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How Is L.A. Opera's New Airline-Style Pricing System Going?

A scene from LA Opera's current production of The Magic Flute.
A scene from LA Opera's current production of The Magic Flute.
LA Opera

If you waited until L.A. Opera's season started to purchase your tickets to season-opener Carmen this year, you were in for a rude awakening: Prices for the cheapest remaining seats for Bizet's classic -- rear Balcony A -- were $90. In past years, such seats sold in the $63-75 range.

(Depending on your timing, you might have been able to find a seat or two in Value Balcony B for $19-$23 for certain performances -- but most of those sold out quickly after tickets went on sale June 16. Those seats historically sold for $20.)

However, at that same moment, at the beginning of the season, if you then looked ahead a couple of months to buy seats in Value Balcony B for Mozart's The Magic Flute, you'd see that you could pick them up for a mere $19. What gives?

Starting last season, L.A. Opera incorporated "more of an on-demand pricing structure," according to L.A. Opera public relations director Gary Murphy. In other words, rather than having fixed prices, ticket prices are now based on an opera's popularity -- much like a rock concert. The downside is that "greatest hit" types such as Carmen and La Boheme are likely to be priced significantly higher, especially if you wait to buy your tickets. On the plus side, tickets are slightly less expensive for more obscure or less popular operas.

"We try to keep our entry-level price to $19 now," Murphy explains, "but then we try to let it float from there." That "float" can go up as high as about $345 per ticket for great orchestra seats -- the top price for Carmen tickets. Previously, ticket prices ranged from a set rate of $20 to $270.

LA Opera's Billy Budd opens in February 2014.
LA Opera's Billy Budd opens in February 2014.
LA Opera

But so far there have been no complaints from opera-goers, according to Diane Bergman, L.A. Opera's vice president of marketing and communications.

"We braced ourselves last season because we thought people would be confused or that we'd get complaints," she says. "But we haven't gotten any complaints...People understand that it's like buying airline tickets. If the flight's full, you're gonna pay more. If it's not as popular a flight, you're gonna pay less.

"Before, we were setting prices a year in advance without knowing what the economy was going to do, how popular the show was going to be," she adds. "This allows us to have flexibility."

The change also encourages people to buy their tickets earlier. "The fuller the house is, the more the price goes up," Bergman says.

Another reason for the pricing change is to gently nudge more Angelenos to become season ticket holders, she says. Single ticket buyers are subject to the vagaries of demand-based pricing -- what the flacks call "dynamic pricing." But "we make sure our season ticket holders get the best price because it's important to protect that relationship," Bergman says.

Season ticket holders, she explains, are "the bread and butter of our sales." The company seeks out such loyal opera fans, who commit in advance to buy tickets to four or more operas per season, for several reasons. For one, "It's more cost effective for us as a company," Bergman says. But, she adds, part of L.A. Opera's mission is to educate people about the art form. "If you have people who go to just selected operas, they miss out on a lot. It's a way to show people that there are a lot of different kinds of operas. Season ticket holders get the fullness of that experience."

Some might argue that this new pricing structure pretty much prices out all but L.A.'s elite from going to the opera, unless you buy your tickets well in advance or have the money to be a season ticket holder.

"L.A. Opera's 'dynamic pricing' plan will wind up turning this cultural institution into opera for the one percent," says Peter Dreier, the Dr. E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy department at Occidental College. "When tickets for Carmen 'float' to $345, there's something drastically wrong with the system. We need L.A. Opera to keep prices affordable for the 99 percent. Perhaps we need an Occupy L.A. Opera movement to remind its board members that by allowing ticket prices to 'float' with an opera's popularity, they are transforming the opera into a winner-take-all casino."

Bergman responds that the new pricing is helping ticket sales, as the company had its highest-ever single day of ticket sales for Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach in October, and its second highest day for The Magic Flute, which is currently playing. But those records don't account for inflation, so they don't mean much -- if you don't account for inflation, you can expect sales records to be broken all the time (and there's something wrong if they aren't).

As for the future, if you buy now, you can still grab tickets to Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd in March for $19. That's a downright bargain for a homoerotic Melville drama set to music.

Correction: An earlier version of this article was in error regarding the ticket information at the beginning. The article originally stated that prices for the cheapest seats for Carmen were $90, whereas it should have stated that those were the cheapest seats available at the beginning of the season. The current version clarifies the pricing.


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