Central City Opera
Founded in 1932 in a small Colorado mining town, Central City Opera (CCO) is the fifth oldest opera company and the second oldest professional opera festival in the United States. The Company maintains and operates the historic Central City Opera House, as well as 30 other Victorian-era buildings that provide housing, rehearsal space and performance venues. CCO presents three productions each summer, offers educational and community programming, and provides career-management training and performance opportunities for young artists. Located less than an hour from Denver, CCO draws its audiences primarily from Denver and Colorado’s Front Range. The organization’s annual budget is approximately $4 million.
General and Artistic Director Pat Pearce recalls a time several years ago when he and other CCO staff participated in a strategy workshop for local organizations. Chuckling a bit, he says, “the others all came back with their strategies based on their missions, and we were still working when everyone else was done.” The problem? CCO was burdened by multiple, sometimes conflicting, missions. The organization’s original 1931 charter said its purpose was to save the town of Central City. “There was nothing here, says Pearce. “Houses were run down, and almost no one lived here.” There was, however, a historic 550-seat opera house—built in 1878 by miners who wanted a music hall—which now is considered the pride and joy of the organization.
From the beginning, a core component of CCO’s mission was historic preservation, and the organization indeed has maintained—at significant cost—the structural integrity of its hometown, acquiring, renovating and managing other historic properties in addition to the opera house. But where did that leave the rest of CCO’s mission: the annual opera festival, young artist training, and education? “It’s complicated,” says Pearce, “and finding our identity and prioritizing things is critical. We have done what our mission was, but now we have to get down to the kernel of what we are trying to do—we need a future that won’t be prescribed by our past.”
In addition to sorting out its mission, CCO was grappling with significant geographic challenges. It was becoming increasingly difficult to motivate people to drive to Central City. The summer festival—which had been created by wealthy people as a diversion to get away from the heat of the city—was not the draw it once was, and unlike Santa Fe or Cooperstown, Central City lacked the other attractions to make it a magnet for the general population. For a while, gambling brought in visitors, but most of that action was moving to neighboring Black Hawk. While Central City may be quaint and historic enough to draw Colorado history buffs, many members of the community say there is too little there to draw people in. “Central City is a dive outside of the opera. The town is flat and drifting downward,” said one, while others noted the lack of parking, good restaurants, hotels, shopping, and outdoor spaces that attract new and young people. “To make Central City a destination—to create that environment—is overwhelming,” says Pearce. “Do we have to be about tourism, too, along with all the other stuff we have?”
These geographic and cultural challenges were manifesting themselves in CCO’s operations. Several years ago CCO strategically focused its marketing efforts on positioning the company nationally and internationally although its audience was primarily local. The belief was that a higher profile would have a direct and positive impact on audience development. While CCO was successful in garnering national and international recognition, it didn’t have the expected impact on local attendance. Audiences were aging, and they were getting smaller. To complicate things, CCO’s programming was not addressing the interests and needs of the younger audiences the Company hoped to attract: audiences who were less aware of standard repertory and who wanted participatory, interactive experiences. Earned revenue had declined to 25 percent; there was significant staff turnover; fundraising relied on a small number of major donors; and marketing efforts were not producing sufficient visibility in Denver to solve the problems. The result, says long-time Board member Mike Huseby, was an unsustainable business model.
Changes in Assumptions
Through its engagement with EmcArts, CCO’s Innovation Team made some startling discoveries, prompting Pearce to say, “We’re done assuming!” Operations Director Rita Sommers notes a major shift in how the organization thought about its audience. “We thought we needed to focus on 30-40 year-olds,” she says, “but we discovered that people who participated in our experiments were actually in their late 40s and 50s.” Pearce suggests they were dealing with a life-cycle change. “As people marry and have children later, they engage differently with arts organizations. Now we have to accommodate people in their 40s who still have children at home, he says.”
Above all, the Team admitted, “Our assumptions about what works draws a younger generation are not a reliable guide.” They also were challenged to think about their own programming and quality prejudices. Huseby says, “We assumed that young people would come to Central City and pay for something famous. Not true.” Pearce agrees, saying, “We thought people would flock here for great opera…that putting on the best product would be adequate. We are a gem in the opera world, but it’s not enough.” Understanding that general audiences would not travel to Central City and that young people needed a variety of entry points to engage with opera, the CCO team made a major shift in its thinking, concluding that perhaps CCO didn’t need a consistent mix of repertoire from year to year; that the Company could undertake site-specific work, explore non-traditional ways to produce opera in multiple venues; and could expand programming to include other art forms.
All this was earthshaking for Pearce. “As you get older,” he says, “you think you know how things are going to play out. But absolutely nothing is playing out.” Holding onto core mission is critical, he adds, but he admits that his perspective has changed, and he is “fighting hard to adapt.” He adds, “When I started in this business 30 years ago, it never entered my mind that there could ever be a time that the things that mattered to me wouldn’t exist anymore. But what I’ve grown to see is that things can disappear very quickly…and now I see the art form, particularly opera, threatened. We have to rethink everything.” For Pearce and others at CCO, “rethinking everything” meant that saving the art form they loved was more important that saving the town of Central City. But what would that mean? How strong was CCO’s sense of place, and how would the organization reconcile its geographic and artistic identities?
New Pathways to the Mission
Huseby says the CCO Team considered moving from Central City. Ultimately, however, everyone agreed that it was the place (small and intimate) that gave CCO its identity. “That was a difficult day in our discussion,” says Pearce. “We saw the illogical in what we are doing here—it doesn’t make a lot of sense—but if we started over, we wouldn’t be anything, and that was something no one wanted to do. This is who we are. This is what we do. This is what makes us unique. Go to Denver or anywhere else, and we’re just another opera company.”
Yet the team knew that CCO would have to meet its audience on new ground. Pearce says, “We know we will have to leave this place with something that reflects what we do here—try to take away barriers to coming to Central City.” As a result, CCO is committed to a series of experiments over three years, including performances in Denver. In 2011, the Company cut one production from its season in favor of a series of one-act operas—sold individually—as a means of attracting new audiences. To make Central City more user-friendly, CCO also tried bringing in food wagons and created a number of activities in the streets and in other venues to add depth and dimension to productions. Sommers calls this approach “festivilization,” and while not everything succeeded (food vendors did not like parking their wagons on a grade, for example), CCO is laying a foundation for a new approach to its work.
“Now we need to look at the data,” says Pearce. “The point is to learn something that will inform our decisions in the future. What were we trying to accomplish? How far did we get down that road? Is the program or activity something we should continue? We wouldn’t have had this kind of conversation in the past.”
Obstacles and Enablers
Prior to this transformation, CCO had a number of things in its favor: a well-respected young artist program, solid productions, and a lovely, intimate opera house. At the same time, the organization was burdened with the financial obligations of maintaining a large number of historic properties, and organizational capacity was limited. Governance, in particular, was an issue during the innovation process. The Board—identified by some as “too large with traditional or fixed views”—also was not perceived as leading the organization toward change or new ways of thinking. Early in the process, CCO’s Board was skeptical, but once members learned that there would be several outsiders on the Innovation Team, they became more confident that the process might lead to significant new ideas. The composition of the team was critical: a good balance of Board members, community constituents and CCO staff. Pearce’s leadership in inviting outside participation, as well as his willingness to let go of his own fears and discomfort in order to embrace new ways of decision-making set a clear standard for the Team.
CCO is just beginning to test its new ideas, but already things are changing inside the Company. Pearce says he expects to see significant changes programming. “On the path into the future there will be a lot of adjustments,” he says, but “whatever we do will be at a high level.” Pearce describes how the innovation process encouraged the Team to think like innovators. “The great thing about this process,” he says, “is that it is different from strategic planning where you paint a picture of what you want the organization to be and then work backward. In this process, you take the organization as it is and start figuring out ways to look at problems, test assumptions, learn, and move forward. The key is you have no idea where you’re going to be when you get done except that you will have preserved the core of your mission. This process is much more organic, and it doesn’t negate the realities around you that strategic planning sometimes does.”
Sommers agrees, saying, “The process of innovation was not natural for us. We had to learn to think differently—to not be quite so linear. As an organization, we had to learn to be “in the moment” and not come with preconceived notions. It challenged everything about how we think and work.” This was not only difficult, says Pearce, but also painful. “It’s really painful for someone like me who’s grown up with a way of doing business,” he says, “and now we are throwing everything out the window. But I am confident we will find the right combination of things that will give us the platform to move forward.”
The positive impact on the board and staff was one of the big surprises for the CCO Team. Huseby says that 80 percent of the board participated in an organizational survey as part of the innovation process, and that the board’s outlook is “more enlightened.” Previously, he says, “the board has been relegated to our financial battle, but now they see they can participate more and have greater impact. Sommers adds that she was “pleasantly surprised” to see how engaged the Board became in the process, and she says the work also encouraged the staff to work more collaboratively and creatively. Now, she adds, the staff is asking itself, “How do we make room in the budget for innovation? How do we make it a regular daily part of the organization?”
But what about those audiences CCO wanted to attract? The Team is still analyzing data, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that CCO is on the right track. Huseby, for example, says he met some people at a baseball game in Denver who were coming to see Carmen. “Had they ever been to Central City?” Huseby asked. No. “Well, then, had they ever seen Carmen?” he asked. No. “I guess we must be doing something right,” smiles Huseby.