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For opera audiences, the aria remains the same

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There is no surprise in the offices of Manitoba Opera that Aida, dubbed the grandest money machine in opera, will draw the largest audience since The Magic Flute in 2011.

It was expected that the Verdi fan favourite, which opens tonight, would sell at least 80 per cent of its tickets, as did Mozart's The Magic Flute.

They always do. Both titles are among what has been dubbed MO's "necessary nine": the exclusive group of operas that are proven box office winners.

"There are fewer and fewer titles that will sell," says Larry Desrochers, the MO's general director. "For us there are about nine shows that will do 80 per cent or more. Everything else is in the mid-50s to mid-60s range. That's a big gap."

In 2011, after Manitoba Opera lost a surprise $100,000 on what was considered a can't-miss season of Tosca and The Magic Flute, Desrochers pored over the 40-year-old organization's records and discovered only nine operas consistently brought out large audiences. Winnipeggers seemingly always want to see Aida, La Bohème, Carmen, Madame Butterfly, The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, Turandot and The Magic Flute.

"A lot of opera companies talk about their top 10 but when I went through it, we didn't even have 10," says Desrochers, during a recent state-of-the-opera chat.

That makes choosing a playlist especially trying for Desrochers. He wears an awkward programming straitjacket that no other artistic director in the city has to don.

MO's current predicament is that it can't keep repeating the same nine shows but if it doesn't, attendance plummets the way it did last season with Salome and The Daughter of the Regiment, which, combined, averaged barely 50 per cent of capacity at the Centennial Concert Hall.

It would have been a serious money-losing season if not for a surprise six-figure bequeath that ensured a $40,000 surplus. Desrochers forecasts at least a break-even 2013-14 season thanks to the dependable Aida, which followed the Verdi masterpiece Rigoletto, which drew about 60 per cent.

"It doesn't give you much room to move," says Desrochers, in his 13th season at the helm of a professional opera company with the smallest market in the country. "I try not to repeat titles for nine years although many companies only wait seven."

There are longtime highbrow subscribers who never want to see Bizet's adored Carmen again. Then there are more recent and younger subscribers who are dying to see Carmen, which might not be seen in Winnipeg again this decade.

"That's the challenge about only doing two shows," he says. "It sometimes feels like it splits our audience base."

Programming is the company's most pressing issue; it has prompted Manitoba Opera to launch what it calls a community-engagement process this spring and summer. It will involve focus groups as well as town hall meetings with stakeholders in order to bring ticket buyers, funders, donors and sponsors closer to the intricacies of season planning. The idea is to seek feedback, test ideas and get the public to understand that MO stages quality productions no matter the title.

"We hope they become loyal to the brand of Manitoba Opera and not loyal to the brand of Carmen," he says.

The company has to change, says Desrochers, despite its improved overall financial performance during his 13-year tenure. In 2000, the organization and its three to five full-time staff were weighed down by a $650,000 debt on a $1.1-million budget. This year's budget is $1.9 million, the staff size is up to eight and the debt whittled down to $230,000. Season subscriptions stand at about 2,900, up from 2,500 in 2011-12 when not one of the necessary nine was on the playbill.

If the winning programming equation is the sum of one of the necessary nine and a lesser title, Manitoba Opera will have to find sustainable resources to do it and that means more public fundraising. Government support has been squeezed -- MO receives less money from the Canada Council than it did in 1985.

"Some people want to see expanded repertoire and I get that all the time," he says. "If we do that, how do we pay for that?"

Desrochers has watched other opera companies attempt to build links with its ethnic minorities. In Texas for instance, the Houston Grand Opera reached out to its Mexican community with a mariachi opera. Desrochers would like Manitoba Opera to develop a relationship with the province's First Nations population.

"We've been talking to a Toronto company which developed an opera with a libretto written by (Manitoba-born playwright) Tomson Highway," he says. "It's called The Journey and a good portion of it is sung in Cree. We are trying to figure out if we can re-mount here."

In the meantime, Desrochers has unveiled MO's 2013-14 season: Donizetti's comic opera Don Pasquale in November followed next April by Puccini's ever-popular La Bohème, one of the necessary nine.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

MANITOBA OPERA 2013-14

DON PASQUALE

Nov. 23, 26 and 29

Starring Peter Strummer, Nikki Einfeld, Brett Polegato and Michele Angelini

LA BOHEME

April 5, 8 and 11

Starring Joyce El-Khoury, Eric Fennell, Keith Phares and Lara Ciekiewicz

For subscriptions or tickets go to www.manitobaopera.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2013 G6

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