When the Metropolitan Opera moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, its general manager worried in a memo that the company had so many subscribers that, for others, it was “impossible ever to buy a ticket.” As recently as the 1990s, the Met regularly took in more than 90 percent of its potential box-office income.
But its attendance has floundered lately. The Met celebrated the 50th anniversary of its enormous Lincoln Center home with a starry gala this month. But as its 2016-17 season ended, the challenge of filling a theater that holds 4,000 came into stark relief: The Met said it had taken in 67 percent of its potential box-office revenue this season — up only very slightly from last year, its worst showing ever.
In the 2015-16 season, the Met took in 66 percent of its potential capacity. Some numbers are improving a bit more substantially: The company’s paid attendance rate, which includes discounted tickets, rose to 75 percent this season from 72 percent in 2015-16. And the company said it attracted 80,000 new ticket buyers this season, up from 74,000 the year before. The challenge is turning those newcomers into regulars.
“It just shows how many tickets we have to sell to single-ticket buyers to make up for the declining subscription base,” Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said in an interview. He said he certainly hoped that the box-office decline of recent seasons had bottomed out.
The company is grappling with the same challenge facing other American opera houses, ballet companies and orchestras: the steady decline of the old subscription model, in which many audience members could be counted on to buy tickets to multiple events each year. But the Met is the nation’s largest performing arts organization, with an annual budget of close to $300 million, so its fortunes are watched particularly closely as a barometer for cultural institutions nationwide.