Christopher Stager  

"Bluebeard's Castle" at the Milwaukee Symphony: A Case Study of an Unlikely Success

Christopher Stager
February 11, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

Christopher Stager, of CRStager marketing & audience development, was amazed to learn that the Milwaukee Symphony's two October performances of Bartok's opera Bluebeard's Castle, were sold out events. He had thought that they would sell moderately, at best. However, stunning set designs by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly and a special grant from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism helped them turn the concerts into an event.

So in November, Chris met with Susan Loris, VP Marketing & Communications, and Sarah Hogan, Associate Director of Marketing, to learn more about their marketing plan and how they engineered such a successful outcome. The following are edited excerpts from their conversation.

- Ann Drinan

On September 26, 2019, Edo de Waart led his inaugural concerts as Music Director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

Four weeks later, he conducted Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, with sets by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. This stunning production, premiered in Seattle, was being revived for the first time in Milwaukee.

Bluebeard's Castle set by Dale Chihuly Dale Chihuly's set for Bluebeard's Castle (Click to enlarge.)

Many, myself included, would doubt the box office potential of this difficult, if brilliant, opera, regardless of the production. But Milwaukee Symphony Vice President of Marketing & Communications, Susan Loris, sensed she had a potential hit on her hands, and built her marketing plan accordingly.

The result was one of the biggest sellers of the season, playing to near capacity for two performances. Susan’s instincts were on the mark. (Much better than mine, in fact. In the spirit of full disclosure, I provide marketing counsel and creative services to Susan and the Milwaukee Symphony. Perhaps she should be wary of my advice, since I pegged this event to be a modest seller at best.)

Astonished by this success, I sat down with Susan and her Associate Director of Marketing, Sarah Hogan, over dinner in Milwaukee to learn more about how they engineered this unlikely smash success.

CHRISTOPHER STAGER: It’s interesting. Looking at this program, you wouldn't think that it would sell at all, much less sell out. So what was it about this program that made it so effective? Why did it find its audience? And sell far in excess of what anybody would anticipate for a rather difficult-to-absorb, thorny, Bartok opera.

SUSAN LORIS: I think it was a special program. And we marketed it that way. It had the addition of the Dale Chihuly glass sculptures as an installation, which definitely helped sales. Dale Chihuly is very well-known in the area. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the Milwaukee Art Museum has presented a number of his installations. And in fact, that's what they opened the new museum with.

CRStager: And he lives in Seattle. The Seattle Symphony did this production originally.

Susan Loris: Correct.

CRStager: And Seattle’s Benaroya Hall has several Chihuly pieces in the foyer. But I didn’t realize Chihuly was known here in Milwaukee.

Susan Loris: Correct. So that was important in making it an event. The second thing is that we received a JEM grant from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. It stands for Joint Effort Marketing. It's a grant that awards cultural institutions additional monies to market out of state or to areas where you would otherwise not be able to market. So we had the opportunity to create hotel and event packages, and we partnered with the Marcus Hotels, which includes the Pfister Hotel and Intercontinental Hotel. Here in Milwaukee we also put together packages. And we had the opportunity to spend an additional $28,000 in marketing to Dane County, which includes Madison in addition to Chicago and Northern Illinois.

CRStager: How big is your hall?

Sarah Hogan: Our main venue is Uihlein Hall of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, and it holds 2,192 patrons.

Susan Loris: But we had to remove a row and a half for sight line issues. So we were down to less than 2,100 for each show.

CRStager: But you had a total of 4,020. All paid tickets.

Sarah Hogan: For two performances.

CRStager: Essentially a sell-out. How soon did you know you were on track for this thing to be a sell-out?

Susan Loris: Eight weeks out we were tracking behind pace. We had a large goal for this particular double performance. We inserted our season brochure in the New York Times in the Midwest Division, which includes Northern Illinois, Madison, and Milwaukee areas.

CRStager: And I presume the grant paid for that.

Susan Loris: Correct. That was part of the JEM grant money.

CRStager: When did that New York Times insert happen?

Susan Loris: On September 27th and October 4th. We did two insertions.

CRStager: And the performances were when?

Susan Loris: October 30th and 31st. We also did a mailing to Madison and Northern Illinois.

CRStager: Also with the JEM grant money?

Susan Loris: Yes, with the JEM grant money.

Sarah Hogan: We mailed to 150,000 households, most of which consisted of Madison and Northern Illinois, and then a small mailing to the Milwaukee market.

Susan Loris: And again, everything we're talking about here was covered under the JEM grant.

CRStager: Well, it surely had an effect because the survey you did shows that 52% said they responded to direct mail and 16% said they responded to the New York Times.

Susan Loris: Right.

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Comments (Click to Hide)

I like this article, thanks!
farleyhoffman on July 6, 2019 at 10:03 PM

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