Metropolitan Opera Attendance: Slightly Better, Still Bad
When the Metropolitan Opera moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, its general manager worried in a memo that the company had so many subscribers that, for others, it was “impossible ever to buy a ticket.” As recently as the 1990s, the Met regularly took in more than 90 percent of its potential box-office income.
But its attendance has floundered lately. The Met celebrated the 50th anniversary of its enormous Lincoln Center home with a starry gala this month. But as its 2016-17 season ended, the challenge of filling a theater that holds 4,000 came into stark relief: The Met said it had taken in 67 percent of its potential box-office revenue this season — up only very slightly from last year, its worst showing ever.
In the 2015-16 season, the Met took in 66 percent of its potential capacity. Some numbers are improving more substantially: The company’s paid attendance rate, which includes discounted tickets, rose to 75 percent, from 72 percent in 2015-16. And the company said it attracted 80,000 new ticket buyers this season, up from 74,000 the year before. The challenge is turning those newcomers into regulars.
“It just shows how many tickets we have to sell to single-ticket buyers to make up for the declining subscription base,” Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said in an interview. He said that he “certainly hopes” that the box-office decline of recent seasons has bottomed out.
The company is grappling with the same challenge facing other American opera houses, ballet companies and orchestras: the steady decline of the old subscription model, in which many audience members could be counted on to buy tickets to multiple events each year. As the nation’s largest performing arts organization, with an annual budget of close to $300 million, the Met’s fortunes are watched particularly closely as a barometer for institutions nationwide.
Mr. Gelb has been trying to maintain interest in the Met by mounting more new productions, engaging prominent theater and film directors and with the company’s Live in HD simulcasts to cinemas around the world. He said that Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who will be the Met’s new music director, was already exciting audiences, and that he was pleased that James Levine, who became music director emeritus last season after having some health problems, was back in shape.
But the Met has been grappling with budget woes in recent seasons, wresting concessions from its unions, cutting fees to singers, and generally trying to reduce its costs as it relies more and more on philanthropy. (The 50th-anniversary concert and dinner raised an impressive $8 million, but even that is a small percentage of the annual budget.) The Met took the unusual step this year of canceling a new production of Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” planned for next season by the daring director Calixto Bieito, describing the move as a cost-cutting measure.
Mr. Gelb said in the interview that the 2019-20 season would feature a new production of the Gershwins’s “Porgy and Bess,” directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Eric Owens. And Mr. Gelb added that last Saturday’s matinee performance of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier,” in which Renée Fleming sang one of her signature roles for the last time, was one of the strongest box-office showings in Met history. It took in about 107 percent of its box-office capacity, he said, thanks to a dynamic pricing model that raised ticket prices as demand grew.
“At the end of the day, it is the work we present on the stage that’s most important,” Mr. Gelb said. “All good marketing must begin with good artistic results.”