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Canadian Opera Company feels the pain of reduced ticket revenues

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A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s new 2011-12 season production of A Florentinee Tragedy (Michael Cooper photo).

It was clear from seeing the mention of parking garage revenue in the annual report issued by the Canadian Opera Company this afternoon that the organization is in desperate search of good financial news to share along with its artistic successes.

Leaders of the Canadian Opera Company announced an operating surplus of $10,000 from the 2011-12 season at today’s annual general meeting. It joined a string of accomplishments both on its mainstage and other activities, such as the Ensemble Studio, 76 free lunchtime concerts and 20 different outreach programmes.

But some of the smiles may have been a little forced.

Reflecting a trend confirmed by many classical music and theatre presenters in Toronto, attendance and ticket revenues are down over last year, which had already seen a decrease over the prior season.

According to the annual report, 125,238 patrons attended 67 mainstage Canadian Opera Company performances during the 2011-12 season, representing 91 per cent of audience capacity. This is nearly 5 per cent fewer people per performance than in 2010-11. Ticket revenue was just short of $11 million, compared to $12.3 million the season prior — a 9 per cent drop overall.

In 2012-12, the COC offset $35,575,000 of expenses with $35,585,000 of revenue. Box office represents 31 per cent of the total inflow, fundraising credits 25 per cent, support from all levels of government comes in at 19 percent, rentals of the space and the company’s own productions brought in 15 per cent, with the balance coming from a variety of other sources, including the underground parking garage.

It takes a fairly deep scan of the Company’s documents to show that the organization came short somewhere around $1 million on its operations in the last fiscal year (which coincides with the opera season). The COC was able to turn this figure into a modest surplus by transferring funds from the Canadian Opera Foundation, which has assets of slightly more than $25 million.

In an interview, COC board president Philip C. Deck said that there is still “rainy day” money left to draw on, but that everyone in the organization is conscious of the difficulties it faces in confronting high fixed costs and softening revenues.

He pointed out that the Company has retired all of its debt and that the Four Seasons Centre is fully paid for, which allows everyone to breathe a little easier as they work on plans to grow the subscriber and donor base.

“We’ve done an incredible amount of analysis on our subscriber base, which is our lifeblood,” said Deck. “It is from this base that virtually all of our $9 million in annual fundraising comes from.”

During the interview, Deck stated several times how the organization is in “the business of subsidizing opera” — of the 1,000 people in and around Toronto who donate $1,000 or more to the Company in addition to their purchase of subscriptions in order to make opera tickets more affordable for everyone else.

This season, for the first time, the COC has been offering a 3-for-2 ticket deal, offering free admission to a winter-spring production with the purchase of tickets to its two fall productions, which end their runs next week.

Deck said the organization is looking for every means to cut costs, even as it campaigns for more subscribers. “It’s all about small adjustments but, together, they’re important.”

One of the casualties of the current budget crunch was the broadcast of COC productions on CBC Radio 2’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera. In its own world of reduced means, the CBC was relying on the COC to pay for the broadcasts. In good times, this was a valuable form of outreach. But in straitened times, the opera presenter could no longer afford to pay.

Deck didn’t sound optimistic about a return to broadcasting anytime soon, saying that any funding for this project would likely have to be diverted from other income, which is not an option right now. “The exposure for our artists is not lost on us,” he insisted.

The board president lauded a five-year planning horizon that general director Alexander Neef has implemented. “It’s a longer planning cycle than we’ve ever had before, and it’s allowing us to bring in artists that people in Toronto really want to hear,” said Deck. “The payoff is huge — and the risk is large as well.”

Deck noted that opera fans are a particularly devoted group; that, once they have been bitten by a love of the artform, they stick with it and support it for life.

“It’s our strength,” he said. And the Company is determined to keep building on that.

John Terauds

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