There Is A Lot Of Grand Out There

My day job is Executive Director of The Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.  Around the end of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century, it was vogue to name theaters as Grand Opera Houses, even if they didn’t host opera concerts. As far as we know, the was never any fully mounted opera in my venue, for example.

However, at least once a week we get a call for tickets, refunds or a staff person at a Grand Opera House in some other part of the country. About 80% of the time it is for the one in Wilmington, DE but last week it was for one in Colorado. It seems like there is one in just about every state based on the calls we get. Not long ago, a government entity in Belfast, Ireland actually tagged us in a social media post about job openings in the Belfast Grand Opera House. (I felt that was a little embarrassing since their FB tag is GOHBelfast and ours is grandoperahousemacon.)

Any way, earlier this week I saw a Twitter conversation about grand operas in Shanghai which seems to promise even greater confusion.

Opera has a different performance style, history and association in China than in the U.S. and Europe so there are likely specific motivations for each of the organizations and venues mentioned to employ the term.

Thinking perhaps the official names of some of these entities in hanzi might differ enough that native speakers wouldn’t be confused, I did some research and it seems that the distinction is exactly the same as in English. In fact the architects for the Shanghai Grand Opera House use the same hanzi as the performance company, Shanghai Opera House: 上海歌剧院. It made me wonder if the architects made a mistake since Chinese language news sites referred to the venue planned for completion in 2023 as 上海大歌剧院。 If you aren’t seeing a difference, there isn’t much of one. Just as in English the only difference is the inclusion of the word “Grand.”

In any case, there will be some work to do establishing a clear identity for each of these entities.

Seats Are Open, But So Are The Doors For More Diverse Stories

On Friday one of my colleagues at work is flying to NYC to see Springsteen on Broadway, the show that re-opened earlier than pretty much all the others. She purchased the tickets months ago when they first went on sale.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear most people share her level of optimism. A CNBC story reported that even the most popular titles are seeing very soft sales.

Although tickets have been on sale for months, neither “Wicked” nor “The Lion King” – the top two highest-grossing musicals in history – sold out their first week of performances. “Hamilton,” which historically sold out months of performances within minutes, also has plenty of opening week availability. Between September 14, 2021, and June 5, 2022, only one performance of “Hamilton″ is sold out.

A Forbes article projects some potential doom and gloom for the production of the show Pass Over, which has been getting a lot of great press. In fact, there is a suggestion in a couple articles that they moved up the date of their opening to last Sunday in order to take advantage of the the good press they have received.

This is somewhat unfortunate for the production of Pass Over because in addition to the high quality and expectations, there are a lot of good portents associated with the show. For one, it is the first show by a Black playwright to appear in the August Wilson Theatre since the venue was named for the esteemed Black playwright in 2005. (A lot of “about time” comments on social media noting that it took 15 years for that to happen).

According to a Reuters piece, Pass Over is among a number of upcoming shows which are being supported by first time Black investors.

However, seven new plays have been announced for this fall, all by Black writers. Some are being financed by first-time Broadway investors, including co-founder of television network BET, Sheila Johnson, who is putting money behind the play “Thoughts of a Colored Man.” Johnson and celebrity chef Carla Hall are also investing in a new musical called “Grace” about Black culinary history.

Actor Blair Underwood and former basketball player Renee Montgomery are investing in the stage play “Pass Over”, a modern twist on “Waiting for Godot.”

“There is various new money that is coming into Broadway, and that money is extraordinarily helpful and it is also diverse money, which is also very interesting and new,” said Brian Moreland, producer of “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” opening in October.

Whether we like it or not, money has a big influence in terms of what stories get told so this can be a positive indication for greater representation in whose stories get told and who is involved in telling those stories.

You Can Lead A Patron To The Door, But Only They Decide If They Feel Safe Stepping In

As something of a dovetail to my post yesterday about Drew McManus’ effort to compile a database of performing arts venue vaccination policies, (Drew reported a surge of new entries to the database overnight which I am going to credit completely to my readers), Colleen Dilenschneider posted last week that performing arts and museum audiences are increasingly interested in returning to masking requirements. (emphasis original)

At our last published masking data update (July 2), IMPACTS Experience found that 43% of high-propensity visitors to cultural entities in the United States believed that organizations should require all visitors to wear a mask. That was down from 53% on June 18, 62% on June 4, and 67% on May 2. People were feeling more comfortable going maskless!

But the percentages are going back up again.

As of August 13, 61% of high-propensity visitors to museums and performing arts organizations in the US believe these entities should mandate masks when indoors for all visitors again.

In my post yesterday, I suggested the database being compiled by McManus could be useful in supporting a case people might want to make for the implementation of masking and vaccination requirements. As Dilenschneider notes in the beginning of her post, organizational and government policy statements don’t drive attendance in and of themselves. The individual makes their own determinations about their health and safety. (my emphasis this time)

While the research is clear that potential visitors across the country are generally desiring mask mandates again and those organizations that do not have them risk jeopardizing attendance, some regions of the US don’t allow organizations to require masks…We understand that this kind of market research could be even more difficult to digest for these entities – and we hear you. Oof. However, how comfortable – or uncomfortable – people feel visiting a cultural institution given its safety protocols doesn’t change just because an entity cannot take a certain action to keep visitors safe….

Remember: Cultural leaders don’t get to decide how guests feel about their own safety, and neither does the CDC. Potential guests decide for themselves what makes them feel comfortable.

Searching For The Unforced Substitute

Via is a FastCompany article by Amy Globus whose thesis is that Covid-19 gave the arts world the kick in the butt required to motivate it to think about how to leverage digital offerings to its benefit.

I will say from the outset that like many stories I have seen written on this theme, as much as they celebrate the success of efforts by organizations and the millions of view garnered, there is little acknowledgement of whether anyone was able to recoup the cost of producing/adapting content for the digital medium. Though Globus does acknowledge many won’t have the resources to create 3-D digital models or virtual/augmented reality experiences.

This being said and gotten out of the way, articles like this one seem to always be worthwhile reading because they offer insight into how different organizations are creating content which is either valued added or an alternative to just pointing a camera at real life works and posting it on the internet.

The truth is, the trial and error experimentation to find what works is likely to incur costs that will never be covered.  Seeing what others might be doing can be instructive and help shorten the development process. Though there is a chance arts organizations will develop offerings which distinctly resonate with the characteristics their communities and aren’t as successfully replicatible elsewhere. We could see, for example, museums emerge over the next decade whose experiences are markedly different from others.

Or it could be like a Tiktok trend where everyone does the same choreography to the same music and makes the same faces as everyone else.

To my mind, it will be the value added or alternative content rather than the digital substitution for the live experience which will provide the best course for arts organizations.

A couple examples from the FastCompany article:

Celebrated fashion designer Thom Browne launched his 2021 collection in a virtual 3D showroom—and while the experience was developed due to COVID-19 restrictions, it certainly doesn’t feel like a forced substitute. Never before have audiences at a runway show had such in-depth access to the details of Browne’s work. In this iteration, viewers can take their sweet time experiencing each piece in 360-degree, high-definition glory. Browne now intends to include a virtual element in future launches, as a valuable component alongside live showings.


…But organizations without the budget or resources for flashy experiences needn’t feel like they’re doomed to the “old normal.”

One of the biggest successes in digital experience innovations during COVID-19 was the Frick Collection’s Cocktails With a Curator series. Low-tech videos filmed inside curators’ homes generated millions of views, proving, as The New York Times observed, that “online audiences don’t expect a simulation of a gallery visit on-screen. They want a museum experience native to the web—and that can be a little faster, a little less polished, a little more direct.”

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