Tradition as a resource: Robust and radical interpretations of operatic tradition in the Italian opera industry, 1989–2011

Published in: Strategic Management Journal


 Sooner or later, most successful companies face the challenge of updating a cherished old product. Stay the same, and you risk becoming a dinosaur. Change too much, and you may alienate your most loyal customers.

Italian opera companies face this dilemma every season. Many of the great operas we are all familiar with are more than 150 years old, yet, by merely reproducing the same reassuring traditional material over and over opera houses would run the risk of “becoming museums of the past,” as one artistic director told us. But how do you strike the right balance between tradition and innovation?

To find out, we interviewed 15 acclaimed artistic directors of Italian opera houses and studied the staging strategies of almost 3000 Italian opera productions. With this information, we codified two types of interpretation strategies – what we call robust vs radical. Robust interpretations are transpositions that modify the peripheral aspects of an opera (its visual staging) but preserve its central features (music and dramatic contents). Instead, radical interpretations modify the very essence of traditional operas by manipulating the main characteristics of the operas (dramaturgical or musical), in addition to their peripheral ones.

Our analyses revealed a startling pattern: by implementing a robust interpretation strategy, opera houses increase their attendance by almost 9% compared to interpretations that reproduce the tradition faithfully. Surprisingly, radical interpretations have an even greater impact, increasing attendance by 14%.  

But when we re-run our analyses separately for the season- and single-ticket holders an intriguing twist to these findings became apparent. The relationship between robust interpretation and season-ticket attendance is confirmed positive and remarkably strong, but single-ticket holders don’t respond well to it.   The opposite holds true with radical interpretations: season-ticket holders react negatively to this strategy, while single-ticket holders respond exceptionally well increasing their attendance, on average, by 17.6%.

Because of this heterogeneity in preferences, opera houses must face a fundamental tradeoff: the best strategy for leveraging a cherished tradition with one segment may be detrimental to the other one and vice versa. Why is that? When we asked Sebastian Schwarz, the artistic director of Turin’s Teatro Regio, one of the world’s most renowned opera houses, about this duality he reasoned that season-ticket holders have often watched many productions of the same opera, giving them a more entrenched conception of what constitutes a good product than a more casual operagoer is likely to have. For this reason, while season-ticket holders may welcome alterations that refresh the traditional material moderately, they can promptly recognize and sanction stronger alterations. This heterogeneity in mental models is what underlies the different susceptibility of these two audience segments to more or less profound alterations of a revered operatic tradition.

There is much to learn from these insights not only for artistic directors trying to keep their balconies full but for anyone with a beloved product they need to update. If the priority is to cultivate die-hard customers and strengthen their loyalty without stifling innovation, then preserving the core features of their traditional offering while challenging peripheral ones may be the way to go. But if the acquisition of new customers becomes preeminent in the strategic agenda, then making more profound alterations to their offering may be more effective in the short run.

Flexibly matching the right interpretation strategy with the right audience is a fundamental competence that can help savvy managers to address the need for renewal while remaining sensitive to the heterogeneity of their market.


Published in Strategic Management Journal: read the full article.

Authors at the Department of Management

Simone Ferriani- Full Professor

Academic disciplines: Strategy, Entrepreneurship

Teaching areas: Strategic change, Innovation management

Research fields: entrepreneurship, creativity,  strategic renewal, processes of social evaluation, and social networks.

Simone Ferriani is a full professor of Entrepreneurship at the Department of Management and at Bayes Business School (City University of London). He is also a lifetime member of Clare-Hall College (Cambridge University) and Visiting Fellow of the Center on Organizational Innovation at Columbia University.  Simone is the Deputy Director of the MSc Programme in Management at the Alma Mater.

Tradition as a resource: Robust and radical interpretations of operatic tradition in the Italian opera industry, 1989–2011

DISA Video Research Contribution - Watch the video