By LIBBY MIDDLEBROOK
It's not easy attracting a big crowd to an opera performance in New Zealand.
While thousands readily flock to watch 30 rugby players race about on a strip of grass after a ball, opera productions are often left with a disturbing number of bottom-less seats.
But Alan Smythe seems to have discovered a secret.
After 10 years of managing charity concerts such as Christmas in the Park and Symphony Under the Stars, the 56-year-old Aucklander is running his second giant commercial opera production.
The first was Bizet's Carmen, a one-night bash at the North Harbour Stadium in 1998 that attracted 9000 patrons but left him with a second mortgage on his home.
This time he has done his homework.
He has gathered a loyal audience from previous concerts, along with enough sponsorship and investor finance to ensure the success of Verdi's La Traviata, another lavish, large-scale production to be staged next weekend at the same stadium.
"People have started to come back again now. I've had to be really patient.
"There are probably only about 4000 in Auckland who are core opera people so I've had to make these concerts more accessible to the average viewer too."
Mr Smythe's Carmen was one of the largest outdoor opera productions in the world and took four years to plan. While 9000 attended, he needed an 11,000-seat sellout to break even as he had insufficient sponsorship and investor support.
With La Traviata, he says, he has had no trouble attracting $100,000 from nine private investors, plus sponsorship from organisations such as the North Shore City Council to cover the $500,000 needed before opening night.
"The people who have invested in La Traviata saw Carmen and loved it and wanted to support us. It's just that loyal audience thing.
"Dealing with sponsors and money, I'm not sure I'm the best person to do a hard deal. But I've learned to be a more sophisticated businessman since Carmen."
Mr Smythe entered the entertainment business when he returned to New Zealand from England in the mid-1980s to find the sharemarket booming.
Unemployed, he conceived the Great Investment Race, a competition where sponsors gave 10 professional fund managers $100,000 each to invest in the stock exchange over a number of days.
The person with the largest sum won first prize and any extra cash raised went to charity.
The competition flourished, raising $10 million for charity, Mr Smythe says, after running in New Zealand, Sydney, Singapore and Hong Kong before the 1987 sharemarket crash.
"The only reason it worked was because it was an original idea. People were really keen on it.
"Charities from all over started ringing me and asking me to come up with something for them. It has just spiralled."
Since the late 1980s, millions of people have sat on picnic blankets throughout the country to watch the summertime concerts he organises.
Mr Smythe arranges the $500,000 sponsorship needed for each charity event, taking a management fee for his services.
While he concedes that he has limited business experience, gaining a loyal audience through his first charity concerts has ensured the long-term success of his commercial opera ventures - providing he doesn't scrimp on costume, set design or the quality of performers.
More than 400 people, some of whom are being flown in from New York and Europe, will perform in La Traviata.
The 9000 tickets sold cost from $75 to $160. There are still 3000 to go.
Mr Smythe, who won the Ernst & Young entrepreneur of the year award last year, hopes to run a commercial opera production similar to La Traviata every summer.