Opera Carolina finances back in tune

James Meena
James Meena

Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The damaged economy has been tough on Opera Carolina.

Its funding from the Arts & Science Council fell to $756,000 in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2009, from the previous year, and to $526,000 in the fiscal year ended June 30 2010.

Ticket sales fell 15 percent in fiscal 2009.

Corporate support for special events dried up.

And support declined for the education programs it provides in local schools.

So the nonprofit company downsized its business while boosting its marketing efforts.

“We cut everything,” says James Meena, general director and principal conductor at Opera Carolina.

The troupe has steadily reduced its budget to $2.7 million in the fiscal year that ends June 30 from $3.4 million in fiscal 2008.

It staged its production of the Marriage of Figaro in March 2009 with no sets and its orchestra on stage, saving $60,000, and has reduced the number of productions to three from four.

It eliminated its “Music! Words! Opera!” education program that served 1,500 to 2,000 eighth-graders in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Cabarrus County and Gaston County schools.

It cut the budget for its development department and closed an intermission lounge, saving about $12,000 per production or a total of about $33,000.

And it has downsized its staff to eight employees from 13 in fiscal 2008.

The payoff from all that cutting has been growth in attendance and ticket sales, particularly group sales, and in corporate giving.

In the fiscal year that ends June 30, ticket sales will total $560,000, compared to $495,000 in fiscal 2008 when adjusted for three productions to make it comparable to the just-ended year.

Attendance totaled 13,937 in the fiscal year just ending, up from 12,420 in fiscal 2008, also adjusted for three productions.

And corporate giving in the year just ending will total $172,000, up from $154,000 in fiscal 2010 but still below a peak of $192,000 in fiscal     2008.

“We’re definitely climbing the hill,” Meena says.

He reconstituted Opera Carolina’s marketing team, bringing in-house many of the functions the organization had been paying a marketing agency to provide.

Opera Carolina also has been increasing its use of social media to promote opera and sell tickets.

Partnering with livingsocial.com, which on January 12 promoted a 50 percent discount on tickets for La traviata, Opera Carolina sold 350 tickets in 24 hours, helping to make the production’s Saturday evening performance its first sold-out performance in years, says Brandon Stanley, associate director for emarketing and direct sales.

Opera Up Close, an effort launched in September 2010 to bring opera to non-traditional venues, has been the subject of at least 11 YouTube videos that have generated over 215,000 views.

On May 13, Opera Carolina held its first “TweetUp” event, which attracted 50 local people who follow one another on Twitter to a party on the set of H.M.S. Pinafore at the Belk Theater.

And since January 2010, Opera Carolina has hosted a “Bloggers’ Circle” on the opening night of each production for local bloggers, attracting 10 to 15 of them to each production and then posting their reviews in the press section of its website.

Social media, Meena says, “is a huge part of what we do now.”

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