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Opera tunes to business strategy

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Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — Nearly two years ago, considering a career change after 26 years in the corporate world, Frank Grebowski read Opera for Dummies at the suggestion of his children.

Grebowski, who holds an undergraduate engineering degree from Duke University and a master’s degree in business from MIT, had known little about opera, but the book inspired him.

Within three months, after a brief stint as a contract administrator overseeing what could have turned out to be its final production, Grebowski was named general director of the Raleigh-based Opera Company of North Carolina.

Through a strategy designed to create excitement, Grebowski has reversed the opera’s fortunes: In the fiscal year ended last June 30, the nonprofit company posted net income of $125,000 on operating expenses of $1.2 million, compared to a deficit of $150,000 on operating expenses of $850,000 two years ago.

“The more buzz, the more your company becomes the hot ticket,” Grebowski says. “You have to build more on the social elements.”

He started putting that strategy into place as soon as he joined the opera, three weeks before its production of The Barber of Seville.

With ticket sales lagging, he says, he and a volunteer “started hitting the streets selling tickets.”

The opera also staged daily open rehearsals for two weeks in Cameron Village, plus six public performances at the Wake County Library there and several in Chapel Hill and Durham, an effort that Grebowski says generated crowds and media attention.

The payoff was an increase in ticket sales, and a decision by the opera’s board to keep the organization’s doors open.

Grebowski, whose previous job was as a human-resource consultant for Mercer, spent his first year looking for ways to better market the opera, increase revenue and trim costs.

To make it clear the opera meant business, Grebowski canceled one of three productions it had scheduled for the 2006-07 season.

He also moved the opera’s offices from the Poyner & Spruill building on Glenwood Avenue near the Beltline to its current quarters at 414 Fayetteville St. downtown.

And instead of promoting that season’s final production in April as a weekend-only event, the opera billed it as a three-week festival, dubbed “Opera About Town.”

The effort included open rehearsals and free weekday lunchtime performances on the Fayetteville Street’s 400 block and in public libraries and schools, plus promotions at Second Empire and 518 West featuring behind-the-scenes talks about opera for those restaurants’ patrons.

“Instead of trying to sell opera, we’re trying to sell the whole opera experience,” Grebowski says. “The visibility and accessibility increased dramatically.”

The opera has expanded its current season to four productions and nine performance nights from two productions and four performance nights last season.

The opera last September teamed up with the North Carolina Symphony, for the first time, to stage The Marriage of Figaro at Meymandi Concert Hall, and in January it collaborated with the Asheville Lyric Opera to stage Lucia di Lammermoor at the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater.

Both productions were near sellouts, Grebowski says.

And in April, partnering with the 170-member North Carolina Master Chorale, it will stage a concert of favorite Italian arias at Meymandi Hall, and then will close its season with Madama Butterfly on May 30 and June 1 at Memorial Auditorium.

The opera continues to promote its performances as three-week events, with customized packages it markets to corporate sponsors looking to target particular audience segments.

The opera is offering “Taste of Opera,” a series of six dinners at the Sheraton Downtown featuring programs focusing on opera topics.

And on May 2, the opera will hold its Opera Ball fundraising event at the Sheraton Imperial in Durham.

Underscoring the impact of the changes, Grebowski says, has been an increase in engagement and support from the opera’s board.

The number of board members regularly attending meetings has increased to 25 from as few as five.

And while the opera reduced the number of members on its board by roughly 10 percent, their contributions grew 7.6 percent to $105,000 in fiscal 2006-07 from the previous year, he says.

The company’s approach has been to “completely erase the stereotype that it’s just for the privileged,” Grebowski says. “Opera was built for the masses. We have just tried to create the impression that there’s a pretty good party here and everybody’s invited.”

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