Australia’s opera sector faced one of its toughest years in 2017 according to the latest figures released by Live Performance Australia (LPA). Its Ticket Attendance and Revenue Report for 2017 tells that ticket sales revenue for Opera in that calendar year dropped by 21.4 per cent and attendances declined by 9.5 per cent. These figures contrast with increases experienced in most other categories that this agency tracks, including Contemporary music, Music theatre, Classical music, Ballet and dance, and Festival (Multi Category).
Besides opera, the only other categories that experienced attendance falls were Special Events, Theatre, Comedy, and Children’s/Family .
Amongst the winners, contemporary music jumped a massive 87.8 per cent in ticket sales revenue in 2017, and attendance figures were 49.6 per cent over 2016 results. Classical music saw modest gains of 1.5 per cent in revenue and 8.1 per cent in attendances. The report says that AMPAG companies experienced an average gain in attendance of 12.9 per cent.
LPA collects admissions and box office results from six opera companies: Opera Australia, Opera Queensland, Pinchgut Opera, State Opera of South Australia, Victorian Opera, and West Australian Opera. It also collects data from Sydney Opera House Trust, which operates the Sydney Opera House.
So what happened in 2017 to pull back opera’s figures? A total attendance of 369,228 in 2017 is the lowest LPA has recorded for opera since 2013, when it recorded 344,761. Indeed it is, after that year, the second lowest figure since these surveys began in 2004. LPA’s report notes that reduced ticket prices to opera performances contributed to the decline. Tickets averaged $115.42 in 2017 compared to $145.80 in 2016, a 20.8 per cent reduction.
Opera companies, like any others, obviously only reduce ticket prices to try to boost attendances. So maybe there were other factors were at work. The seven-month closure of the Sydney Opera House for refurbishments in 2017 had a surprisingly minor impact on the results. Opera Australia coped remarkably well, it seems, as far as attendances in its home state. LPA’s state-by-state breakdown shows that NSW suffered a drop in attendances of 8.4 per cent. Meanwhile, the ACT saw an alarming 63.5 per cent drop, SA a 48.0 per cent drop, and in Victoria there was a 22.3 per cent decline. In WA attendances fell by 2.7 per cent, while in Queensland and Northern Territory there were rises respectively of 31.3 and 7.8 per cent.
So what happened in calendar 2017 that caused these results? In the ACT, the absence of Opera Australia performances there obviously skewed the picture. John Bell’s Madame Butterfly in the Canberra Theatre in September will undoubtedly rectify matters come LPA’s next report.
Meanwhile, State Opera of South Australia has effected a clean sweep of its management this year and is experimenting with a range of new venues, so results for that company should pick up too.
That leaves Victoria, where the situation is obviously complicated because that state is served by two LPA companies, Australian Opera and Victorian Opera. Pinchgut Opera is a new addition when it travels there this December for Vivica Genaux In Concert With Erin Helyard. Melbourne’s Ring Cycle in 2016 undoubtedly helped elevate results for Opera Australia in that year to record total box office of $6.57 million and 17,955 in attendances.
Victoria’s disappointing results for 2017 might have been caused by a big drop in attendances at OA’s Melbourne Spring 2017 season of Feruccio Furlanetto and The Merry Widow. The company’s 2017 annual report shows that at 12,834, attendance figures were well down from 17,995 in 2016.
LPA’s surveys do not tell us about the creative health or vitality of one sector over another, but they can be a useful indicator of overall trends. One point that emerges in its 2017 report is that special events appear to generate extra public interest and draw bigger audiences. For classical music, for example, it says the following: “The growth in this category was primarily driven by performances inspired by popular films, including Hans Zimmer Revealed and the Harry Potter Concert Series.” In contemporary music, the report highlights Adele, Guns n’ Roses and Paul McCartney in that category’s big jump in audiences.
So it could be that specially-themed events are where future audience growth can be anticipated. Opera might be stuck in a blind alley if it does not see where such trends lie. Opera Australia’s hi-tech digital sets, as used in its recent production of Aida, could be one signpost. We’ll have to wait and see.