Monday, January 30, 2012

Opera Carolina hopes free tickets pay off

The role reversal defied natural law: The butterfly swung the net and captured the people.

Well, almost. Actually, it was not a winged insect but a flight of melody, "Madama Butterfly." It still performed a feat, though. Puccini's opera hauled in the largest turnout Opera Carolina has ever had.

More than 9,200 people attended the five performances, general director James Meena said. That easily passes Opera Carolina's previous record -- more than 7,500 for four performances of "Porgy and Bess" in 2004.

"Butterfly" (photo by has been popular for generations, but it had help this time. Opera Carolina supplied an eye-catching production featuring sets and costumes by Japanese artist Jun Kaneko. And a batch of donors led by the Knight Foundation paid for Opera Carolina to give out the tickets to two performances for free to people who had never seen the company at work.

"Hopefully, a lot of people will go out saying, 'This is really great,'" Meena said last week before the first free show.

While the standing ovation that night was a favorable sign, it's hard to know just how much weight to attach to it, since everything gets a standing ovation in Charlotte. The reaction that really counts will come later, if some of those first-time guests to buy tickets and come back for another opera.

Free performances are a risky business. Just ask the Charlotte Symphony.

After decades of playing for free at SouthPark every summer -- losing money, in the absence of sponsors -- the orchestra worked itself into a situation where Summer Pops was taken for granted. When the group instituted a $5 fee last summer, some people took it as an affront.

That lined up with what the Knight Foundation found when it sponsored a study of the orchestra business a decade ago. Looking for ways orchestras could attract new listeners, the study looked at the role free concerts might play. The verdict:

"Free programming and outreach do not turn people into ticket buyers," the report said. "They simply turn them into consumers of free programming."

Opera Carolina is aware of the danger, Meena says. While it may aim for another free performance next season, it doesn't plan to make such things a staple. It also plans to promote any giveaways in targeted ways -- such as through partnerships with civic groups -- rather than through broader advertising.

"Now it's up to us to engage all those folks," Meena said, "and see if we can make them repeat attenders."