Making Singing “Ah” For Six Minutes Sound Interesting

Last week Vox had a backstage video on the Metropolitan Opera production of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten. What I loved about it and wanted to call attention to was the way in which they made elements of the production that would be barriers for both new and existing audiences intriguing, potentially piquing curiosity.

I mean, if I told you the opera was sung in four different languages; featured a six minute period where everyone sang “ah!”; had a minimalist set; a costume festooned with baby heads; a cadre of professional jugglers; and period of full nudity, you might be a little wary about going.

Though that might sound more appealing than the description on the Met site:

Director Phelim McDermott tackles another one of Philip Glass’s masterpieces, following the now-legendary Met staging of Satyagraha. Star countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo is the title pharaoh, the revolutionary ruler who transformed ancient Egypt, with the striking mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges in her Met debut as his wife, Nefertiti. To match the opera’s hypnotic, ritualistic music, McDermott has created an arresting vision that includes a virtuosic company of acrobats and jugglers. Karen Kamensek conducts in her Met debut.

Please be aware that this production contains some full-frontal nudity, which may not be suitable for young audiences.

The video starts out addressing the 6 minutes of “ah” pointing out that it is harder than it sounds, and showing the stars tackling it with grinning gusto and periods of frustration.  Charismatic star Anthony Roth Costanzo references the pharaoh, Akhnaten, the first to embrace monotheism, as a “totally fascinating, weird, complex guy.”

The video makes the whole idea of the trained voice accessible by having light hearted conversations about vocal warm ups disturbing the neighbors, working with Castanzo’s vocal coach in a living room–and then seguing to the importance of the first tone when the singer opens their mouth to deliver.

Then they talk about what sets composer Philip Glass’ minimalist approach apart from other operas.

They aren’t afraid to use unfamiliar terms like “sitzprobe” because after defining it, they talk about why it is important — the singers and musicians come together for the first time after weeks of working apart–and it is an exciting time. They also illustrate how much work it is to bring all these pieces together – how easy it is to fall out of time and how the conductor and the prompter keep the musicians and singers synchronized with each other.

The reason for having 12 jugglers is explained. The viewer gets a sense of how the swiftly moving balls are a counterpoint to the music and slow movement of the rest of the performers and how the balls and massive sun are tied symbolically.

Even the nudity is addressed with Costanzo discussing the experience of descending 12 steps over the course of three minutes staring directly at 4000 people while completely naked.

Actually, at the end of the video Costanzo discusses the whole challenge of the opera:

“If I told you you’re going to come see a minimalist 3.5 hour opera about ancient Egypt, where there is no real story and it is sung in ancient Egyptian, you’d think ‘Man, there is no way I am going to that.’ And yet, I bet you are going to love it.”

I will be the first to tell you, whoever put this 10 minute video together spent a lot of time and money on it.

However, it succeeded in making the show seem interesting and accessible due to the way it framed the information it was presenting, not because of the high production values. You are interested in learning more because you like the people and they talk about what they are doing in a relatable way. There is nothing in the video to refute a claim that the nudity is gratuitous, but there is probably going to be a part of you that is cheering Costanzo on because he is literally manifesting the nightmare about walking into work naked.

I offer this as an example of how to talk about your work and diminish the intimidation/ perception of strangeness newer audiences may experience.


Reflections On Experiencing And Expressing Insight

This weekend we hosted a performance by the dance company Diavolo.  You may be familiar with them as a finalist on America’s Got Talent, but they have been around since 1993 and have been on my radar since the early 2000s. They have been on my wishlist of groups to present for nearly two decades so I was happy to have the opportunity to do so this weekend.

They bill themselves as “Diavolo: Architecture in Motion” because they utilize some pretty significantly sized objects as part of their performance. I have included their sizzle reel below so you can get a sense of what that means.

I wouldn’t consider myself a dance person really at all. When I was watching the performance, I started thinking that they, moreso than any other dance or cirque type company I had seen, really honored the size, mass and shape of the objects with which they were working.

Instead of deciding what they wanted to do and then building an apparatus to make it happen, I felt like they started with the object as a partner and then created their work, acknowledged the fact the item blocked our sight at different times to hide and reveal things. I had the sense they were following the existing weight and motion of the objects rather than making the objects serve their purpose.

Almost immediately, I questioned whether it was really true they were among a few focused on synchronizing with the objects and honoring their physical properties to create dance vs. bending objects to their needs. I suspected they weren’t the only dance company that started from the physicality of the object and created from there. I figured it was likely I had seen it happen a dozen times before and had finally accumulated enough experience that I recognized what was happening.

I want to resist a simplistic explanation of experience and exposure. Research is showing that people are not “aging into” an appreciation of classical music. I don’t want to credit what I was recognizing this weekend as simply aging into an appreciation of dance.

I am okay with a complicated explanation of experience and exposure. I just resist an explanation that implies a sense of inevitability.

A month ago as I was traveling to a conference, I realized I was making little stutter steps getting on and off of escalators and moving sidewalks even though I have a lifetime of experience with these mechanisms. I was thinking about that Saturday night when one of the dancers sat lightly down on the huge rocking semi-circle and traveled upward without disturbing its motion or evincing any difficulty or hesitation dealing with the change of inertia.

The fact drawing a connection between mounting airport escalators and hopping on oversized playground equipment was a necessary element in my enlightenment this weekend indicates that the factors involved in growing an appreciation of a creative discipline are numerous and complex.

I also quickly recognized that “honoring the size, mass and shape of the objects,” was exactly the dense terminology that turns people new an experience off of it. (I swear, I was paying close attention to the performance. I am capable of simultaneously processing epiphanies and sitting in rapt attention.)

The “honoring…” phrase was legitimately the way I encapsulated what I was experience for myself in the moment but it definitely sounds like something someone would say to make themselves sound authoritative and perhaps stifle contrary views.

Basically what I am trying to say is there is nothing wrong with finding that dense, sophisticated terminology is necessary to distill the fullness of your experience for yourself.  Just realize the weight of those words may feel like a bludgeon to those who hear them. Diluting your impressions with broader, simpler context is probably necessary for people to understand your experience.

I think the issue is that many of us in the arts aren’t very practiced in employing the broader, simpler context familiar to our wider community.


Tonight We Have Paired The Seared Scallops With Wine And An Aria

Back in May, American Theatre had an article about audience building efforts Opera Theatre St. Louis (OTSL) undertook with funding from the Wallace Foundation.  In my experience, there is always something to learn from these projects funded by the Wallace Foundation, especially since the case study reports tend to be honest about what things didn’t go well. So it is worth the time to read this short article.

One of OTSL’s efforts that drew my attention was their Opera Tastings project where they would pair tastings of food and wine with short opera performances. What I really appreciated about their effort here was that they took the program a fair distance from their home rather than concentrating on the St. Louis city limits. (my emphasis)

Hosted in a local restaurant or venue, the evening pairs 11 samples of food or drink with 11 operatic excerpts. The evenings have taken place all over St. Louis: in predominantly Black neighborhoods, in Chinatown, in Southern Illinois, or as far away as Columbia and Fayetteville, Mo. (120 miles and 145 miles, respectively).

“If the intent is to draw people in who surround you, then most of our organizations are finding that they have to be more present in the community,” says Ramos. “It’s how you build relevance. It’s how you show the work.”


Newcomers, in other words, discover what type of opera they enjoy, instead of being told why they should enjoy opera. More than three-quarters of Opera Tasting attendees are new-to-file (i.e., first time patrons), and every attendee gets $10 in “opera bucks” to redeem for a ticket to an upcoming show.

As I mentioned before, an aspect of these programs I have valued is the fact they were open about what went wrong. This type of reflection is a core part of Wallace Foundation’s ethic of “continuous learning” according to the article.

There was enough of an upside, despite the cost, to make the Opera Tastings worth retaining and refining. (my emphasis)

A lot of those opera bucks get redeemed: Right now an average of 42 percent of Opera Tastings attendees go on to buy tickets. What’s more, audience members who come to OTSL through Opera Tastings tend to buy more expensive tickets and become donors at a faster rate than expected.

One caveat: The tastings are costly to produce, costing $7,100 per tasting in 2018. And the true cost of audience recruitment may be obscured by the subsidies covered by opera bucks as well as discounted ticket prices

“It’s an expensive way to acquire new audience members,” admits Timothy O’Leary, general director of Opera Theatre from 2008 to 2018. And the majority of people who attend, 58 percent, never buy a ticket. The challenge now is to see how the tastings might be sustainable without Wallace support.

The article also talks about other programs like their Young Friends program which they estimate has a $16,000-$17,000 impact and their Opera Kids Camp for children to attend while their parents are at the opera. Take a look to learn more.

Data You Need To Believe Over Your Gut

I so frequently tell my readers that Collen Dilenschneider has made an awesome post on her blog that it makes it difficult to convey the increased urgency to read one of her pieces when she has made an even awesomer post.

Despite this impediment, believe me when I say she recently made a post that is even more awesome than her usually awesome posts. Last week she wrote about how research results often contradict our gut feelings about a situation, despite being true. She confesses that as much as she deals with data every day, there are some instances where she asks the experts to revisit it just to be sure.

She goes on to list five data points that even she and her co-workers really wanted to believe were untrue.

Let me just say, I have seen some of this data before but part of what makes her post so great is this “contradicts our gut” framework she employs. As much as I read and write about arts administration, there are a fair number of instances where I raise mental walls against information I come across. It is useful to be constantly reminded that we need to take a deep breath and open our minds.

1) Local audiences have negatively skewed perceptions of the organizations in their area 

IMPACTS tracked 118 visitor-serving organizations and found that on average, people living within 25 miles of the organization indicate value-for-cost perceptions that are 14% less than those of regional visitors living between 25 and 101-150 miles away. In other words, locals believe their experience is less worthy of the admission cost they paid compared to the perceptions of those living further away. Interestingly, locals paid 20% less for admission, on average, than non-local visitors thanks to local discounts and promotions! They are also much less satisfied with their experiences than non-local visitors.

Even if this is influenced by a sense of sunk cost where long distance visitors arrive with a firmer conviction than local residents they will enjoy an experience given that they have already invested so much more time and money in planning and execution, it is important to recognize this dynamic is operating for different visitor segments.

2) An average visitor attends a cultural organization type only once every 27 months – and the average member returns to take advantage of free admission only once per year.

The average person who visits an art museum will not visit another for 28 months, on average. The average person who visits a history museum will not visit another for 32 months, on average. In total, the average visitation cycle for organization types that we monitor is 27 months. Here’s more on that data and what it means.


Subscription-based organizations such as theaters and symphonies: You’ve got it a bit better. Your members visit twice each year, on average.

I had actually written about this idea around 8 years ago. In the research presented at that time, it wasn’t that people felt they had enough of the organization and were going to wait a few years to go again, it was that people were so emotionally connected with the organization, they would swear they had just been there within the last year when it had been about two or more years.

Don’t immediately delete people from your mailing list if they don’t buy tickets to return, give it 3-5 years before you decide they are disengaged. (This assumes annual/semi-annual mailings vs. more frequent ones.)

3) Millennials are not “aging into” caring about arts and culture

Oooh, pay attention to this one!

This isn’t surprising to me and we have so much on this we’re getting into a “ridiculous” data volume category here, but this shocks other folks, so it’s making this list!

Millennials are not “aging into” caring about arts and culture as a natural function of getting older. Millennials also are not “aging into” other things some entities are banking on, like the belief that dolphins should be kept in captivity.


Millennials are a very important group for cultural organizations to engage. The take-away of these findings is critical: “Let’s just wait for people to think we’re important” is a failing engagement strategy.

Here is another point to be particularly mindful of–

4) On average, attendance goes back to baseline 5 years after a major expansion (but operation costs tend to be increased forever).

In a nutshell, attendance decreases in the years prior to a major building project as folks defer their visits until after the expansion opens. When an expansion opens, attendance certainly increases – 19.6% compared to the ten years prior! But that increase gradually decreases until attendance levels retreat to the baseline of the ten years prior after only 5 years. And the increased building space also means more staff members, more programming, more electricity, and more ongoing maintenance.


If you’re fundraising for or undertaking a major building expansion, make sure that you are clear on your goals and objectives – and that your expectations for long-term attendance and ongoing maintenance are grounded in reality.

And finally… (note the distinction she makes between mobile web and mobile apps)

5) Mobile applications do not significantly increase visitor satisfaction

Interestingly, people who use social media onsite in a way that relates to their visit report 7% greater visitor satisfaction scores than people who do not use social media in relation to their visit. Mobile web users experience a 6% bump in satisfaction. Even though all three of these methods (mobile applications, social media, and mobile web) take place on a mobile phone during a cultural organization visit, social media and the web significantly contribute to the visitor experience. Mobile applications do not reliably do this. One explanation for this may be that social media and mobile web “meet audiences where they are” and are examples of onsite technology facilitating the experience. Mobile applications, on the other hand, can be examples of technological intervention in which a visitor must interrupt the experience to figure out how to engage with the technology, or download it in the first place.

As much as I have quoted here, it is only about 1/3 of the data and rationale she presents in her post so check it out in order to get a more complete picture of things.

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