Opera Has Sex Fiends? Sign Me Up!

This week the readers of England’s Sun tabloid got the opportunity to attend the opera for between $13 and $52 where the tickets generally run around $175. The Sun announced the opportunity back in July. People had to buy the paper one Sunday to get details so they could enter a lottery for tickets. At the time, there was a bit of negative reaction (note this one is on rival paper, The Guardian) with people decrying it as an ineffectual move since those who normally read the sensationalistic Sun were not the type to return to the opera at regular prices. Some opined that those who liked the regular misogyny exhibited on Page 3 would hardly appreciate high culture.

But the opera in question, Don Giovanni, seems ready made for those who read of the peccadilloes of young lotharios on a daily basis.

In something of an inversion, the unrefined masses got a night in Covent Garden while afficiandos had to satisfy themselves with a simulcast at a movie theatre chain…or wait until another night. (Actually, this characterization makes it sound like a reversal of the usual. In fact, unlike the Metropolitan Opera, this was the Royal Opera House’s first simulcast.)

If you watch the video accompanying the BBC article , you will see the reactions were mixed. Some had a wonderful time and will come again. One woman said it was a nice evening but she wouldn’t hurry back. Another woman listed her concerns over the high cost of attendance (transportation, food) even with the reduced prices. Then there is the guy at the end who proudly proclaims he read the The Guardian.

This illustrates that even when offering reduced tickets, you have to be prepared to answer concerns and motivate people to attend again above and beyond the quality of your product. There was one man quoted in the article as he left at intermission because the seats were uncomfortable.

“We left because it was rather cramped,” said Mrs Tweedy.

“It’s not a reflection on the opera – it was amazing. The voices were great and the lighting was fabulous, but there was a gentleman who decided to share half my seat with me.”

Mr Tweedy said: “It was my first time at the opera – it was ok but after an hour and a half sitting in a cramped seat it was getting a little bit too long for me, but I’d go again.”

This put me in mind of the Urban Institute study on arts attendance I cited a couple years back which found that the two elements that people said would cause them to decide not to attend a performance at a venue again were not having a good social experience and not liking the venue.

It is impossible to say now whether the man will indeed attend again or not despite his experience. Covent Garden has a certain cachet which can’t be overlooked. If this had happened at a less famous facility, perhaps the judgment would have gone against the opera.

Audience Theory

As wonderful an opportunity it was to influence staff workplaces, those of us in the PACE advisory group still understood that the success of the building would be in how comfortable audiences were interacting with the space. When I was preparing to travel to Bellevue, I was mindful of Andrew Taylor’s observations wandering around the streets of Denver at the National Performing Arts Conference that

“block after block of glass or stone walls at the street level, many of them without a door (at least an open one) for hundreds of feet at a time. As a result, there are very few people populating the street, stopping to talk with each other, people watching, lingering, and realizing they’re in an urban streetscape of diversity and energy.”

I approached the facility design with the intention of insuring the building appeared engaging to foot traffic since there are quite a few residential complexes being constructed nearby.

The importance of physical design was actually reinforced for me as we walked to the meeting with the architects. About four-five blocks from the future PACE site, we passed a small area next to the sidewalk with hedges and benches. There was a sign noting that the area was open for public use. I would have never known that because of the way the hedges and a short set of ascending stairs lent it a sense of being private property. Because of this they had to essentially grant people permission to enter.

But to back up a little…. I had mentioned earlier that Alan Brown made a presentation on the value of live performance. Obviously, it is in relation to the audience’s experience that his thoughts are most applicable. It wasn’t until after his presentation that I realized how significant a moment in the design process it had been. The architects and project manager had never really had these ideas addressed in connection with their work before and so were pretty attentive and taking notes. The same was true for a couple board members who were present.

Of the concepts he covered, a number of them caught my attention. The first was his suggestion that interactive experience the Nintendo Wii offers predicts one day being able to virtually perform with Pilobolus. Since he is the first person I have met who has advanced this idea since I began promoting it in 2004, he instantly endeared himself to me.

He also addressed the situation where people were waiting longer and longer to buy their tickets. He spoke of a focus group where he basically discovered young people were afraid to buy a ticket until the last minute because committing to one option closed the door on all the other possibilities. I wondered if this was an element of Generation Y’s problem with decision making.

He said he asked them to describe what they would envision as a perfect jazz club. They said it would be a coffee house during the day but a bar at night with a separate room where those who wanted to be full immersed in the music could go. However, there would also be an anteroom where people could talk with friends and still listen to the music and still another anteroom where people could interact with friends more and listen less.

It seems like a tall order to design a building to provide this experience. However the impression I took away from what Brown had to say was that people at every age really desire an experience at an intermediate stage between listening to a recording and fully attending a formal concert. He described this as a place to drop in and hang out and get more information. One suggestion he made which he certainly did not represent as encompassing all possibilities was having kiosks in the lobby where one could try all sorts of new music. (I imagined something like the listening stations in record stores.) Having a DJ mixing in an area surrounded by comfortable lobby furniture.

Alan Brown’s presentation had a tangible effect on the discussions that followed. The building design already allowed for many of the activities he mentioned so conversations revolved around the possibilities. This is fortunate because if Brown is right, there might be an increased necessity of having such a space as venue for value added benefits. Acknowledging that there are some people who are voracious for an educative experience, Alan Brown proposed that while arts organizations gave education away for free as part of their mission, he suspected people would pay a premium for a private, executive briefing on events.

I have read and heard suggestions that were related to the core idea behind this. There are some complexities to this that I haven’t fully considered so I don’t quite know what I think about this. I suspect for some communities and organizations, he is right on the money with this idea.

As you might imagine from the thought the PACE administration put into the staff work areas, there had been some investment into the design of the public areas as well. As I already mentioned, the layout lends itself to sponsoring some of the programs and features Alan Brown suggested. Some other notable concepts they had were arranging the ticket office so one’s experience was more akin to interacting with a concierge than a reinforced security checkpoint. They have also looked into situating the restrooms so that the lines at intermission don’t become the half time show.

Our advice seemed to be viewed as insightful and even viable within the overall plan and budget. I am demurring on many of the details because so much is undecided at this stage in the game and I don’t want to create any unwarranted expectations about the ultimate result. Participating in the process was very exciting and engaging. While our status as outsiders lent some weight to our observations, Alan Brown’s occasional, but well timed comments lent some reinforcement.

Believe it or not after all this writing, I still have some additional observations to make! My next entry will have some really basic suggestions for those who might want to replicate this exercise.

(Details of this entry have been altered since the original posting to comply with confidentially agreements)

Media Using The Masses

It appears as if the mainstream media has gone from glaring at bloggers to embracing some user generated content, perhaps at the expense of their employees. I am beginning to suspect some outlets have realized they could tap in to people’s desire for 15 minutes of fame as long as things ran through an editor for quality control. About a year ago, I started seeing the press releases I sent to the arts editor appearing verbatim in the neighbor specific inserts of the newspaper. I would still get a calendar or photo listing in the paper proper and maybe even a feature story if I was lucky. I have had my releases appear verbatim in smaller weekly papers, but this was the first time it was happening in a major daily.

A little later a mechanism appeared on the newspaper website encouraging people to submit stories of their own. Then a heck of a lot of people were laid off at the paper. I don’t know if there was a casual relationship or not, but I began to wonder if my attempts at promoting my events was contributing to pink slips being issued.

Last night I saw a promo on television announcing a new program the station news department was starting involving citizen contributions. There was nothing on the website despite their encouragement to check it out for more information. I think it had something to do with weather. I wouldn’t be surprised if some point in the next five years they started soliciting people to submit video reports.

Last month Salon.com started Open Salon where they will actually pay people for creating content.

What does this mean for you?

Well first, people may expect more opportunities to interact and contribute in your events.

Second, you may never know when the newspaper critic is coming because it could be anyone in the audience and a totally different person from last time. On the other hand, if you have a popular show you may hear from 10 people who intend to review your show for the newspaper and want free tickets (and still have an unknown 11th person’s critique printed).

I also imagine that some artists will anticipate expectations and you may find the type of shows they create/offer for performance at your venue beginning to evolve. I have spoken about how people may not be content with the passive experience sitting quietly in a dark room watching a show any longer. As much as I expect audiences to demand more, I also expect artists to start to provide more. As always, some will do it better than others.

In the short term though the implications of media outlets using exactly what you send them are that you better be making a compelling case for attendance. No longer are you trying to convince a writer your event is worthy of a feature story or review and depending on them to conduct interviews and recast your event in an interesting manner. Now what you write has to do both these things. You may not have the alternative of writing two releases, one for the editor and one for publication as is. I have had an editor take a single press release, assign a reporter to follow up to generate a story and forward it to be printed verbatim by the newspaper. It happened at least three times last year.

If you don’t know how to start writing compelling entries, you may want to check out my entry here. Because Artsjournal.com has changed the way they address their archives, those links to Greg Sandow’s blog don’t work any more. However, if you go to the May 25 -June 15, 2005 entries on his blog, you can probably find them without too much effort.

What Value The Compact Disc?

Occasionally it is healthy to revisit daily rituals and practices to evaluate if they are still pertinent. For example, every time I go on a trip I clean all my CDs out of car and leave the little door on the CD holder open to show that there are no CDs in my car. It recently struck me that in the time since I bought the car several years ago, the value of CD as a format has dropped so precipitously that no one really wants to break into my car to grab them. In fact, they probably didn’t want to when I bought the car either but the iPod has gone from competing to almost default format in that time.

Realizations like this make me re-examine stuff in my professional life including policies we have set for ticket purchases/exchanges, seating, volunteers, rentals and whatever else comes up. Because we have always done it can’t be the default excuse for continuing to do something. In many cases, because we did it last year might not be valid either as behaviors and values change so quickly.

On the other hand, just as there are still people desperate enough for the few bucks they might get for my CDs at the local record exchange, the cost of someone abusing the lack of a policy might still outweigh the benefit of eliminating it.