By their own admission, the Portland Opera has been in a dire situation over the past five years. The opera company’s efforts to find some financial stability—by switching from a fall-to-spring season to a summer calendar in 2014—had the opposite effect, resulting in a substantial decrease in subscriptions and single-ticket buyers. Combined with rising production costs and, as Interim General Director Sue Dixon puts it, “the shifting philanthropic landscape of Portland,” there was the very real possibility of the organization going broke before the end of the next decade.
There are positive signs on the horizon, however. They are seeing positive financial numbers this year, with upticks in subscribers and ticket sales. And, most importantly, they just announced a new Five Year Strategic Plan that they’re hoping will help the company not only survive but also see some sustainable growth in the future.
Overseen by the organization’s board of directors and local consulting firm Metropolitan Group, the plan presents three big strategies that, according to the document released yesterday, could “lead Portland Opera down a path of growth, service to the community, national prominence, and enhanced financial stability.”
“The need for a new strategic plan,” Dixon explained via e-mail interview, “grew out of conversations within the staff and board. We wanted the whole company to be on the same page about how to tackle challenges and changes, and how to strategically position Portland Opera for the next chapter. This process gave us a framework to really identify our priorities and spend time listening to the community.”
The community Portland Opera heard from included regular subscribers and financial supporters, folks from other arts organizations, representatives from OPERA America, and others who were invited to participate in round tables on what Portland Opera was doing right and how they could improve. [Full disclosure: I participated in one of these group discussions.]
The strategies that came out of Metropolitan Group’s research are logical and practical—and mostly reinforce what Portland Opera has already been doing. That includes holding performances in a mix of venues, like their regular home at the Keller Auditorium and the more intimate space at the Hampton Opera Center; bringing the music to Portlanders outside the concert hall; and offering a mix of classic and contemporary work.
“So much of the feedback we received was aligned with our patron survey responses and what we had been hearing from community members,” says Dixon, “but it was really important to have [Metropolitan Group as] a partner that could share an outside perspective and be objective about the findings.”
Some of the feedback that Metropolitan Group solidified was the need for Portland Opera to return to a fall-spring schedule, which they’re set to do this coming October.
Some of the feedback that Metropolitan Group solidified was the need for Portland Opera to return to a fall-spring schedule, which they’re set to do this coming October. Again, it’s a rational move as most people don’t want to spend sunny days folded into a theater seat. But the quick turnaround (the company just wrapped up its 2019 season this month) does come with a number of hurdles, especially making sure that their orchestra members, performers, and backstage staff are ready to jump back to work after such a short break.
“We have started dialogue with our union members,” says Dixon, “and have plans in place for a Town Hall and additional opportunities to engage in open discussions around exactly how to do this together, and what that means.”
Perhaps the most impactful strategy that Metropolitan Group put forth was finding new uses for property that the Portland Opera owns on the waterfront in SE Portland. Currently the home of the Hampton Opera Center, which includes the company’s offices, a performance and rehearsal space, and a sizable parking lot, the rough idea would be to redevelop it and make it accessible for both the general public and other arts organizations.
That, however, is plan for much further down the road. At the moment, Portland Opera is slowly setting these strategies in motion, including the new 2019-20 season, which kicks off on October 25 with performances of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and overhauling their website to help make it easier to buy tickets to shows and make donations. Eventually, too, they will have to figure out how to replace General Director Christopher Mattaliano, who stepped down from the post in July.