By all rights, Manitoba Opera shouldn't exist.
The 41-year-old cultural institution operates the most expensive art form in the smallest Canadian opera market, where the household income is one of the lowest in the country. Then it has had to contend with the freakish programming vice in which only nine operas in the entire canon can be counted on to be box-office winners.
More indicative of its prolonged survival struggle is that MO has been continuously in debt since 1984. That's 30 years.
It has ended a season in the black only six times in its existence.
"It is astonishing; there is nothing else to say," says MO general director Larry Desrochers. "I don't think there is any arts organization in the country that has had this track record and still operates."
Desrochers, who last month began his 14th year at the MO helm, has always worked in red ink. The deficit was $654,000 when he took over and has been whittled down to $59,000, the least the company has owed since 1990.
That glacial rate of improvement has not silenced questions about whether Winnipeg can afford a professional opera company.
"We are the Jets of 1995," says Desrochers, referencing the National Hockey League team Winnipeg lost owing to unworkable economic forces facing small markets franchises. "If we want to be Jets of 2013, we need to rally support."
To that end, Desrochers and MO staff spent a busy summer conducting online surveys, monitoring professionally facilitated discussions with patrons about the company's options and huddling individually with deep-pocketed donors. The organization would not have endured this long if not for the exceptional tenacity of opera-lovers, the generosity of private benefactors and the timely provincial government aid, but the current business model is not viable.
"It's not sustainable if we don't do anything, but the point is that it's never been sustainable," says Desrochers. "We operate a company in a province of 1.2 million people. If we sell out a show of 6,000 seats, that means we have to reach one-half of one per cent of the entire province. If you are in Alberta or B.C. you only have to reach 0.15 or 0.1 in Ontario."
The new input revealed patrons were not interested in radical change but strongly supported the status quo of two full-scale MO productions per season. To offer anything less would immediately trigger the departure of 35 per cent of its subscribers and a similar decline in donations.
That thrusts MO back into its programming squeeze. Winnipeg audiences desire the beautiful melodies and familiar tunes of the tried and true repertoire: Aida, La Bohème, Carmen, Madame Butterfly, The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, Turandot and The Magic Flute. Presenting titles other than these moneyspinners -- most by European composers from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries -- means drawing little more than half houses.
The latest example is season-opener Don Pasquale, which MO management hoped would lasso large audiences with a crowd-pleasing Wild West setting, but it drew a disappointing 53 per cent of capacity, seven per cent below the budgetary goal. The so-so financial performance was no surprise and it's the reason the Donizetti comedy was paired this season with the ever-popular La Bohème, which is targeted to play to 81 per cent capacity in April. It did 86 per cent last time in 2006.
MO's 2013-14 playlist is an example of the current programming model: anchor the season with one of the nine sure things that will appeal to the 30 per cent of new subscribers this season, while partnering the mainstay with something more rarely staged. This placates a knowledgable hardcore of MO subscribers who can't stand the thought of seeing Carmen here for a seventh time.
"They say, 'I will pay more for my ticket' if we do that, but the casual ticket buyer won't," Desrochers says. "We gave 1,000 tickets away to Don Pasquale and they were snapped up. Maybe free is not the operating model, but maybe $25 is. We will be revising ticket prices to make it more accessible for lesser-known operas. We are trying to remove the financial barrier."
A new pricing policy for more challenging operas would encourage attendance and counter the common perception that the 400-year-old art form is elitist. But it wouldn't significantly help the MO bottom line.
If earned revenue (ticket sales) can't be increased significantly then cultural groups have to find a lot more contributed revenue (government grants, corporate sponsorships and individual giving). With government support flat-lined and few national head offices in the city, the last hope is boosting private donations.
"One of my colleagues says we are moving from being a ticket-selling organization to a fundraising organization," says Desrochers. "I feel the same way. We took in a little less in ticket sales last year than we did in fundraising."
MO amassed $600,000 in donations last year and he says he thinks that adding another $350,000 to $400,000 annually would stabilize the organization. That seems to be the current formula for opera-company success in North America.
"That's how everyone is doing it," says Desrochers. "If there is not going to be more public money, the community then needs to help itself."
That's why MO is trying to be upfront with its patrons and plan together for the future, rather than coming to them at the last minute when caught by surprise that a show didn't sell well.
Desrochers is convinced that opera-loving Winnipeggers will rally around the cultural institution, just as hockey fans did for the Jets. Those who love opera the most will be depended upon to ensure its future in the city.
"We have to go to our donors because there are only two options," he says. "One is you ask and try, or you don't. My job is to try."