Oh Please Let Someone Start Singing Ode To Joy In The Produce Aisle

On my Twitter feed I got a link to an announcement that a documentary on Knight Foundation’s Random Act of Culture program won a regional Emmy. As I watched the first brief video where Dennis Scholl talks about first getting the idea from a pop up opera performance in Valencia, Spain where they ended by holding a sign saying “So You Don’t Think You Like Opera?,” two questions came to mind.

The first is I wondered why people reacted so positively to having performers throw off their “mundane” identities and burst into action in public spaces, but will pass by Joshua Bell or Tasmin Little in street clothes playing in a railway station.

I am on record expressing disdain for the way the Joshua Bell situation was set up because it seemed positioned to allow the journalist to call out people as uncultured philistines. I wrote about a great three part podcast (which alas has disappeared) where the contributors discussed how important setting and context are to creating a receptive mindset in people and how these things are not present in rail stations.

But people aren’t naturally placed in this mindset in shopping malls and supermarkets either. People may be less harried than when they are rushing to work or to connect to another form of transportation, but they generally aren’t going shopping secretly hoping the crowd will burst into “Ode To Joy.” Yet people are immediately delighted when it happens. Why is that?

The difference may be the scale. Walking up on a busker or group of performers on the street is a different experience from having the people around you start to participate in something. You have more permission to enjoy yourself if 40 people standing around you start singing versus seeing the 40 people nearby stride with determination past buskers.

There is also a different sort of theatricality involved with flash performances than busker setting up an open instrument case. If Joshua Bell had flung off his jacket with a flourish and dove into a lively piece as he descended the escalator at the Metro station, it might have engaged the curiosity of more people.

The second question that occurred to me was the one posed at the end of the performance in Valencia about not liking opera. It probably is easy to be open to liking opera in a 5-10 minute segment when everyone around you seems to be participating. It may not seem as enjoyable to go to an opera house and try to follow the plot of an entire opera in a foreign language. Heck, it may not seem enjoyable if a group did a pop up performance of the entire opera, blocking the aisles for two hours while you were trying to buy groceries for your family.

This isn’t a criticism of the Random Acts of Culture program. Inciting curiosity and showing people they have the capacity to enjoy opera, dance, etc., is an asset to the arts.

We just can’t acclaim that particular tactic as the answer to getting new audiences hooked. It’s no more the solution than the idea that people only need to see our work once before they are hooked.

In fact, it may be less so. For people who are not frequent attendees, the experience of going to the opera after seeing a pop up performance may seem like a bait and switch. For people who work in the field, it can be difficult to imagine how stark the contrast may seem to them.

Thankfully, many in the field are able to imagine that performance attendance experience may be losing its relevance for today’s audiences and there is a fair bit of conversation occurring about what alternatives are possible.

On the other side of the equation, when arts practitioners advocate for taking art and culture to people where they live, it should be remembered that these experiences are only a delight because they are unexpected, infrequent and in small doses. Too much of it and you are an unwelcome intrusion on people where they live.

It would be better if arts practitioners could find a place nearby where people could gather and be delighted that doesn’t interfere with the daily flow of life.

Oh wait, there are already a bunch of those. They are the places nobody under the age of 60 seems to want to go to have an arts experience.

Clearly, there has to be a medium between the two environments and it is going to take some work to determine what it is exactly.

One of the things I suspect, but I would be interested to see a study confirm, is that the pop up performances like those in the Knight Foundation’s Random Acts of Culture may make spectators more confident in their own ability to be creative. Even though the person standing next to them who started singing may have many years of training and rehearsed for five hours in order to make everything look effortless, the illusion is there that the average John or Jane has the potential for excellence. A concept that is reinforced by shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance.

Since we are seeing signs that the concept of personal creativity is more appealing than the concept of art and culture, pop up performances could be one of many tools used to encourage people toward participation in creative endeavors. That can’t be the only tactic used and the execution has to come off more organic than just planting performers in the audience.

To whit:

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


3 thoughts on “Oh Please Let Someone Start Singing Ode To Joy In The Produce Aisle”

  1. Hey Joe. Great thoughts, as always. Here at Opera Memphis, we have a 4 year old program called 30 days of Opera, a month of free performances throughout the city. About 2/3 of them are scheduled and advertised, the rest being pop-ups of one sort or another. We also do “drive-bys” on the back of a pickup, as well as a few other variations of what you are discussing.

    A few thoughts to add to this.

    1. You need to be strategic about how to use the performances to avoid the “bait and switch” outcome. Over the course of the month, we design programs that allow people who have a quick exposure to our singers to seek out something more substantial, but still free and easy. Performances range from single arias to 90 minute concerts to 20 minute children’s operas. Then, for anyone who wants to try a full opera, we have coupons that give 50% off their first one. We follow up with them after, asking about the experience. As a small company, we are able to do this on a pretty personal level. You are spot-on that just doing a performance is not enough. There needs to be a series of stepping stones that leads folks across what they look at as a pretty daunting river. But more importantly:

    2. These performances are about more than simply achieving the title of your blog. We all want butts in seats, and the apex experience of our art is a fully produced show with orchestra, etc. That does not, however, mean that an aria concert, or even driving by a few singers performing on a street corner, does not also have artistic value. If the only opera someone gets in a year is an aria at a coffee shop, I would argue that is one aria more than they would have had otherwise. And that’s not nothing. And maybe most importantly:

    3. My favorite tweets and posts related to #30DaysofOpera are the ones that have either #ilovememphis or #choose901 included. We have gotten a lot of them over the years. If we can use the tools of opera pop-ups to create a sense of community, to make Memphians appreciate their city more, then perhaps that is enough? In our case, we have hundreds of folks who have come to their first opera through a 30 days performance, and we have found other sources of revenue through the program as well. But nothing gives me as much of a a thrill as reading one of those tweets, because it is proof that we have contributed to positive change. We have made the city better. In a time when most folks would consider opera an exclusive club of sorts, these tweets and that sentiment explode that notion.

    Final thought–any company that does this sort of thing thinking they will get the kind of viral spread Philadelphia did is likely in for disappointment. We have dozens of videos documenting what we do, but getting a million hits is not the end goal. We do this for Memphis, not the internet, and anyone who goes to the time and effort of doing one of these needs to be thinking of the experience of the folks present and the strategic follow-up, not the elusive chance of being internet famous.

    Thanks for all the great thoughts and links!

    Ned Canty
    General Director
    Opera Memphis

    • Ned-

      Thanks for your lengthy commentary on your program. I hope you are grabbing copies of the #Ilovememphis posts so you can show all your funders, government officials, etc that your organization is helping to reinforce community identity and pride.

      I don’t say this to nag you. It is just that your comments made me panic because I think we may have forgotten to do that for the last couple shows. It is good to get an occasional reminder.

  2. Hi Joe,
    Yes, we do screen caps of all twitter mentions and FB posts. In fact, after our first year, we printed out every twitter mention and RT, and taped them altogether into a roll that was about 75 feet long. We would unroll it to try to give a tangible sense of how the online conversation was building. Hard sometimes to explain “impressions” to certain stakeholders, but this worked!

    Thanks again for the great insights and links.



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