San Diego Opera’s Interim Pick Speaks Wisdom and Nonsense

We learned this week that San Diego Opera has hired a 72-year-old, retired opera industry insider to turn the company around. William Mason, former general director of Chicago’s Lyric Opera, has been retained to serve for six months as temporary artistic advisor.

One of the more encouraging signs in this move is the answer Mason gave when asked about the company’s full-time leadership: “They need somebody new. I’m 72 years old. I have no new ideas, and I’m not trying to formulate any.” It would be refreshing, and probably a huge boon to the industry, if more arts leaders would admit this sort of thing.

One of the less encouraging signs is the answer Mason gave when asked about connecting an elite art form to the community:

“I’ve never liked the word ‘outreach,’ but really, that’s what opera has to do. Whether it’s producing ‘Aida’ or going into the community and doing short versions of operas, or doing zarzuelas or mariachi opera, or doing any of the sorts of things that are out there, you need to do things so the entire community, and not just the opera community, is aware of the existence of the company and realizes what it contributes to the city.”

On the surface it sounds great, but dig a little deeper and you’ll learn why opera and its ailing arts cousins are in so much trouble: The statement is just squishy nonsense.

It would be nice if connecting with the community were the answer but there’s not a shred of evidence to suggest that connecting with the community can solve San Diego Opera’s audience crisis. A myth has been emerging in the arts over the last decade or so that says there’s a link between connecting with communities and selling tickets. It’s an enormously seductive myth but it’s not true. If San Diego Opera wants to connect with the community in a way that influences ticket sales, they should go out into the community and sell tickets.

It would also be nice if doing ethnic operas for minorities were a good idea, but if you turn the equation around, you’ll see how ridiculous it is. Imagine that a long-time producer of mariachi concerts who was losing audiences decided to do a mariachi opera to lure more rich white people into his regular mariachi programs. How likely is it that he would succeed? If you can’t imagine large numbers of elite, white opera lovers becoming devoted mariachi fans because someone produced a mariachi opera, it’s absurd – and more than just a little patronizing – to assume that the process will work in the opposite direction. If San Diego Opera wants to sell opera tickets to Mexican-Americans, they should find the Mexican-Americans who are most likely to want to buy opera tickets and go sell them tickets.

And it would be just great if making the San Diego community aware of the company and what it contributes to the city had the power to solve the audience crisis, but it doesn’t. Generating awareness is a passive approach that only works when the marketplace contains pent up demand. Since the San Diego market no longer contains enough pent up demand to support passive, awareness-generating approaches, it would appear that more active approaches are called for. So if San Diego Opera wants people to buy tickets, they should stop trying to generate awareness and start actively persuading likely opera goers to buy tickets.

I have no doubt that William Mason was a good pick for this transition and I don’t mean to single him out. Most performing arts leaders repeat this sort of goofy nonsense because they simply don’t know what else to say about disappearing audiences, much less what to do about them. But the stakes are extremely high in San Diego and the company can’t afford to perpetuate the industry’s counterproductive myths.

What should Mason have said? How about this: “It’s more than just connecting with the community. We have to first prove that we’re a thriving, vital, productive part of the ongoing cultural life of San Diego and that means building a large, diverse, paying audience. To do that, we’re going to replace amateur arts marketing traditions with professional, businesslike approaches. We’re going to field outside sales teams who use goal-oriented engagement strategies. And we’re going to make every newcomer who walks through our doors so welcome, happy and at home that they wouldn’t dream of not coming back.”

Let’s hope that William Mason advises the SDO board to select a new chief executive who not only has the ability to talk about what the company must do to survive, but who has the professional expertise and idea-generating energy to make it happen.


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