Have Glyndebourne bitten off more than they can chew?

*Update* April 2013

In the two years since I posted this analysis (which is a rather grand word for it), it has become one of the most popular posts on the blog, and is poised to take top spot from the indignant post about the shoddy behaviour of one of the Royal Opera House’s legal staff members. I thought it might be helpful, therefore, to record a mellowing of opinion on the subject. Not a complete volte-face, but a mellowing nonetheless.

Two booking rounds have occurred in the intervening period. Neither has yielded particular success during Associate Member booking. If you have full whack to lavish on your summer opera-going, then all will indeed be fine and dandy. However, if you are trying to get the tickets below the £75-£100 level of the central Upper Circle, then you will be very frequently disappointed. We have gone back into the public booking round, where there are usually seats available for all but the most in-demand performances, and secured Slips or Standing for what we wanted on both years, which of course are only available through public booking and which we could have done without having coughed up £500 lump sum and about £80p.a. The positives are that, yes, this is the queue for full Festival Society membership, and that may make things marginally easier in time. However, with Slips and Standing excluded from Festival Society booking as well, then you simply have to accept that there are very few restricted view or cheaper options available as a proportion of all seats in the house – and be careful not to judge a 1,200-seat house by the price spread of a 2,300-seater like the ROH, which error may have lain behind my discussion, below.

For something that you are very keen to see, then having a pair of £100 Upper Circle tickets in the bag gives you the confidence to try and get Slips or Standing and, if successful, return the higher priced seats for resale; if not, you can fall back on them as your insurance option. You may be on baked-beans-on-toast for a couple of weeks, but you are very likely to get to see something fantastic, from what is a very good viewpoint. Alternatively, your success rate will be higher if you go for the revivals rather than the new productions, or favour the likes of L’elisir d’amore over the big-ticket items such as Tristan und Isolde.

I still have misgivings about the Associate Membership scheme, but am in now and so I will sit it out to get through to Festival Society membership. Failing all else, I have to consider myself a very minor philanthropist, and just sit on the manicured lawns of East Sussex each year confident in the knowledge that I’ve chipped my two penn’orth into the running of an operatic outfit of supreme quality.

The original post [unaltered]

Last year, I entered the ballot for the newly-reopened ‘Associate Member’ Scheme for the Glyndebourne Festival Society.  For those unfamiliar, there are a number of ways to get tickets to Glyndebourne.  You can hope something will be available at the time public booking opens and, if you have £200+ to spend per ticket, the chances are you’ll get something for all but the most popular events. To edge further forward in the queue, you can join the Mailing List for £20 and get a priority booking window just before public booking.  [Not any more you can’t…] This is also the earliest time that you will have access to the Slips seats and Standing Places in the cheapest, £20-60 range.  They are good sightlines in the main, and an excellent way to (affordably) see opera of this standard and to experience the whole Glyndebourne afternoon hoo-ha.

Then you’re into the serious territory: Festival Society Membership.  Festival Society Members pay, currently, £155 per year and are first in the queue for tickets (if you don’t count some of the corporate donors, etc. who might have bought their way into the lead).  The cheapest tickets  will be from around £40-55, which represents only a small selection of the seats available, but again they are generally good – it’s just that there aren’t many of them before the price escalates rapidly through a smattering of £75-£100 seats into the bulk of the price range at £130-£235 (the top price for the current season’s eagerly-anticipated hit, Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg).  In order to get to be a Festival Society Member, you have to pass through a waiting room of approximately 10 years, called ‘Associate Membership’.  Opportunity to join Associate Membership is allocated by ballot and, after a first rejection, in 2009 I was successful.  I was duly invited to pay my one-off £500 entry fee and, thereafter, I pay £75-ish per year to maintain my place in the queue and for booking priority which comes after the Festival Society Members but before the Mailing List.

It seemed like a good idea.  We had relatively recently discovered Glyndebourne: a place that seemed, to the untrained observer, fiendishly difficult to get into. We’d been introduced to the Mailing List concept by some friends and we were away.  That was back in 2005 (I know, because I can count the mugs, one of which I am purchasing for each season, having succumbed to the charms of the gift shop).  So, last year was the first year we had used our Associate Membership to book.

We had something of a surprise initially because, although we had understood that we were unable to book Standing Places as Associate Members, we had thought we could book Slips. That turned out not to be the case.  That £500 (plus £75 for that year) was starting to look a little less appealing now, what with the cheapest seats being £40-50+.  Oh well, we were still in that Waiting Room for the ultimate prize, and it’s a special day out, and ‘what the hell’.

Except we ended up with little of what we asked for, ending up paying £100 each (for what were very good front-of-balcony seats), and then being thrown into the Mailing List booking period anyway (at £20 extra) to secure Slips and Standing for Friends, so as to complete a 50th birthday gathering at a performance of Don Giovanni.  It was a special day, and we wouldn’t have missed it (some oddities of the production notwithstanding), but it galled a little that this ‘extra privilege’ had proved relatively unhelpful.

And then we come to this year.  Having had three phonecalls with the Box Office the other day, the result is that, in order to have guaranteed tickets for Die Meistersinger, an opera both of us love, we have paid a stonking £210 each.  We did get offered some cheaper tickets, but at £110 for a restricted view, under a shelf and no sight of the surtitles, it seemed like it was not going to make for a relaxing day out.  We had been super-flexible on dates, so it seemed particularly galling that our priority status achieved very little (again).

We had also put in for Rusalka with a similar result.  We had enjoyed it in its last run, and thought we’d take friends.  Again, the seats available had been a pair at £70, looking through a handrail, and a pair at £140 in the front (very side) stalls.  We aren’t going to Rusalka, and hence the decision to spend so heavily on Meistersinger since, having paid our subs, we ought to at least go and see something!

Now, I’m a realist.  A house the size of Glyndebourne, run with no public subsidy to an astonishingly high performance standard, not to mention with a ‘unique selling point’ about exclusivity, is bound to be expensive.  As soon as you get beyond oddly-placed seats and standing places you are bound to escalate in price rapidly.  My slight gripe is feeling a bit ‘had’ on the subject of Associate Membership, since clearly it is not as advantageous a position as the blurb would suggest.

A look through the annual accounts registered with the Charity Commission is instructive.   They are required (or choose, I’m not sure) to summarise the numbers of members in the Festival Society and associated schemes.  The numbers from successive reports are summarised below:

Changing Membership of GFS 2004-09

Associate Membership was introduced in 2004.  The waiting list at that point had been closed since 1998 and was an average of 20 years long.  The annual report for 2005 notes that the fee of £50 per annum was introduced with the formality of ‘Associate Membership’ and that 3,884 people took up the offer.  This clearly dropped in the following year as the drop in Associate Members exceeds the number of new full members by around 700.

In 2009, their 75th anniversary year, they ‘cleared the waiting list’ for Festival Society Membership.  This would appear to have been done by a wholesale shift of the remaining waiting members into full Festival Society membership, given that the change in Festival Society membership is only a dozen short of the 758 people at that time still in this exclusive waiting room.  The effect of the reopening of the Associate Membership is therefore a surge in the total number of ‘competitors’ for those limited numbers of cheaper tickets to over 12,500, a figure over 2,000 higher than the previous high-point in 2007, with 75% of them getting in ahead of Associates.

Latterly, the annual reports have included a summary of activity which totals up the tickets sold for the Festival, for which there has been a steady rise of the last three (published) years from 87,000 to 91,468 and then to 95,423.  This is most likely due to an expansion of the season rather than better marketing, since I can’t imagine Glyndebourne needs much marketing, particularly with a 10-12,000-strong captive audience of members.  It averages (in the last year) to around 7.5 tickets per member, not counting those that are left for the Mailing List and public booking.  And it is not unreasonable to assume that most of those on the Associate Member scheme, having been recruited in part from the Mailing List, will be interested in the cheaper parts of the house.  It gets worse with a popular show like Meistersinger: with 10 performances, the 1,200-capacity theatre can offer just one seat per member, not allowing for around 60-70 seats that are reserved for Mailing List (standing/slips) and those that are, presumably, held back for ‘house seats’ for guests.  When they say allocation of seats is by ballot, they really do mean it.  It only takes 60% of full Festival Society members to want a pair of tickets to something like Meistersinger and there would be nothing at all left for Associate Members in any part of the theatre.

There is a background fact to all of this which needs to be borne in mind:  at £21m the Glyndebourne Festival ran itself on less money than the £27m Government grant that the Royal Opera House receives: of course, this is with far fewer performances and a different approach to casting which sees (at a crude simplification) newer talent nurtured through longer rehearsal times, rather than established, and expensive, international artists being hired for shorter runs.  Further, the ROH relies on ticket income for around 37% of its total expenditure; at Glyndebourne that figure is 64%.  The ROH seats 2,268 to Glyndebourne’s 1,200.  When one gets used to good seats in the lower price bands at the ROH (when you know where to look for them), it is tempting to judge Glyndebourne by the same standards, but these are some of the key variables that make that a dangerous comparison.  One’s head, however, may not be able to rule one’s heart when the ‘sorry, we haven’t been able to allocate your preferences’ email comes through…

So, what have we learned from this rather rambling analysis?  Well, I guess I’ve mellowed a bit in my initial grumpiness.  Yes, I do think that, to some extent, they have bitten off more than they can chew in terms of the expectations of those that have paid a hefty levy for a priority access which is not forthcoming because of the significant increase in membership.  That said, one day we will be in the Festival Society membership and have those same opportunities.  And, indeed, the economics of running a festival such as Glyndebourne mean that there has to be creative ways to raise income and such decisions are always going to be balancing acts, trade-offs between the differing expectations of the groups who want access to your programme.

And I suppose, the disappointment of the booking process for the second year has worn off a bit, even if the anxiety provoked by having £420 on my credit card for one night’s opera-going hasn’t.  I am left with the inevitable question, ‘would I have joined Associate Membership, knowing then what I know now?’   The answer, unfortunately for my finances, is probably ‘yes’.  I would have been less optimistic about the initial privilege it was getting me, but I would probably have wanted the long-term goal of Glyndebourne Festival Society Membership, when I will be a lot further forward in the queue for those more affordable tickets.  And I will have many summers ahead of trips to this remarkable opera house and its remarkable performances – hopefully, in future, with a bit of money left over for a glass of wine…

In the intervening 8 years that I probably have left to wait, Glyndebourne may simply wish to reflect on how they present the benefits that Associate Membership brings…  And on Monday, I join the Mailing List for an extra ‘go’ at booking a Slips seat or Standing Place…

7 comments

  1. At WNO last year, the magnificent Meistersingers production
    with Bryn Terfel & Amanda Roocroft was £45 top price. They
    get half the grant of Covent Garden, half of it to take opera to 9
    English cities because the London companies can’t be
    arsed!

  2. I also entered the ‘ballot’ for Associate Membership in 2010 and was a little surprised to discover I had been ‘successful’. When I worked out that all my friends who had also entered the ballot seemed to have had similar success, I surmised that there was very little luck involved and that this was really just a way to instantly increase income into the Glyndebourne coffers (£500 administration charge plus £75 per year from over 3,000 individuals) without even having had to sell a ticket. I turned down their generous invitation when I also worked out that there were now more members/associates than tickets to seat them all for popular productions with few performances.

  3. I wonder how ticket sales will go this year, given that the top price ticket for Band 1 (most performances) has increased in price by a whopping 15% from £200 to £230. This year’s ticket pricing for Meistersinger can’t be taken into account since Wagner is always a lot more expensive! (And sells regardless – next year’s Covent Garden Ring Cycle is already sold out for all 4 cycles).

  4. Indeed Phillip, we will all have to wait and see (though to be honest, I can’t quite summon the same enthusiasm for this season for some reason…)

  5. Unfortunately I just found out that the Mailing List system does not exist anymore, which means that the chance of booking 4 tickets is even less. And as we are travelling from Holland we cannot just hop on a plane to fly in for return tickets.
    Any member who can help us out for the 2013 season??

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