Last year, a tidal wave of public interest in the new Orange County Performing Arts Center, which opened Sept. 29, virtually guaranteed local groups financial success.
But as the center's second year approaches and the novelty wears off, arts groups are facing a make-or-break point in their efforts to sell enough season tickets to remain at the Center.
"I feel we must make it in the center--or we don't make it," said Rita Majors, business manager of the Pacific Chorale.
"If we turned back to Santa Ana (High School), we would be reduced again to the community chorus level. We just wouldn't generate the revenues at the present level in that hall. You either grow and expand, or you go the other way. There's no staying where you are." At this point, Opera Pacific leads the pack of five performing arts groups with a 66% renewal rate, but close behind is the Pacific Symphony at 58%.
The two Orange County chorales trail those figures, with Master Chorale at 31% and Pacific Chorale at 20%. But they started their campaigns later, as did the Orange County Philharmonic Society, which has no figures to report because its drive has just begun.
Though happy with the figures, Luke Bandle, marketing director for Opera Pacific, is still wary.
"Last year, it was a deluge for everyone," he said. "But I think the second year is going to give an indication of how well we're all going to do in the future. If we fail to be aggressive and seek out people then, we'll be in real trouble the third year."
Richard Tollefson, former administrative director of the Master Chorale of Orange County, put it this way:
"Everyone realizes that years two and three in the center have the most potential risk. There has to be a shakedown then. You have to discover how loyal your audience will be and what percent of audience (simply) bought subscriptions to all the regional groups. . . . We think that we have established a fairly loyal following."
According to Tollefson, the Master Chorale has also built a strategy on broadening its marketing base:
"We have a strong appeal for those people who were not choral followers or supporters in the past and who appreciate the multidisciplinary kind of programming that we do, that combines dance, orchestra and choral music. We didn't have the facilities to do that before the center opened. Now we do."
Erich Vollmer, executive director of the Orange County Philharmonic Society, looks beyond subscription sales to help carry the day, however.
"I'm not disappointed at all to have seats to sell for single events," he said. "It's fine to be sold out with subscriptions, but as we proved with our spring season, we have the capacity to sell a healthy number of single tickets. And I think that is one way to bring new people to our concerts, who may be prospective subscribers."
Vollmer said he believes that any drop in subscribers during the second year will be compensated by those "who couldn't get in last year."
"But by the third year, the novelty of the hall certainly will have worn off," he said.
Louis B. Spisto, executive director of the Pacific Symphony, agreed that the third year is going to tell the tale:
"I think the most critical year is the third year because it's where we can really prove the orchestra viably as separate and distinct from the sheer excitement of the Center," he said.
"I'm heartened by our response rate. . . . It looks like the move to the Center was worth it for us."
Pacific Chorale's Majors, noted that "the cachet of being at the Center" is a double-edged sword:
"People feel that if they've given a gift to the center, the center is subsidizing the local groups--and they're not. We've had people call us and ask for priority seating because they gave a donation to the center. But it never trickles down--at least not at this point."
The re-subscription figures shape up like this:
--Opera Pacific reports a 65.8% subscription renewal rate for its three-opera series and a 41.7% rate on a two-opera series, for a total dollar amount of $1.1 million, according to marketing director Luke Bandle. Ticket sales are planned to cover approximately two-thirds of the budget, which when approved is likely to top last year's $3.5 million.
--The Master Chorale of Orange County reports a 31% renewal rate with 642 renewals bringing in about $75,200, according to assistant administrator Wendy Hites. The goal is for 2,300 to 2,400 subscribers, which would generate $250,000 to $275,000--approximately one-third--of the organization's 1987-88 budget.
--The Pacific Symphony has a re-subscription rate of 58% in its classical series, executive director Spisto. Approximately 3,200 of last year's 5,500 subscribers have renewed. Spisto projects $1.9 million in ticket sales to account for 61% of the group's $3.1 million budget.
--The Pacific Chorale has 490 people re-subscribed, approximately 20% of last year's 2,405 subscribers, for a dollar amount of $25,000. The new budget is $400,000, said business manager Rita Majors, who added: "But it really is early. We just started about a month ago. . . . We are aiming for 2,000 subscribers."
--The Orange County Philharmonic Society has also just begun its re-subscription drive and has no figures to report, said Vollmer, who still anticipates what he terms a traditional 75% renewal rate from last year's 2,500 subscribers. He projects ticket sales to account for roughly 63% of the new $1.75 million budget.