Vancouver Opera’s general director, Kim Gaynor, has a metaphor she likes to use to describe opera companies. “They’re like ocean-going liners. You can’t turn them around quickly. When you’re heading for the iceberg, if you haven’t already changed direction three months earlier, you’re going to hit the iceberg.”
Vancouver Opera hit the iceberg last year, in its inaugural year in a festival format – with poorly attended mainstage events, a significant decline in box office and troubles within the organization, as the company struggled to deal with disappointing financial results. Financial statements indicate a drop of more than $2-million in mainstage ticket sales in 2016-17 from the previous year.
“Earned revenues (box office) significantly declined, reflecting historically low subscription renewal rates, combined with lower-than-projected single ticket sales during the festival,” the annual report stated. VO registered an operating loss of nearly $470,000 on a budget of $9.68-million, increasing the accumulated operating deficit to more than $1.1-million. It would have been worse without a substantial donation from the Vancouver Opera Foundation, representing 24 per cent of the company’s revenue.
The move from a traditional season (with operas spread out between the fall and spring) to a festival model (with a condensed schedule of operas staged over about a two-week period) was announced in 2015 – before Gaynor was hired – as a way to deal with declining attendance.
Considering the artistic excellence of the inaugural festival’s operas – which were well-reviewed – and complementary programming, what went wrong?
“It’s quite clear to me what was happening; I think that the decision to move to an entirely festival format … a lot of people didn’t agree with it and they voted by not renewing their subscriptions,” Gaynor says. “The low subscription levels were a direct result of people saying, ‘Well, I might go to one thing during the festival but I’m not going to go to multiple performances or all of my year of opera in a three-week period.’”
She has spent the time since turning that ocean liner around. After its unsuccessful inaugural year, the second Vancouver Opera Festival begins this weekend, condensed and smaller, as Gaynor continues a shift to a festival-and-season model. There are early signs of significant improvement.
This year’s Russian-themed festival will feature two mainstage operas instead of three – Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and The Overcoat – a musical tailoring (an operatic reinterpretation of the 1998 Canadian play The Overcoat) at the smaller Playhouse next door. Other highlights include Requiem for a Lost Girl: a chamber musical about homelessness developed with Vancouver’s Kettle Society, a non-profit that supports people with mental-health issues; a Family Day with child-friendly activities and performances including Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf; and a send-off to VO’s long-time musical director Jonathan Darlington.
“Everything in the festival is selling, which is already a good thing compared to last year. When we were a couple of weeks out from the festival, we had a lot of events which we didn’t really have audiences for,” Gaynor says.
In the end, only Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro came close to hitting box-office targets; Otello’s was off by $150,000 and Dead Man Walking by nearly $90,000.
The poor results were addressed at the annual general meeting last October, as an angry attendee asked for an explanation for the drop in ticket sales, according to someone who attended the meeting. When the board response suggested the audience was to blame for not embracing the festival format, the speaker asked why the company had not consulted with its audience prior to deciding on the format change. VO did hold town-hall meetings about the move to the festival format – but not until after the decision was made and announced. (It was at that AGM that the disappointing financial results were revealed.)
Board chair Jill Bodkin also points out that while VO considers its festival numbers last year disappointing, “our more than 20,000 festival customers was well ahead of Philadelphia’s inaugural festival at 16,000, considered a grand success.”
And programming-wise, she says the inaugural year was successful. “The festival itself last year was a real landmark; I think it really reset our artistic future. It was the best work we had ever done.”
The donation from the foundation – over $2.2-million for 2016-17 – was not made in haste, Bodkin stresses.
“Before we went to the foundation, we built a two-year plan for 2017-18 and 2018-19 which is very conservative, very cautious,” says Bodkin, who moved from vice-chair to chair at last fall’s AGM, where these numbers were presented. “2016 to 2017 was a very difficult year, but we didn’t just go to the foundation and say, ‘Help, we need money’; we went to the foundation and said, ‘Here’s our two-year plan so that we won’t need that support into the future.’
“Our commitment to the foundation was that we had to work our way out; that’s not the purpose of the foundation, to provide backstop support year after year after year.”
And she says progress for 2017-18 is good, with both audience and donor support “well ahead” of the organization’s goals, and a 2018-19 program designed to restore the company to normal foundation-support levels.
The pivot to a festival has taken a toll on the organization itself. Last spring, staff and contractors were asked to help balance the books by accepting a pay cut.
Employees were not happy, and sent a letter of protest to senior management. Now, the organization is looking to fill some key positions, in addition to Darlington’s post (a search committee has been formed to find a new music director). The organization lost its director of marketing, and the director of development has recently announced his departure. Moving into the festival, it’s a busy time, even without staffing issues.
But already this year, subscriptions are up and ticket sales have exceeded expectations for operas presented earlier in the season – part of a strategy to move away from the festival-only model following last year’s disappointments.
“We’re still in a bit of a recovery mode although things are much, much better this year than last year,” says Gaynor, who hopes to be able to announce that the company is reinstating pay to previous levels after the end of the fiscal year in June.
“Everyone sees that things are going better so the mood has improved, I would say.”
And she says they’re ahead of projections for the recently announced 2018-19 season and festival, with The Merry Widow in October, La Bohème in February and a “Fairytales & Fables” festival theme, with Gounod’s Faust and Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Now, Gaynor is programming 2019-20. And the company is launching a strategic-planning process.
“In my head, we have a three-year experiment going on now,” Gaynor says. “This is the first year.”
The Vancouver Opera Festival runs April 28 to May 6.