When Vancouver Opera made the stunning announcement that it would abandon its traditional fall-to-spring schedule and become an annual spring festival, there was much alarm in the city's cultural circles.
The head of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey, was probably the most vocal and high-profile dissenter (among his tweets: "It is Orwellian to mask the news as progress"), but he was hardly the only one to balk.
The doom-and-gloom comments I heard expressed (by nobody who wanted to put their name to them) sounded something like: Yet another local cultural organization going down the tubes! What kind of city can't sustain a year-round opera company? Government funders need to step up now! And how dare VO spin this as a good news story?
Indeed, VO general director James Wright did not look distraught as he announced what VO board chair Pascal Spothelfer called "the most important and probably also the most innovative change at Vancouver Opera since it was founded 55 years ago."
At that news conference, Wright was upbeat. He said the transformation was not simply about finances (it will save VO about $1-million on its annual $10-million budget) but could rejuvenate the company and inject new life into Vancouver's opera scene. Citing companies such as Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Portland Opera, Wright said festivals work for opera.
"They bring people together in ways that doing four separate operas with months between them can't do, can't energize. … They attract a younger audience, a more diverse audience, they're more fun."
Wright also cited research from Opera America that "the most successful opera companies in the last decade have been those that are festivals."
Opera America's statistics suggest companies offering a festival over a traditional season are weathering the opera storm more successfully.
"Most of our opera companies have lost mainstage paid attendance in the last 10 years and Vancouver Opera is not excepted," explained Opera America president and CEO Marc Scorca in an interview from New York last week. "The companies that have lost least audience or none at all are the festivals."
Opera America studied a group of established U.S. opera companies and found that while they all experienced a decline in attendance from 2002-12, the summer festivals it looked at saw the smallest declines: Santa Fe Opera (5 per cent), Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (11 per cent) and New York State's Glimmerglass Festival (11 per cent).
And for the most recent season for which figures were available, all three of those festivals showed higher attendance over the previous year.
"One makes space in one's life for the short-term jolt of the opera festival in the community," Scorca says. "So I think it's partially that immersive experience … that has given festivals a leg up in this competitive environment."
When Fort Worth Opera, the oldest opera company in Texas, made the decision to switch from a stagione season to a festival for its 2007 season, the company wasn't aware of any other comparable company that had made such a transition.
"It was either going to be the best or the worst decision and there was no way to turn back," says Darren K. Woods, Fort Worth Opera Festival's general director. "We had to put all those eggs in the basket, sell the people that this was a great idea. There was the danger of losing funders. But we were so methodical in 24 months in just planning it. It worked on paper, it made logical sense, but until you pull the trigger and people come or don't come or participate, it was a big risk. I'm getting a knot in my stomach just remembering it."
The company anticipated and was met with resistance. Patrons were invited to wine-and-cheese-and-yell-at-Darren events. "They were incredibly attended by very passionate people who were so mad at me," he recalls. "I said, 'Okay, get a glass of wine. I'm going to tell you all the reasons why this happened, how it's going to work.'"
Woods brought people around. And in the end, he says it turned out to be the best decision the company ever made.
"I'm knocking on wood; we weathered the recession with no debt or deficit. We lost ticket buyers during the recession like everybody did, but we've managed to hold onto our audience and grow our younger, more experimental audience."
Bonus: With new works and a condensed spring time frame, Fort Worth has attracted national and international critics and buzz, as well as opera tourists.
The Fort Worth experience was among those Portland Opera (now in its final traditional season) studied before deciding to move to a summer festival in 2016.
"We really wanted to make a change proactively and at a time when we didn't wait for it to become a crisis," says Mark Tiarks, Portland Opera's director of marketing and communications.
Despite having a balanced budget in 16 of the past 17 years, the company was seeing the same kinds of sales patterns that have been problematic for opera companies.
"There have been quite a number of American opera companies that have either suspended operations or gone out of business over the last five or six years and most of them were fall-winter-spring companies in middle-sized cities. And that's what we are and were. So that was a big part of the message: The places that didn't change were the ones that were really having the hardest time finding a current path much less a future path."
Vancouver Opera may be the first major Canadian company to move to a festival season, but it's part of a wave. According to Scorca, several companies in the U.S. are considering the same change – and he predicts good things for VO in terms of the potential for increased sales, media attention, intensity of experience and artistic achievement.
"There are times where an initial motivation may be financial but the artistic impact transcends it almost instantaneously," Scorca says. "And it's my hope that that's the experience in Vancouver; that although there is a perception that there is a financial motivation that led Jim and the board to plan this festival, the excitement and the artistic impact of the festival will make everyone forget that it was a financial trigger that started this conversation."