In my previous column, I argued that making more films of contemporary opera performances available to the public, particularly in the form of streaming video, is important for the future of the art form. This week I consider specifically how video can act as a pivotal force in creating points of entry for people who have little prior interest in or experience with opera—new works and classics alike. I’ll conclude with a discussion of implications for educational media, illustrated by a description of my research and design work on a proposal for multi-platform, mobile-augmented opera viewing experiences.
Opening Doors to Discovery
Much has been written about simulcasts of live operas streaming to movie theaters. I think they’re an enjoyable alternative to live opera and one way to make opera available to more people. Unfortunately, at least some of these programs don’t appear to be attracting new audiences to opera to the extent that one might hope, drawing instead on many of the same viewers who would attend live performances. A survey by English Touring Opera indicated that such screenings will not necessarily generate new audiences for opera and may even lead viewers to choose simulcasts over live attendance.
Even so, I’d like to suggest that the full potential for filmed opera more generally as an avenue through which to generate public interest in the medium has yet to be fully appreciated or fully exploited. Creating viewing opportunities in homes and other informal environments may be one of the keys to making films of opera even more accessible and appealing than attending a simulcast in a movie theater, which requires a higher degree of interest and motivation to begin with. Such experiences provide a setting conducive to discovery and learning, which could open doors for people who’ve not yet stumbled upon that performance of an opera that grabbed their interest and changed their perspective.
My own earliest memories of moments when I felt strongly connected to opera—moments that cemented my interest in this medium and have led me to pursue it as both a consumer and a creator—revolve around films of live opera on DVD. As a teenager, I would curl up in the living room and watch and re-watch The Metropolitan Opera’s 1990 films of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen or the 2002 film of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, among others—all of which I’d checked out from my small local library on Long Island through inter-library loan. Fast forward a couple years and you’d find me spending hours in dimly lit Firestone Library in the basement of New England Conservatory, consuming Corigliano’s The Ghost of Versailles or rare European DVDs of the better part of Janáček’s operatic oeuvre with fascination and admiration.
(On a related note: After living for several years in New York and Boston, two of the country’s best cities for the arts, I’ve still never had the opportunity to see live productions of many of these favorite operas. Opera companies’ pursuit of popular programming choices, along with the inherent limitations of how many works can be produced in any given season, are yet more reasons why having access to archived filmed operas can be so important!)
By exploring the world of opera on video, I was able to seek out the repertoire that spoke most directly to me—which was made possible by having a vast catalog to choose from and being able to watch older productions “on demand” (in the cases mentioned above, through libraries). Additionally, I was able to enjoy these works with the convenience, focus, and immediacy that a domestic or at least semi-private environment affords. Furthermore, access to films gave me the ability to watch the same pieces repeatedly, which enabled me to develop sensitivity to subtleties of singing and performance, the role of music in drama, and an overall familiarity with a work that a one-off experience of even the most wonderful live performance could not provide, nor could an audio recording without the visual components of staging. In short, I got to know these filmed performance in the same way that you might know your favorite album or movie.
Opera videos provided the “way in” I needed to become a fan, which led me to pursue live opera performances and eventually to compose opera myself. Now I’m looking for ways to help more people find their way in, too.
Applying Educational Design: Opera Connect
During my recent graduate studies at New York University in educational media, I worked on Opera Connect: a user experience design for social, technology-guided opera viewing experiences that create points of entry into opera for underserved audiences. This project awaits development, as well as more extensive prototyping and user testing, but I offer a description of it here to demonstrate one potentially effective approach to using films of live performances to engage viewers who have little-to-no prior experience with opera. (An expanded version of the following research and design narrative is available on my website, as is a full write-up on the project detailing research sources and methods.)
The fundamental premise for Opera Connect is that stories and emotions expressed in opera are universal: therefore, more kinds of people should have access to learning experiences that foster an appreciation of opera. My first step in approaching this challenge was 1) To identify my target audience—primarily (but not exclusively) adults aged 18-35, who are not already knowledgeable about opera and who may be racial minorities and/or relatively low income—by examining which demographics are underserved by existing opera and opera film programs (an in-depth survey of audiences for The Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD was a key source); 2) To begin to understand the needs, interests, and experiences of my target audience with regards to arts attendance; and 3) To examine some of the major products and research in the area of engaging new audiences for opera and classical music. This process involved conducting several one-on-one interviews and an online survey with prospective users. Principles from established learning theories further informed my design.
Everything I observed about my target audience, the successes (and potential pitfalls) of existing programs and products, and the work of learning theorists, suggested to me that effective educational media for creating points of entry into opera would bring opera viewing into familiar, socially-oriented settings, aid users in finding the relevance of opera to their personal interests, and provide subtle-yet-effective guidance to help inexperienced viewers orient themselves to the art form and to interpret and contextualize what they are seeing and hearing.
In response to this need, I proposed a multi-platform experience bringing films of opera performances into homes and public spaces and augmenting them with a “second screen” mobile app, facilitating learning and generating opportunities for social interaction around the performance’s content. Additional features, such as coupons and local performance listings, would potentially encourage ongoing engagement and long-term impact.
With Opera Connect, audiences would either attend events hosted in nearby bars, schools, museums, theaters, or other public spaces, or download a “Party Kit” to use at home with friends, which would include party games and thematic food and drink menus relating to the opera’s plot. (This last touch was inspired by Radiolab’s delightful story on Ring Cycle super-fans.) In both cases, the experience would center around a library of streaming films of live performances, accompanied by a mobile app that delivers real-time updates (available to whatever degree the user wishes to consult them) that provide minimal, but substantive, context: plot and character summaries, background on theatrical design and direction, and details about the music, all of which would include an interactive glossary for character names and opera-specific terminology. Users would then be able send these annotations to each other during viewing, which would hopefully give rise to discussion.
One could argue that all of the above fundamentally misrepresents the experience of seeing live opera. While that may be true, it also seems evident that merely exposing people to opera will not always be sufficient to generate a meaningful, abiding connection to the art form. I was more fortunate than many to have seen a couple of live operas during my childhood, but those experiences did not stimulate serious ongoing interest. Apart from a maturation of taste that came with age, discovering my interest in opera was, I firmly believe, largely dependent on being able to access operas through home video in the ways I described above. This is part of why I feel so strongly that the many people who may be unmotivated or unable to seek out library loans of obscure DVDs from twenty-odd years ago, or to spend their time hunting around the internet to further understand what they are hearing and seeing, still deserve to have opportunities for discovering opera that truly meet them where they are. Providing people with tactful educational guidance and engaging viewing contexts can only help them to form those all-important personal connections to opera that will hopefully, eventually, motivate them to seek out opera in its purest, un-moderated forms.