Conventional vs. modern: Repertoire drives opera house identity, market share

Opera houses in a competitive market can distinguish themselves from the competition through the repertoire they feature

The Palais Garnier of the Paris Opera, one of the world's most famous opera houses. (Credit: Peter Rivera, Paris Opera)

The Palais Garnier of the Paris Opera, one of the world’s most famous opera houses. (Credit: Peter Rivera, Paris Opera)

Though opera companies are often monopolies in their respective area, they have the ability to distinguish themselves from other opera companies and competition from other performing arts venues that vie for audiences.

In new research, Strategy Professor Bo Kyung Kim of SMU’s Cox School of Business and co-author Michael Jensen, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, explore the options opera companies have to address their competitive positioning. Paradoxically, the authors find, to create space for unconventional repertoire choices it may be necessary to make yet more conventional choices.

A firm’s market identity is a categorization of how the outside world views the firm and their product offerings.

“There are different ways opera companies can claim their own market identity, and one way is through different repertoires in opera settings,” said Kim. “Audiences categorize companies based on several cues; repertoire is a significant cue for audiences.”

For example, the authors mention that a microbrewery sets up certain expectations from consumers that differ from, say, the large, conventional Coors Brewery. The same type of categorization affects opera and performing arts venues.

The research published recently in Organization Science, “Great, Madama Butterfly Again! How robust market identity shapes opera repertoires.”

Opera houses develop market identity to compete for audience share
Generally, opera is a conservative art form and the European opera has come to define widely accepted conventions in the Unite States. In contrast, modern operas are regarded as a challenge to traditional opera standards. The choice between offering traditional and modern opera is a way for companies to differentiate themselves and to claim their market identities. An opera company that schedules only traditional or modern operas has a “distinct” market identity; an opera company that allows audiences to categorize it as either a traditional or modern opera company by systematically balancing both types of operas has a “robust” market identity, say the authors.

Tenor Plácido Domingo, when first becoming Los Angeles Opera’s artistic director, stressed the importance of balancing repertoire choices. The authors noted his dedication to new opera but continuing commitment to Verdi and Puccini to allay fears over too much of the avant-garde. Opera companies try to appeal to both the majority audience preferring traditional Italian opera and the important minority audiences seeking more unconventional opera experiences. This challenge is met by simultaneously adding Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and Glass’s modern “Einstein on the Beach” to the repertoire. The authors’ findings imply that offering a very conventional opera and a very unconventional opera in the same repertoire is typically a better solution than offering two intermediate operas.

“If you include more modern operas in a repertoire,” says Kim, “then the conventionality of the traditional operas should increase. You need to perform Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ instead of his less well-known works. This is the balancing of operas in a repertoire.” That is to say, when adding modern operas into the product mix, the conventional choices become more conventional. Opera companies will then want to include even more popular operas or blockbusters — Puccini’s “La Bohème,” Verdi’s “La Traviata,” or Bizet’s “Carmen.”

Robust market identities sometimes less important
Some large metropolitan markets such as New York City and Chicago are home to more than one company. Even if an opera company is a local monopoly, some opera companies are located in closer geographical proximity to other opera companies. As opera companies face more competitive pressures from other opera companies, robust market identities become less important. This translates into these opera companies balancing conventional and unconventional repertoire choices less tightly.

“We map the physical distance between opera companies,” stated Kim. “Attendees will choose to go to other nearby cities if they prefer that opera’s repertoire. If there are more opera companies nearby, then companies need not worry about the repertoire balancing act.”

Kim explains that in some markets, competition can evolve into opera-to-opera rather than opera-to-musical theater.

“With more opera companies in a vicinity as in Chicago, Tulsa, and New York, more competition exists within the category of opera than between-category competition that includes other performing arts,” she said. “In that case, an opera company worries less about simultaneously meeting differing demands — majority or important minority demands — and focus on one of them.”

That’s not the case in markets where opera houses are few and far between.

“In Fargo, North Dakota, in contrast, with few opera competitors nearby, a company has to address all the differing audience demands,” Kim said. “You will need to focus more on a robust market identity in that case, and choose repertoire accordingly.”

The authors’ analyses showed that companies indeed balance conventional and unconventional operas in a way that is consistent with enacting a robust market identity, their hypothesis. And this identity is more important when opera companies have more divergent audiences and is less important when companies experience more within-opera competition, owing to a greater number of opera companies within geographic proximity.

The research sample for the study included all the professional opera companies in the United States, except seven in sub-genres of opera, from 1995 to 2005. This final sample includes 96 professional opera companies, which resulted in 496 observations.

“Earlier work of ours addresses the interesting dilemma about differing demands in opera settings,” noted Kim. “Attendees or season ticket holders want more traditional operas; critics want modern opera. Our earlier research indicated that through changing the order of operas in a repertoire, this traditional-modern opera repertoire dilemma can be resolved.”

Findings can apply to other areas with divergent audiences
This study contributes to research on why performing arts such as theater, classical music and opera tend to favor conventional repertoires. Importantly, conventionality may actually facilitate unconventional repertoire choices, say the authors. Their line of research may also apply in other situations with divergent audiences. For example, they note that universities have to balance teaching and research, while auto manufacturers must balance safety, fuel efficiency and performance.

Interestingly, Kim said, “For most opera companies that add modern opera, their repertoires are not more than 20 percent of the mix. General attendances still want the Italian and Germans operas.” — Jennifer Warren

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