Developing digital-first opera productions and a platform to share them
Described as New England’s largest opera company and founded in 1976, Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) mounts four productions each season, supported by a range of educational and community-building activities. When COVID-19 required the company to end in-person performances, BLO developed operabox.tv, a streaming service that features new digital programs and archival recordings for an annual fee or pay-per-view. The service is now one of the most frequently cited digital innovations created during the pandemic within the cultural sector nationally. Operabox hosts a wide range of BLO productions, educational programs, community discussions, and works created specifically for online viewing and reaches audiences around the world.
“Pre-COVID we basically had no digital presence beyond social media,” says Noah Stern Weber, senior director of development. “We were in dress rehearsal for a production when the pandemic really hit. We realized we couldn’t bring audiences to the theater. So, we went into the studio and recorded it.” Viewership reached 20,000, far more than would have attended in person. That set the stage for the company’s digital exploration.
“After that, we just started trying things,” Weber continues, such as digital book clubs, talks, archival audio from past productions and other programming to keep the at-home audience engaged. But a few months into the pandemic, BLO wanted to invest further, thinking about the cinematic values and media production qualities of its various experiments. “We realized, if you’re going to do it, you have to really do it,” Weber adds. BLO then developed its first fully-staged digital production, Philip Glass’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Fortunately, BLO’s chief operating officer, Bradley Vernatter (now their acting general and artistic director), had film production experience and could put his experience to work. Staff from across the organization pitched in. The resulting production reached audiences in all 50 states and 30 countries, to critical acclaim.
Since that first fully digital production, BLO has continued to make work for online release. The company has found that high quality digital production costs about the same as mounting a mainstage opera, but the revenue is less, and slower. Digital production revenue is “slower” because the piece can stay online for a longer period of time than the usual in-person production cycle. More people can see the work, as well. BLO sees the way forward as one of co-production, sharing digital production expenses with other companies, much as the opera field does for in-person work. Digital co-production conversations have also led to dialogue about whether a platform like operabox.tv can be useful for more than one company, offering audiences a portal to a variety of companies and their programming. Across the US, there are several companies that share a commitment to high-quality cinematic production that is native to digital. Could the platform be shared as well? At the time of this writing, these conversations were active.
Weber says that creation of new digital work has been fast-paced and with long hours, and that pace will be hard to maintain as the physical stage re-opens. Nonetheless, he predicts that operabox.tv will become a permanent part of BLO’s artistic profile going forward. He also notes, “One thing we learned is how to be much more nimble and flexible. We were already a very flexible company, performing in many different venues. But this has really helped us to be so much more responsive in the moment. It has positioned us to be more able to adapt, not only to digital, but to other circumstances and opportunities.”