By Nancy Malitz
CHICAGO — When soprano Renée Fleming joined the administration of the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2010 as the company’s first creative consultant, one of her mandates was to help develop the next generation of Lyric enthusiasts and supporters.
The opera company had programs in place to help college students obtain single tickets at rock-bottom prices, but Lyric wanted to stay better connected with post-grads and young professionals in a way that turned the corner toward a donor path and future leadership. A young professionals auxiliary had existed at the Lyric in some form since 1999, but it had languished without much growth. Energizing it was one of Fleming’s specific objectives. Lyric’s challenge was to help these young adults deepen their appreciation of the art form and commitment to the company.
Fleming helped launch Lyric Young Professionals (LYP) as a new generation support network aimed at ages 21-45, with an annual $150 membership fee and customized benefits, and peer group socializing at events of their own design. The group doubled in membership between 2014-15 and 2015-16 thanks in large part to a flexible series ticket package with intriguing hooks into peer group socializing.
In other words, of all things, a subscription. Since 2000, the subscription model has been running out of steam everywhere. Yet there are indications that the “cultural sampler” generation isn’t rejecting the classical arts outright, however significant the dynamic shift in how they respond to traditional offers. Consequently, arts organizations around the country are experimenting with a wide variety of approaches to encourage the next generation’s leaders to visit often enough, and linger long enough, for the true value of the art form and its surrounding community to become apparent.
For example, the Young New Yorkers, a program of the New York Philharmonic, has 90 members who pay $450 for donor-style perks comparable to the $2,000 entry level for its regular patron program. The Cleveland Orchestra reports success with The Circle membership, which costs $20 a month, for a pair of invites that alternate between concerts and social gatherings. The group has 275 members, with 100-150 attending a typical activity. “This summer we were bused out to the Blossom Center for a concert,” wrote Annie Weiss, who joined in 2014, in a website testimonial. “During the ride I sat with a paleontologist and an architect.”
The Lyric Opera offers its Young Professionals an appealing subscription in the form of a sampler package called the Medley Series. It was offered for the first time with the 2014-15 season, with prices and terms that added up to a striking bargain. In 2014-15, the Medley Series was responsible for 381 tickets sold. In 2015-16, the number jumped to 839.
Though the Medley Series was created by Lyric’s marketing team, the LYP group is guided by the company’s development arm. Details of the package illustrate how neatly the two departments’ objectives are intertwined:
- The key terms of the subscription are $35 for a single ticket or $70 for a pair of best-available main floor tickets that often approach $200 each in value – with the additional flexibility to later add as many as four more seats at $35 each for a night out with friends.
- The minimum buy-in is for three different productions (out of Lyric’s eight) to encourage a spirit of sampling. Special LYP performance nights include social events such as pre-opera dinners and meet-the-artist chats.
- Only members of Lyric Young Professionals (at $150 annually) qualify for the Medley Series offer. Additional LYP perks include invitations to many of the Lyric’s regular donor activities.
- Lyric’s Young Professionals are charged with promoting the Medley Series on a peer-to-peer basis.
The LYP scheme came out of an exploratory meeting between Fleming and this loosely structured group to get some ideas about how to rev things up. “I wanted to know how they liked to be seated,” Fleming recalled, “and whether they wanted their own social events, and what kind. One of the fascinating things that I heard was that they wanted to see something beautiful. They didn’t express a preference for intellectual, trend-setting productions. They wanted to get dressed up and have good seats and a glamorous experience. They wanted to socialize with like-minded people over dinner, or to share a glass of wine or maybe have a conversation with an artist.”
Lyric’s director of marketing, Lisa Middleton, then new to the job and a member of the target age group herself, said she was intrigued that the group seemed open to the idea of a subscription “if it was sufficiently flexible, at an attractive price. So we went back and developed the features they specifically asked for.”
Typical of the LYP is treasury management consultant Martha Grant, 28, the LYP membership engagement chair. She joined in 2009, fresh out of college, when the group was, as she put it, “definitely in its infancy stage.” She remembers hearing strains of Madama Butterfly, which her father adored, around the house. She saw her first opera as a teenager, then got a little more interested in college. She joined Lyric’s Young Professionals when she moved to the city because she thought, “Hey, there has to be someone other than my dad I can go to the opera with.”
Although Grant is also a member of the young professional networks at the Chicago Symphony, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, she says LYP is the group with which she is most involved. She has personally exercised the perk that brings her four additional tickets for hosting her friends.
“The idea is it’s less scary, if you’ve never seen an opera,” she said, “to go with three or four in a group of people who already know each other — the ‘If you’re going, I’ll go’ type of thing. As opposed to having Martha the opera fan talk your ear off. I had a total of six of us going to Romeo and Juliet this season, including four friends who had never been to an opera before. They loved it.”
Fleming, whose own children are in their twenties, said she had a sense from the beginning that a feeling of community would be important for this group. “In past generations it was a grandmother or an aunt who played the piano and instilled the curiosity. Providing the exposure through this kind of natural connection is an important piece of growing into this art form. We haven’t had enough emphasis on that.”
The encouragement to sample has led young professionals to try Lyric’s more adventurous productions, such as Berg’s Wozzeck, Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger, and the world premiere of Bel Canto by Jimmy López and Nilo Cruz, based on a book by Ann Patchett, the latter a curatorial project of Fleming’s. “I found it interesting that the operas weren’t stereotypical Italian,” Martha Grant said. “And Wozzeck was shorter, not a big commitment – the experience for me was rather like going to a play. Puccini is my favorite composer, but I think it’s tremendous that Lyric puts together such variety.”
Operating with increased efficiency, Lyric Young Professionals developed a phone and email tree to contact every member personally before an event of any kind. Two recent events were shared with the young professional members of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which brought in speakers to explore the holocaust themes of the The Passenger and the hostage experience portrayed in Bel Canto. “We definitely overlap,” Grant said. “These are people interested in the culture of the city and who actually want to go out and do unique things, as opposed to just going to bars.”
Lyric Young Professionals now number 140, and the group has taken some significant steps toward the characteristics of a junior board, with bylaws and additional responsibilities. “What happened more or less organically in the past has become more structured,” said Warren Davis, deputy director of development, also a member of the target age group. “Before, they were ambassadors for their age group; now they’re taking on some fund-raising.”
In 2015, Lyric Young Professionals hosted its first fund-raising gala – “A Night at the Opera House: A Halloween Masquerade” – in the Art Deco foyer of the Civic Opera House (costumes encouraged). The event was thrown together on extremely short notice after it was discovered, to general amazement, that not only was the Civic Opera’s grand foyer available on Halloween night, but also that no nonprofit organization seemed to “own” Halloween in Chicago.
The masquerade drew several hundred colorfully costumed guests and cleared $7,500. Perhaps more important, it whetted the appetite for fund-raising in the next donor generation. With a second annual Halloween Masquerade in view for Oct. 28, the planners are gung ho.
Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today, and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.