner to play it safe with all-Carmen-all-the-time in many ways are the ones having even greater challenges," says Jeff Sodowsky, VO's chief development officer. "One can't assume as an opera producer any more that it's enough to just do the chestnuts."

As for repeating the success of West Side Story with a comparable production, that appears to be a non-starter. VO has explored other possible shows – including Showboat and Sweeney Todd – and says there's nothing like West Side Story: not only in terms of its popularity, but also the fact that its composer, Leonard Bernstein, has the kind of classical music credentials that make him seem not out of place in an opera house.

"I think we were all surprised that it's not easy to replicate," says Wright. "We ran lots of scenarios and nothing does what that did."

Other productions next season include Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, VO's acclaimed First Nations-inspired production of Mozart's The Magic Flute and the Canadian premiere of Tan Dun's Tea: A Mirror of Soul, which will run during the OPERA America conference, which is being hosted by VO in Vancouver next May.