Opera Lyra on the hunt for corporate sponsors for 2015-16 season

As Opera Lyra prepares for opening night of its 2015-16 season on Saturday, general director Jeep Jeffries said the organization’s new director of development is already drumming up leads for new corporate sponsors.


Jennifer Benedict joined the non-profit organization about two weeks ago, after having senior fundraising positions with the National Arts Centre and the United Way.


“She’s already looking at sponsorship opportunities that we basically didn’t know existed, so I’m thrilled,” Mr. Jeffries said. “Some corporations that we didn’t necessarily know are interested in the arts, or folks at corporations that she knows from her previous jobs. New contacts, new possibilities.”

Sponsors and donations are one of three ways Opera Lyra generates revenue, along with grants and ticket sales. All are important as Mr. Jeffries continues to trim the almost $1.2-million deficit he inherited when he arrived four years ago. By the end of the 2014-15 season, that number had been cut to $590,000.

The new season opens at the NAC with the first of a four-night run of The Barber of Seville. Calling Ottawa a “last-minute town,” Mr. Jeffries said it’s too early to really say how ticket sales are doing, but “it’s looking pretty good.”

Ticket sales typically make up 45 per cent of the group’s revenue, he said, with most shows selling around 7,000 tickets over a three- or four-night run. Public grants make up 25 per cent with the remaining 30 per cent coming from fund-raising.

That is the area that is always a struggle for non-profits, he said.

“Corporate contributions are tricky because often times, the slightest downturn in the economy, or the hint of a downturn will often cause corporations to be a bit more cautious about what they’re doing and to give away less or to be less generous because they’re worried about the bottom line and about where they’re going to be 18 months from now.”

Ms. Benedict is part of the new team Mr. Jeffries has assembled for this season, which includes new production director Jason Dubois and new artistic director Timothy Vernon, who will split his time between Opera Lyra and Pacific Opera Victoria.

Mr. Jeffries called Mr. Vernon “an amazing intellect, an opera scholar par excellence, a passionate conductor, a vocal advocate of the art form and I think one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” adding he hopes Mr. Vernon can duplicate in Ottawa the success he has had in Victoria. He has been with the Victoria company since it was founded in 1980.

The new artistic director wants to contribute to more than just the productions that will take the stage, Mr. Jeffries said, adding Mr. Vernon has already had opportunities to meet with donors and patrons.

“He really knows how to communicate his love for the art form and make other people feel it as well,” Mr. Jeffries said.

Opera Lyra has also done other promotional events that have resulted in plenty of publicity, such as a karaoke night with the cast and a flash mob at a grocery store. Those were in advance of The Marriage of Figaro, which hit the stage in March.

The latest event happened earlier this month when the lead character of The Barber of Seville, played by Pembroke native Joshua Hopkins, gave celebrity haircuts – helped by professional barbers – at the House of Barons barber shop in the ByWard Market.

“The mayor got a shave,” Mr. Jeffries said. “I don’t know if the mayor has ever had a shave with a straight razor before. He was ever so slightly nervous but was very happy with the results.”

More important than a happy mayor, though, the organization got a lot of publicity and media attention from the event.

It’s events like these that have played a role in attracting a new crowd to opera.

“For quite some time, the largest and fastest growing segment of the opera audiences has been 18-24-year-olds, and … I’ve never heard a real good or comprehensive reason for why, but I’ve got a couple ideas,” Mr. Jeffries said.

He said the younger crowd loves multimedia experiences and opera is the original multimedia experience. Also, with all the emotion on stage, it makes for a great date night.

As the new season proceeds, there is still the remaining deficit to deal with. Mr. Jeffries said he will take his time.

“The trick is juggling,” he said. “We want to make sure we continue to produce high-quality art on stage. One of the reasons why we’re taking time to pay it off is to do otherwise would gut the artistic quality of the company and that would have other impacts that would make it harder to continue.”

The NAC is the major holder of Opera Lyra’s long-term debt, Mr. Jeffries said.

“We’ve been talking to them about a closer partnership and there are certain areas where they want to make sure that our high standards are maintained.”