Lyric Opera seeks new fans with massive ad campaign

Diva Renee Fleming lends her magic to Lyric Opera ads

Perhaps no major Chicago arts institution is more tradition-bound than the world-renowned Lyric Opera of Chicago, which soon will turn 60. In many ways opera is an art of rituals, and Lyric has, for the most part, been only too happy to honor them as it has rolled along through the decades.

And for most of that time, the rolling along, truth be told, was a breeze.  The Lyric Opera marketing department needed only to announce subscriptions were available for the next season, and without anyone hardly lifting a finger, the huge Lyric Opera theater was practically sold out.

So easy.  So simple. Until recently, in fact, Lyric seasons that sold an astounding 103 percent of capacity were not uncommon.  The norm in fact.

But the waves of massive — and not at all comforting —  change that have swept through the arts world in recent years finally have begun to impact Lyric Opera, where the company’s longtime marketing honcho Susan Mathieson Mayer can no longer boast of oversold seasons with great regularity.

As the economy has faltered more traumatically than at any time since the Great Depression, audiences with a yen for the arts have gravitated toward options more in line with their modern-day, attention-span-challenged sensibilities and more appealing to their pocketbooks than opera, which when produced on a grand scale at Lyric can be a tad more expensive to experience than, say, a night at the movies.

Lyric Opera has begun to confront head-on the tough realization that it, too, must  march into the ugly trenches and fight to put butts in the thousands of seats at every performance Lyric gives each season. Mathieson Mayer, who can be pleasingly blunt when she’s of a mind to, knows that better than anyone.

Massive ad campaign launched to fill the Opera House 

Campaign aims to draw people to lavish productionsSo with change and challenge, Lyric Opera is turning to something it has used sparingly, if at all, over its many decades in business — a massive ad campaign developed by Downtown Partners/Chicago.

It worked in close consultation with Mathieson Mayer and other top members of the Lyric administration, including, most particularly, opera diva Renee Fleming, whom Lyric brought on board last December in the new role of creative consultant.

In a nutshell, Fleming is now part of Lyric management  to help grow the audience for opera.  It’s a big job for Fleming, to say the least, and one, it’s worth noting, she has not undertaken before in quite so formalized a fashion.

But sources tell us she was there in person at many steps along the way as Lyric’s first major branding campaign was developed by Downtown Partners. And Fleming fully signed off on the campaign that comes with the tag line “Long Live Passion.”

That tag was one of three different options presented to members of several focus groups conducted during the campaign development.  The focus group members’ favorite was the one chosen for the campaign (though it  was Fleming’s favorite, too).

Campaign aims to draw people to explore the world of opera

It’s a good thing Fleming is a fan of the campaign because her visage is prominently on view in a majority of the executions that will begin to show up online, as well as area billboards, bus stop shelters and in print.

Fleming, though revered in opera circles, probably means little or nothing to the average Joe. But the hope is her attractive presence may prompt some who see the ads to explore further — even visit the Lyric Web site  to find out more about Fleming and, even more importantly, about Lyric and what it does.

And what of the ad campaign executions the public will now begin to see?

It would be a stretch to call the ads breathtakingly bold.  For all of Downtown Partners’ obvious effort to give the slightly stodgy Lyric image a fresher, more contemporary feel, there remains a sense the opera company didn’t dare push too far beyond its comfort zone — lest it offend diehard Lyric loyalists, who really aren’t the campaign’s primary target.  They’ve already been sold.

So what we get in the ads are prominent lines of copy such as “More deceit and intrigue than a Hollywood marriage.”  Another similar ad reads:  “Some subjects aren’t appropriate for the opera.  Sex, revenge and betrayal are not some of those subjects.”

Upcoming campaigns will push operas’ rich visuals

In the world we live in, it NEVER hurts to push sex, no matter the art form. But will the admission that something a tad salacious (yet omnipresent in the entertainment world) plays a role in highfalutin’ opera be enough to whet the unwashed public’s appetite?  We wonder.

Most of the copy lines in the ads are set against a photograph of the stone facade of the Lyric Opera House itself.  It’s not the most energizing of backdrops, but it does help keep the focus on the message in the copy. 

Downtown Partners creative leader Jim Schmidt said campaigns for individual operas during the upcoming season will push the rich visuals of opera.

Still it might have been nice to incorporate some of opera’s visual grandeur in this Lyric branding campaign. For better or worse, American audiences are suckers for the spectacular.  And on that front, Lyric can deliver more of it than many people may realize.

There’s one other somewhat touchy theme in the Lyric opera-going experience that the new marketing initiative may want to address at some point — even though it  doesn’t play to the art itself, which we know everyone at Lyric wants to keep center stage.

Opera’s dirty little secret could be exploited 

We refer to the social aspect of opera going.  Some in the opera world might consider it a dirty little secret.  But the fact is more than a few who regularly attend Lyric are socialites  — a breed who just love to mill around Lyric Opera’s grand foyer and luxuriate in its lounges to see and be seen. If they happen to enjoy the opera on that occasion, well, that’s the icing on this night out for most of them.

What’s the harm, really, in suggesting some of the operatically uninitiated might want to watch local high society in action and, in the process, see some opera. Two forms of entertainment for the price of one.  Certainly something to consider as Lyric’s new marketing campaign unfolds over the next four or so months.

Contact Lewis Lazare at