This year we will be winging it at the Met. Our “to see” list is long. So why didn’t we get a subscription? After all, subscriptions have their advantages. Here are some of the pluses that you get as a Met subscriber:

  • Significant discount on ticket prices.
  • Reserve seats before they are on sale to general public.
  • Opportunity to buy non-subscription tickets before they go on sale to the public for additional operas, including hot new productions unavailable by subscription.
  • Payment plans so you don’t get a big bite out of your credit card all at once.

Sounds great, right? So why didn’t we go for it?

Here’s why:

The current subscription system still has an analog mentality in a digital age. Yes, you can subscribe online, but basically your request goes to human beings who will process it at some later date — weeks or months later. Your actual tickets won’t arrive till long after you’ve forgotten which nights you’re going, what you are seeing,  or which credit card is going to have the charges.  Although the Met has started to update the system a little bit – adding the possibility of exchanges if you can’t make a date in your series, it’s still a clunky system that requires subscribers to deal with customer service if they want to make changes– probably by phone – or to visit the box office.

The main issue is the lack of flexibility. The operas you most want to see may not be locked into the same series. The reviews aren’t out yet and a few of the operas in your chosen series might turn out to be clunkers. You’re booking everything so far in advance, there’s a good chance something is going to come up on one of those nights. And worst of all, while you do get to choose your seating section, you don’t get to choose your actual seats. That’s done for you. Plus, you get the same seats in the same section for your entire series.  This is just unacceptable to most people who’ve come of age in a choose-your-own seats world.

Maybe once upon a time people liked having the same seats every time. They felt a sense of ownership, maybe even started friendships with their neighbors.

But the world isn’t like that anymore. People rent now. They “share.” It’s the difference between buying a car and using Zip Car. If you are going to buy you have to decide the car you want to drive most of the time. If you’re going Zip Car you could go for the Miata when you’re in the mood for something zippy, or maybe a Prius when you’re trying to make a different kind of impression. At the Met, the sound is crystal clear in the cheap seats of Family Circle, but sometimes you might want to be a little closer to the action – like say if there are really spectacular sets, or dancing, or an especially hunky baritone or it’s somebody’s birthday. You can’t mix it up under the current system. You’re committed and defined by your choice. You’re either a Dress Circle Prime swell or a Family Circle Balance bargain-hunter. That’s got to end.

The Met does have some alternatives. After the initial push for subscribers, the Met offers people a “build your own series” option. It enables you to buy tickets before the regular tickets go on sale, but it doesn’t have the advantages of the regular subscriptions. You don’t get a discount. You also still don’t get to choose your own seat or mix seating categories. You don’t even get to buy tickets for the new productions that aren’t on sale to the general public yet.

I don’t work for the Met, nor have I spoken to anyone who does, so I have no idea how successful or large their subscription program is. My guess is a lot of old-timers are content with the way things are and the scalpers aren’t complaining. But if the Met wants to fill more seats with more subscribers – maybe a NEW GENERATION of opera-goers, then they need to innovate. Regular subscribers are good for business. “Special event” opera-goers, are not the frequent fliers they need to fill the house on a regular basis.

Here’s how I’d fix things:

First, keep the “traditional” system for the current subscribers who want it. Send out notices outlining the changes, but if customers want to do what they’ve been doing since Don Draper was the King of MADison Avenue,  allow them a three week period to mail in, call or go online for a “traditional subscription” before the new system comes online. Maybe even outreach via phone to some of the long-term veterans. Allow the “traditionals” to mail-in, go on-line or phone customer service for assistance. (Set up an  “existing subscribers extension” to make them feel special.) Process the subscriptions as they come in and have a one-week additional grace period before the new subscriptions start.

Second add something nice for all subscribers. Swag is nice. Look around at all those feisty Upper West Siders of a certain age with their PBS and QRX tote bags and visors. In some cultures, it’s a sign of respect.

Another way to make the subscribers feel the love, and maybe a prevent a few from getting mad because they hate change, would be to have some kind of educational program and/or subscriber days/activities. I’m not suggesting these be free, but they could be break-even/low-profit and not high-end fundraisers, maybe even at other venues in collaboration with organizations like the 92nd Street Y, Manhattan School of Music, Symphony Space, etc. They don’t even have to be in Manhattan. They could be on CUNY-campuses. I’m thinking of lectures, recitals, previews, interviews, etc. There’d be admission of course, but maybe with special series discounts to Met subscribers and student discounts as well. (Hint: You might try getting people the young people like involved with this. Neil de Grasse Tyson can fill seats with this demographic. No evidence he likes opera, but he’s a reasonable man. He can be converted.)

As for the the new system, it will feature a lot more flexibility in seats, choices of operas, and dates of performances. It will combine the best aspects of “build your own” and traditional subscriptions. It will be mostly be geared toward people able to navigate online, but for those who can’t, help should be available by phone, and even by mail order though that would have to be “let us choose your seats” and might require phoning patrons to make sure they’re getting what they want.

Here are the particulars:

A) Simplified discounts. The Met doesn’t need to offer as big a discount as they do for subscribers. Yeah, I know, I’m arguing for higher prices, but honestly by making the subscriptions so last century they’ll lose subscribers no matter how high the discount. They need to make the whole process more appealing so that more people will want subscriptions. Keep it simple. No admin fees, option to add single-tickets, and something easy to remember like  a 5% discount on ticket prices for a five-opera-series and a 7% discount on a seven-opera-series (with the discount to include single tickets bought on the same order as the subscription).

B) People of a certain age and archeologists will recall those old-timey Chinese restaurant menus. Remember one from column A? The Met has to make sure subscriptions work to ensure that newer or riskier productions will have some subscribers. Here’s a simple way to do that while still giving customers a sense of autonomy. Calculate which operas likely to be the most popular – call them “Blue” (as opposed to “Gold” or “A” or anything that indicates that these are “better” than the others. Next categorize the operas that will be probably do well but not as well as the first category. Let’s call them “Red.” Third take your more experimental or less known productions, and call them “Purple. Subscribers will have to pick a minimum number of operas within each category, but they will still be able to put together their own series. For instance, a seven-opera-series might include a minimum of two Purples, and two Reds, with a maximum of three Blues.

C) Combine aspects of “build your own.” Allow people to choose the performances they’ll attend. There can be limits. Some operas will not be available for subscriptions, just as now some new productions aren’t. Some will have black-out nights, including the galas. But subscribers shouldn’t be limited to building a Saturday night series, or a Tuesday night series, or a Thursday night series. They should be able to mix it up and choose dates that will work for them. Let them attend all five in one month if they want. Let them shop nights to find the best seats.

D) This is revolutionary: Allow people to pick their own damn seats online and to mix sections in their subscription. (Why? If you have to ask, you need to move to an adult community in Boca already, and also I’ve already explained.) Those choosing to subscribe by mail, might still be limited to picking a section, but even over the phone a service rep can find seats using a terminal and obeying a customer’s wishes. Most people will be doing this themselves because most people in 2014 prefer NOT to deal with people for stuff they can do online, and even the very old will likely get a beloved grandchild to help them out.

What will my season look like without a subscription? Pretty fantastic. There are at least a dozen productions I’m planning to attend. I’ll be in the orchestra section, and I’ll be doing it on the cheap. Of course I’ll have to earn those cheap seats by sitting on my butt waiting for weekday rush tickets at the Met. This is still the best-deal in the City, even if people (including professional-line-waiters) start showing up mid-morning. Yes, this isn’t an option for those who don’t have flexible work schedules, but for those who do, you can’t beat $20 orchestra seats. And I can also enter the weekend ticket lotteries — though  it means I might have to cancel existing plans if I win. Then again, my existing plans aren’t usually as exciting as a night at the opera.

UPDATE: 9/22/14 — Just read that the Met has completely revamped it’s rush ticket system. Now they’ll be going to a lottery only that can be entered online which means that it’s completely left to chance, and I may never get tickets to anything — ever. Nice little FU to New Yorkers of moderate means. Oh well, guess I’ll just stay home. No Met for me. Thanks a lot Mr. Gelb.

(Find this useful? Mr. Gelb, you could thank me with comps or possibly a “no show” job. Others could please click on something from My Picks above, preferably one of the books I wrote, but anything will do. Thank you much.)

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