The Challenge of Discount Ticket Programs

It was interesting to read in the New York Times about the challenges facing the Metropolitan Opera as it attempts to offer discounted tickets to audience members. The goal of the program -- to make opera accessible to people who might not be able to afford full-price tickets -- is laudable. We need new audience members now more than ever as so many people have not had a comprehensive arts education and others are more likely to enjoy electronic entertainment. Our traditional audience is aging, and we do not have enough new audience members to fill our theaters and cover our costs.

One of the concerns voiced about the Met's original distribution plan was that a few savvy people were consistently gobbling up the limited number of discounted tickets, rendering the program inaccessible for a large number of people who would enjoy going to the Met if the tickets were affordable.

I faced the same problem when I ran the Royal Opera House 15 years ago. We offered discounted seats for every performance but the same people knew exactly when to come to snap them up, and the program became a benefit for only about 100 people who came repeatedly to the Royal Opera. This was hardly the intent of the program, which had been in existence for many years. When I attempted to change the program to make it more fair, there were some very disgruntled people who took their complaints to the press. I looked like Scrooge taking benefits from poor opera lovers.

And yet one must ask whether offering someone a discounted ticket once or twice a year is really the point of audience development programs. Aren't we really trying to create a habit of going for a group of people who might not otherwise attend? Is someone's life changed because they once got to see an opera? Have we created programs that sound good but do not accomplish very much in the end?

It is not clear that those who come to an opera for $25 will continue to come when they must pay five or 10 times that amount. Are we really creating a new group of opera lovers when we charge so little? Or have we created a group that will attend only when they can be subsidized by a large grant from an individual patron or foundation?

And what happens when the patron stops giving? Rarely will someone continue to fund a discount ticket program forever.

Do we simply say goodbye to those who could afford opera only at a discount when the grant ends?

If we really are going to attract new audiences, people who will come on a regular basis to our productions and who will build an affinity for our art form, it seems we need to develop a more systematic approach to ticket pricing. We need to re-scale our houses so that there are always reasonably priced tickets available rather than just a few vastly discounted tickets available to lucky lottery winners.