Do You Want to Sell Tickets or Not? – A Rant

Susan Brodie, Toi Toi Toi
By Susan Brodie: Toi Toi Toi!

In my fourth season of regular attendance at the Paris Opera, I’ve recently had some, ah, interesting experiences buying tickets. I bought a fairly last minute seat, at the box office, to a performance of Salome on September 14. I asked whether there were any discounts for regular customers but was told no, so I paid rather more than I wanted to just to satisfy my curiosity about the soprano (scroll down to read my post from 10/19/11). The show wasn’t a complete disaster, but on the whole I wish I’d saved my money. On October 10 in New York I received a letter from customer relations, dated August 30, offering a 20% discount on tickets in the top three categories, meaning that I probably could have paid less money for a better seat.

I thought this had to be a fluke, but then it happened again. On February 6 I saw Pique Dame, an electrifying performance conducted by Dmitri Jurowski, with Vladimir Galouzine as Ghermann. On February 13 in New York I got a letter, postmarked December 23, again offering discounts to the show I’d just seen.

This seemed worth a note to the CR office, so I searched the website for an e-mail address. Guess what: there is no way for the general public to contact the Opera de Paris without paying for the privilege. Without a published e-mail address (unless you want to reserve group visits or to join the Friends organization, AROP), you’re left to choose among a 0.34€/minute local phone charge for reservations, the price of a postage stamp, or the cost of transportation to visit the box office. What century are we in again? (I suppose metered phone calls are an efficient way to transfer the burden of CSR through-put onto the customer, especially in a culture where business transactions tend to be loquacious.). But e-mails offers sent from a do-not-reply address, requiring ID to redeem an offer, would surely save money over a postal letter that arrives late and angers a customer.

Cerise sur le gateau, as the French say: yesterday I hustled to be online early to order tickets for the upcoming Arabella (with Renee Fleming) and Hyppolyte et Aricie (conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm), both sure to go fast. After a 45 minute wait in the virtual cue (great idea for avoiding server overloads, by the way, unless you somehow get bumped from your place and have to start over), I tried to log on, and for the first time in over three years of regularly using the site it wouldn’t recognize my user name and account number. I requested a reminder by e-mail, which arrived quickly, but it still didn’t work. The e-mail didn’t appear to have been generated automatically, so I wrote back, explaining that the ID combination didn’t seem to work on the site and could they suggest a solution? A human wrote back, with the suggestion that I wait till the opening of telephone sales (10 weeks in the future) and call in my order. For a hot show? No, sorry, that’s not a solution–when log-in worked with a different browser the next day, I found that the dates I need were already sold out. I have bounced Madame’s answer back with a request to forward my mail to tech support. If they even have tech support. Stay tuned for updates.

It’s not that the Opera de Paris is completely behind the times: there’s an iPhone app (free) that’s worth downloading just for the gorgeous slide show of the Palais Garnier. It’s possible to order tickets online in French, English, German, and Spanish, but with the major caveat you can’t choose your seat from a seat map, a feature adopted by most theaters these days. This online “lottery” yielded such an uncomfortable seat for September’s Clemenza di Tito that a month later I actually had trouble remembering which opera I had seen (it was a really good performance, too) because my discomfort and frustration were so acute.

With an official Facebook presence (just under 20,000 “likes”) and a 5-month-old Twitter feed (almost 2000 followers, not quite 200 Tweets), Opera de Paris has ventured into social media. Yet they don’t seem to understand that social media are not merely free advertising platforms but opportunities for conversation, and a useful channel for resolution of issues. I tweeted about my problems, with minimal expectations.

For all that performing arts venues talk about outreach, customer service still appears to challenge arts administrators. In this area Carnegie Hall sets the gold standard, in my experience. The website is informative and easy to use, although I can’t speak from experience about response to technical issues. The ushers are generally pleasant: firm without being aggressive, patronizing, or hostile, they seem proud to work at Carnegie. The telemarketing team is the best in the business: knowledgeable about the programs they’re selling (or furnished with really good scripts), informed about the customer’s preferences, and always polite and friendly. Despite certain quirks, I always feel that management respects their audiences and recognizes the value of happy customers. The Opera de Paris appears to operate under a different business model, shall we say.

I have further complaints about capricious ticket pricing and the uneven quality of recent productions, but those will have to wait. Bottom line:  a declining price-quality ratio combined with the increasing annoyance factor at Opera de Paris have me skipping many shows that I’d like to see there. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, as I’m now discovering many smaller venues around Paris which present adventurous and high-quality performances. And Europe is small: award-winning La Monnaie (Brussels) is just over an hour away by train, and I’ve seen terrific shows at Oper-Frankfurt and in surrounding towns, like Wiesbaden and Mainz, where opera draws audiences  from all walks of life, and ticket prices are reasonable.

Have you had similar issues with Opera de Paris or other theaters displaying a similar bunker mentality? Tweet comments to me @Susan_Brodie