SFOpera - Backstage with Matthew: Facilitating Experiences of a Lifetime

Backstage with Matthew: Facilitating Experiences of a Lifetime

It’s been just about three weeks since we launched our 2018–19 season and we’ve been thrilled by the reception from patrons. Subscription sales are moving at a brisk pace, and there is a wonderful energy for what lies ahead. That energy is felt particularly acutely in the Box Office, the nerve center of our ticketing services. They are in the midst of a swirl of activity as we roll out our new season.

Many of you know the Box Office from its public face—the sales and will call windows. The Opera Box Office is on the right hand side of the lobby as you walk in and, behind those two windows and a little wall, lies a tightly packed, incredibly collegial room with five dedicated members of the Box Office team headed by the our superlative Box Office Manager Mark Sackett and our Assistant Box Office Manager Jessica Fauver.

Members of the downstairs Box Office team. From left to right: Jessica Fauver, Mark Sackett, Rebecca Page and Roberto Bonilla (not pictured: Jennifer Hughes). The wall to the left is the wall you see just behind the Box Office windows.

Now, if you call the Box Office, the phone will likely be picked up first at the very top of the Opera House. On the uppermost level of the building is our phone room with another great group of employees who provide our patrons with personal service in pursuit of the perfect opera experience. If there are problems that need the intervention of a manager, or if the patron is a Medallion Society donor or group organizer, the call will make its way downstairs.

The view you don’t usually see: from the Box Office window out into the lobby.

One long-serving Box Office staffer is Rebecca Page, our Medallion Society Concierge Manager. Rebecca has been with the Opera for 14 years. Eighteen months ago, she took on the Concierge role following in the incredible footsteps of Marcy Bastiani who was here for 37 years. Although Rebecca’s duties during much of the season are focused on our generous Medallion Society patrons, she notes that, at this time of year, it’s all hands on deck as thousands of subscription orders are taken and filled. It’s a thrilling time when patrons are looking to put together packages of operas that meets their artistic preferences and logistical needs. All of our Box Office staff are great founts of knowledge, helping patrons navigate the season ahead. At the same time, they are working busily on Ring cycle and Plácido Domingo orders and preparing for seating: no small feat when demand is so acute.

Rebecca Page, our Medallion Society Concierge Manager.

Before coming to the Opera, Rebecca worked in publishing, running a website. She knew our Subscription Manager, Emily Tilles, and was intrigued by a temporary position here. Temporary soon turned into permanent! Rebecca has seen great change over her 14 years here. The morphing dynamic between subscription and single tickets has meant an increasing move towards greater customization and flexibility with more exchanges and upgrades as we work to make subscriptions as seamless and tailored as possible. The benefit of this flexibility is that it allows for more ‘surprise and delight’ moments—those times when the Box Office staff can do something special for a patron and make their night here even more memorable.

The Box Office staff sit and work so closely with each other—literally “elbow-to-elbow,” and their close-knit teamwork is key to the success of their department. They help each other, share workloads, and develop collective solutions to create meaningful improvements for patrons. Hearing the stories of patrons’ love of the Opera and their magical experiences with the art form are the moments that Rebecca particularly enjoys.

After the subscription renewal deadline passes on March 12, the real fun begins: seating! Full and half subscribers are guaranteed the same seats from year to year in the same series, but as seats become available the Box Office and Development Department work through a priority seating process to assign newly opened subscription seats. The tickets are then printed offsite in bulk and sent to the Opera House where they are arranged into packages by hand and mailed out in early August.

Some bittersweet memorabilia: tickets from the performance of Idomeneo on October 17, 1989, unused because it was the day of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

All of our seating is done electronically now using software that tracks ticket history, allows us to see who has checked into the house, shows how many seats have been sold, and so on. It was not that long ago when things were done rather more manually, as you can see from this hand-written ledger from the mid-1990s that tracked the financial deposits each night.

Tracking the money: a deposit leger from 1996.

Going back a little further, every single ticket for each performance used to be printed in advance and placed in a specific pattern in drawers in the box office—the “nest”. There was one drawer per performance and when there were no tickets in a drawer you knew you had a sell-out house. If tickets were turned back, they would be placed backwards in the drawer and literally “held” there, leading to the term “holds” for tickets that could be sold again. By no later than the first intermission, all of the unsold tickets would be counted up and a report prepared for former general director, Kurt Herbert Adler, who would come and inspect the report. Now I can see all of that information on a computer screen, but I rather like the idea of a more manual tradition!

A pricing chart from the 1932 opening season showing orchestra seats at $10, the last three balcony rows at $2, and 8-seat boxes at $500 for the whole box for the whole season.

Seating itself used to be done with early forms of post-it notes on plastic boards that overlaid seating maps of the house. These were tried and true processes that kept the Box Office working smoothly for decades prior to our current digital system and it’s wonderful to hear of the passion for detail and accuracy that was so necessary for these manual systems to succeed.

But, back to Rebecca and her colleagues in the modern Box Office. After months of working closely with colleagues in Marketing and IS to build the new season’s performances and packages, after testing everything on the website, after proofing printed materials, after checking prices, after ensuring that each performance is set up correctly and developing talking points for patrons, it’s finally time for that magical moment where the switch is flipped and we go live on a new season. We move from a mysterious world of secretive planning into a glorious time of sharing the new season with our audiences. As people think about which opera they would like to piece together into a subscription (hopefully all of them!), you can be sure that there is someone from one of the finest Box Offices in the world on the end of the phone, ready to make that season a reality.

A ticket from the grand opening night performance of the War Memorial Opera House in 1932.

Backstage with Matthew: Apples of Gold in Settings of Silver