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Article Published: 01 Jul 2020

Opera Conference 2020: New Technologies and Their Impact

Douglas McLennan, founder and editor of ArtsJournal, offered a presentation about how arts organizations can adapt to a hybrid producing model including both live and virtual performances.

In one fell swoop in March, the pandemic changed everything, on a massive scale. Suddenly, technology, which was a big part of our lives already, became a lifeline.

As I’ve watched responses in the arts world, I’ve come to see things sorting themselves into two camps: Restorationists, who believe that something bad has happened, and we just have to survive it until we can get back to normal; and Opportunists, who understand that things will be forever different in some very important ways. I’ll offer the three main reasons I’m in the Opportunists’ camp:

  • The scale of the destruction wrought by the pandemic has completely overwhelmed our resources, and even if we survive, the traditional business models we worked under are no longer viable for at least the next year, and probably longer.
  • Why would we want to return to a model that wasn’t working so well before anyway? On a whole range of issues, the old business model had become creaky and insufficient in the digital age. Trying to rebuild this model would inevitably result in a lesser version of something that already wasn’t working. So why bother?
  • Making change is always most difficult when you have to first dismantle the old. We’ve struggled with change in the arts in recent years, partly because our legacies are so strong and so compelling. Now that everything is up in the air, it’s easier to try new things, to fix things that weren’t working, and to create new rules. It’s at times like these that there is high tolerance for experimentation and innovation.

There’s another reason to be an opportunist. Locked inside all these months, we’ve all become more tech-savvy. Zoom went from 10 million daily users to 200 million. When people start using new tools, their habits, skills, and level of sophistication all change. When we return to theaters, our expectations for the experience will have changed, maybe without our even knowing it. So what should we do?

Staying on the sidelines is not an option. When everyone jumped to the internet after things shut down, we were flooded with performances filmed by artists in their kitchens, bathrooms, and closets. The homemade qualities of these early online performances made them authentic, powerful, and touching. But quickly, the mosaic video became a cliché, and artists began playing with Zoom as a canvas.

The other online response was to offer treasured recordings from the archives. There’s some marvelous stuff, and you could spend every minute of the day watching. And that’s the problem: The web is flooded with great performances. Streaming an archival performance, while nice for some superfans, is just giving away content that competes with a million other videos. It will get diminishing views, and worse, few will pay for it. These are facsimile experiences: The performances were made for the stage and watching them on a screen is a second-best experience. A video of a staged performance is more a documentary record of an event rather something designed in the language of the web.

The web has its own culture, which is different from the stage or film. The web is participatory: The audience wants to see itself as part of the experience. The web expects you to speak directly to it, and to listen back. The web is efficient at conveying information on many levels, but something doesn’t blow up on the web unless it touches people emotionally. We’re bored by the routine and thrilled by the unexpected. We crave being part of a crowd, but we’re compelled to try to stick out in it.

Tech platforms have been studying virtual culture and spending billions to try to understand it. They’ve been researching the line between the virtual and real worlds, and what motivates an audience to go back and forth across that line. There’s a reason that social media platforms are so addictive: They’re rigorously designed to be. You may say “Where’s the art?” That’s your job, limited only by imagination. The web is a distinct medium with its own culture — and you have to understand it to be successful.

I envision a hybrid digital/live-stage business model in which digital makes up for some of the reduced revenue from live theater operations. The old economics won’t apply if we can only sell half or a third of seats in theaters due to social distancing. The industry will need to make several adjustments to bring in revenue from the digital sphere, while continuing to sell the in-person experience:

Create a centralized, robust listing of online content.

Currently, we only learn about live streams by following the arts organizations we’re interested in. A centralized listing could present users with things they may be interested in from across the arts, allow them to learn more about them and bookmark them, and alert them when an event is about to start. It should integrate ticket purchase and donation options, and the ability to upgrade for premium add-ons. Perhaps it could bundle experiences and allow users to buy packages. This is a big project, but it’s essential.

Make it easy for someone to support your organization.

I was recently watching a live stream of an opera, and as I was enjoying the performance, I thought, “I’d like to give $20 to the company.” When I clicked the “donate” button at the top of the screen, I was immediately thrown out of the performance and onto a form requesting a bunch of information and my credit card, which I didn’t have near me. You’ve just killed the impulse to give. Studies of online friction in transactions show that the slightest speed bumps deter the majority of people. Why not provide a Venmo or Cash App account where I can complete the transaction while on my phone, or a micropayment system or Patreon fan page? You have to make it as easy as possible and offer as many ways as possible for people to help you out. You need to map out a digital payment plan that includes micro-payments, several levels and kinds of membership support, subscription support, freemium strategies, and crowdsourcing, in addition to your regular ticket-selling models.

Enhance the virtual experience.

The virtual experience will need to be enhanced for people to be willing to pay for it. What would an “enhanced” webcast of an opera look like? How about when you mouse over a singer, it tells you their name and gives you other details? How about the ability to look up plot points or history as the performance goes on? Perhaps you can see the rest of the virtual audience so that you feel like you are part of a community and attending a real “event.” Now is the time to experiment with such enhancements.

Adapt the in-theater experience to changed expectations.

When people return to the theater, they are going to come back with changed expectations. How can the technology they’ve been using at home help deepen the in-theater experience? At home, you can pause the performance stream, open another window, and find out information about a performer or history of the production, or even keep the performance going in background. Will the live in-theater experience force an attendee to have only one experience? 5G is going to transform the information embedded and accessible in the things around us. How could that be used to deepen audience engagement?

Reconsider the conventions of an in-theater experience.

Many will eagerly embrace a return to a physical experience when they emerge from the digital fatigue caused COVID-19. But in many ways, we’ve taken that in-theater experience for granted in the past, made it routine, made it too easy, too ordinary. When we enter again into a physical artistic space, how do we make it an experience that is none of those things for an audience?

This is a destabilizing time: a time of existential crisis for many of the institutions and artists we love. But at the same time, it is a Big Bang moment for innovation. Many of our most celebrated and cherished institutions, programs, and accomplishments came out of previous crises. The world is aching for leadership right now, and those who step up to provide it and lead the way will come out of this strong. Those who just wait for the bad times to be over, I’m afraid, will be crushed. The art — opera — will endure and change and reinvent itself. People have a deep visceral need for creativity and hope and belonging. That’s truer now than it has ever been.

This article was published in the Summer 2020 issue of Opera America Magazine.