Austin Opera’s general director turns to big data to engage audiences

This past fall, Austin Opera flew in Annie Burridge, a candidate for general director, to watch its staging of “The Manchurian Candidate.”

“I sat down in the hall,” says the former managing director of Opera Philadelphia. “The second the performance started, I bolted forward in my seat. I couldn’t believe the caliber of the musicianship.”

At that night’s dinner, Burridge was seated next to the show’s composer, Kevin Puts, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his first opera, “Silent Night.”

“Kevin was nearly in tears at how happy he was with the performance,” she says of the piece adapted from a famous film and first staged by Minnesota Opera. “(Artistic director) Richard Buckley had worked with him on editing it. That’s so important for new works. You know, there’s usually not a lot of rewards for opera companies doing subsequent performances. Everyone wants to give the premiere. Austin gave Kevin and his opera a key second hearing.”

RELATED: Austin Opera’s “Manchurian Candidate” reflects fresh, revitalized opera

Quietly keen with short hair and acute eyes, Burridge is a coloratura soprano with a special zeal not just for the art form but also for big data and the ways that sophisticated marketing research can tune opera to serve diverse audiences. She is settling into the city and her role as general director just as Austin Opera opens the comic jewel “The Daughter of the Regiment” on Jan. 28 at the Long Center.

“I had been in the No. 2 position in Philadelphia for nine years,” she says. “I was eager and ready for a general director position. The opportunity came up. I applied. I was interested. After seeing ‘The Manchurian Candidate,’ I went from interested to intrigued and very enthusiastic. When I came back for the interview, I was actively hoping to win that opportunity. Austin has seen such growth in live performance and arts, and there’s so much opportunity to augment that. Audiences here are ripe for additional experiences, seeing opera in new ways and new places.”

Burridge was born to a music teacher and a probation officer in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Her mother, a high school choir director, was the daughter of a music teacher, too. By her own account, she played piano (fine), clarinet (terrible) and string bass (pretty good). She shone, however, as a singer, especially in musicals.

“Mom said that as a baby, when I woke up in the morning, I’d sing till they came to get me,” she says. “One problem: I was a terrible ‘belter.’ But a pretty good coloratura. Somebody said, ‘Try opera.’ I fell in love instantly. At 18, I wanted to run an opera company, having no idea what that meant.”

Burridge studied voice and business at Penn State University. After graduation, she took a shot at auditioning and ended up at the high-flying New England Conservatory, where she earned master’s degrees in voice and opera. One of her first post-school gigs was with Des Moines Metro Opera.

“It’s a fantastic company in the middle of nowhere Iowa,” she says with a smile. “I’d spend several months on the road in ‘outreach performances’ of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ staged in cafetoriums. Then I’d spend the summer doing roles with the main company. I absolutely knew that opera was where I wanted to work.”

Yet Burridge was more drawn to the business end of the art. She sang for a few more years before studying administration and education. At one point, she took a graduate course in marketing.

“A week in, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. “I had an OK voice, but I loved opera so much, believed in it so much, I just wanted to do something that felt important and made a difference.”

Turns out, she was good at it. After earning a master’s certificate in nonprofit administration, she worked her way up through the ranks of the Opera Company of Philadelphia, which she helped rebrand as Opera Philadelphia. It wasn’t a mere name change. It signaled an entirely new business strategy.

“We asked: What is our consumer promise?” Burridge says. “What is our value? What are we here to contribute?”

Then she led a vast three-year segmented consumer study, perhaps the most comprehensive such research to date in the American performing arts.

“Oh, there had been plenty of studies of demographics,” she says. “We already knew that opera’s audiences were generally Caucasian, older and well educated. Half are interested in traditional opera; half are interested in something different. But that data was not particularly helpful when it came to engaging them.”

So her team divided the consumers into smaller and smaller groups based on real-life facts that affected their purchasing decisions.

“What drives someone to get dressed, get in the car and go to a performance?” she asked. “What are people looking for in their operatic experiences? Your age tells me absolutely nothing. Here’s one big headline: The largest segment of single-ticket buyers are ages 25 to 35. They go to a broad slate of programs, in a broad slate of places: in the opera house, in warehouses, out of doors. All those things pulled in millennials at different price levels.”

Because of Philadelphia’s proximity to New York, her company was in direct competition with the megalithic Metropolitan Opera.

“We couldn’t be a mini-Met,” she says. “So we explored new repertoire, new operas. Again, across the board: It’s not the case that retired audiences want to see Puccini and that 25-year-old audiences just want to see something contemporary. It’s a lot more complex.”

She says the job of an opera producer today is to serve the art form first.

“Austin Opera is already doing that really, really well,” she says. “But we also must serve the contemporary audience. We are not competing with other arts companies, but rather with Netflix and HBO. So the more sophisticated and nuanced the understanding we can have of our audience and potential audience, the better we are going to be able to connect with them.”

Performances in nontraditional spaces could be part of the solution.

“There’s a fantastic culture of live performance here,” she says. “There’s a lot to explore.”

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