Deep-discounted opera and concert tickets may be the ultimate example of how the arts are not a business. This is not like selling summer fashions at 50 per cent off at the end of the season.
The New York Times on Saturday published an article on how the Metropolitan Opera’s discounted rush tickets had been in question ever since the death last year of a board member who had helped underwrite the programme by writing $4 million cheques six years in a row.
This person was, essentially, paying the difference between what it costs to present a night of opera at the world’s largest company, and what it was costing to bring in last-minute patrons.
Met general manager Peter Gelb announced that the company will find some way to keep paying for a continuation of the discount ticket programme — 200 seats for shows on Monday through Thursday, as well as limited placed on Fridays and Saturdays assigned by lottery for $20 to $25.
That could be like unearthing a pair of Manolo Blahniks at Winners for $129.99 — except that the person standing next to you in the shoe aisle wasn’t the one who paid the difference between the regular retail price and your discount because she thought you needed to look fabulous in a pair of strappy heels.
The economics of concert tickets appear to be going through a seismic shift in this part of the world. Once upon a time, not more than 10 years ago, the highest-priced tickets were the guaranteed sellers for a symphony concert or opera performance.
People lined up in person or on the phone to make sure they got the prime spots. Once these were gone, the remaining eager buyers would reluctantly cascade downward on the cost-and-desirability scale until something turned up.
Now, according to people who look after these things, the cheapest tickets are the ones that sell first. The prime ones also go, but it’s tickets priced in the middle that are toughest to flog.
On a typical Toronto Symphony or Canadian Opera Company night, the seats closest to the ceiling are full, but there are empty spots in the rest of the hall.
The thing is, the least expensive blocks of tickets have always been priced lower than what it would take to cover the cost of a performance. Selling the top tickets was supposed to take care of that. Deeper-pocketed patrons were contributing, say, $50 towards your top-balcony enjoyment of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
But when the top seats go begging, the $50 quickly becomes $5,000 or, worse yet, $50,000 that has to be covered by a donor or sponsor — either as an up-front discount programme, or more quietly as a cheque to underwrite a production, artist or, if the shortfall really was a surprise, a looming budget deficit.
Isn’t it incredible how people care so much about the arts that they are paying for other people to go see a show or concert?
As nice as this is, behind the scenes at the Met and in hundreds of other administrative offices at performing arts companies across the continent, managers are scratching their heads at how long they can sustain this sort of model — even if, unlike Winners, no one expects them to make a profit.