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By James Meena, Opera Carolina

In mid 2011, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded Opera Carolina an Audience Development grant to create a bold new initiative for the company to exponentially increase its audience. With this grant, the Knight Foundation purchased 90% of the house to the January 28, 2012 Opera Carolina performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Belk Theater., Charlotte, NC. Opera Carolina was challenged, in turn, to develop a process by which members of the community who had never attended an Opera Carolina performance could request the Knight Foundation tickets at no cost.

Cio-Cio-San, her son Sorrow and her closest confident Suzuki celebrate the return of her husband, BF Pinkerton, photo by jonsilla.com

The Audience Development initiative was narrowly focused on three primary prospective demographics: a) young professionals (with an emphasis on those living in downtown Charlotte); b) culturally diverse citizens; and c) economically challenged citizens. Opera Carolina’s communication plan was focused on creating strategic partnerships with organizations like The City of Charlotte, 100 Black Men, the Latin American Coalition, the Urban League, our regional Universities and many more.  The personal commitment of the Board and professional leadership spearheaded the organization’s efforts to build our list serve of potential attendees.

When all hope is lost, and Cio-Cio-San dies an honorable death, the audience is silenced by the power of Opera, photo by jonsilla.com

Partner organizations were contacted via email, and asked to disseminate information to their constituents, essentially building a niche social network.  Opera Carolina created a website for interested people to register for up to two free tickets per registrant.  In order to register, interested parties needed to provide contact information and some demographic information.  This information was necessary in order to evaluate whether registrants had attended a performance before; and to build our on-going niche audience demographic.

First-time operagoers are greeted by Opera Carolina Chorus members before the production begins, photo by jonsilla.com

Expect the Unexpected
The registration site went live at 12:01 am Monday December 5, 2011.  We had promised in all our communications with partner organizations that the site would be live for two weeks.  With no prior history upon which to evaluate this initiative, we could not guess what type of interest there would be; we nervously awaited information mid-day December 5th from our website company.

Between 12:01am Monday and 12:10 am Monday (yes, 9 minutes), we had 600 registrants (1,200 tickets); by the end of the day Monday, 2,000 registrants (4,000 tickets requested); by the close of business Wednesday, 2,700 (5,400 tickets). This overwhelming response gave us two options:  a) allocate the 1,850 Knight Foundation tickets and encourage the 3,600 non-winners to try again at some, undetermined future time, or b) create additional opportunities to engage a majority of this interested public.

We believed it was imperative that Opera Carolina go beyond the original construct of the Knight Foundation grant, and create additional opportunities for as many registrants as possible to attend Madama Butterfly.  The opportunity was before us, we needed to seize it and engage a majority if not all these interested parties.  Additional support was secured from a variety of donors to add a second underwritten performance of Madama Butterfly on Tuesday, January 24, 2012.

An Exceptional Week
One may ask if the underwritten, free performances negatively impacted the three performances of Madama Butterfly on sale to the general public.  The answer is ‘no’.  One of the issues we struggled with early on was just how to fill the house with new customers without hurting our sales effort.  The answer we devised was the strategic partnership communication network; i.e., we controlled the conversation as much as possible.

By the time the news media ran stories about the effort, all the underwritten tickets had been allocated.  The result was that Madama Butterfly was a complete sell-out for the three original performance, plus capacity crowds for the two underwritten performances.

 

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