Creating new work for new audiences online
“What companies need to do in response to COVID is just the harbinger of what we need to do to move forward in the future,” says David Devan, general director of Opera Philadelphia. That’s why Opera Philadelphia is creating new works to reach new audiences in new ways, telling new stories based in operatic forms that explore marginalized and excluded identities, and showing up in community as partners and advocates for social justice causes. Devan sees these initiatives as the building blocks of the future of American opera.
Opera Philadelphia was one of the first performing arts organizations to choose to create entirely new works specifically for online audiences, early in the pandemic. “Only a small number of people saw COVID as a creative opportunity,” Devan asserts. “The bulk of companies went to their archives or simply ‘did some stuff on stage’ and put it online.” But these “twofers” were insufficient to attract large or new audiences, Devan says.
“We’re seeing that there is an entirely new digital audience,” he reports. For some of its bespoke online content, 80 percent of viewers had never been to an opera previously. While this is good news in terms of the company’s reach and for cultivating future audiences, “the hard part comes next,” Devan says. “We now have a line of business that we never planned on, and now we have to figure that out.”
Since the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders in March 2020, Opera Philadelphia has produced two seasons of highly-acclaimed film and multimedia offerings for its OperaPhila.tv, a branded platform launched in 2020 where viewers can either pay-per-view or subscribe annually. The channel primarily features new works. Some are filmed “shorts” like the 11-minute TakTakShoo, a digital commission from composer Rene Orth and librettist Kanika Ambrose fusing opera and K-pop, marimba, electronics and dance, with director and choreographer Jeffrey L. Page. Others are new productions of existing shorter-length operas such as Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine, a work for a single performer, in this instance filmed for release on the channel, directed by James Darrah. Darrah also co-produced Soldier Songs, commissioned from composer David T. Little “bridging rock and opera,” an earlier new release. A small number of full-length operas from the traditional canon, such as Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, are also available.
Opera Philadelphia had previously invested in detailed audience research and created a variety of in-person opera experiences to appeal to the different audience segments it identified, from formal staged productions for opera traditionalists, to performances in cabaret settings for more adventurous audiences, to outdoor extravaganzas for families and fans, and week-long festivals to attract locals and out-of-towners. To refine ideas around digital engagement, Opera Philadelphia created a series of charrettes once the pandemic ended live performance. These explored scenarios for new work and potential digital audiences. “We really leaned in to historically excluded and marginalized identities in terms of the artistic and creative work,” Devan explains, “thinking they may be likely to engage online with us and with each other. Part of the problem with opera is that it has marginalized certain identities, and exploring these identities through music unlocks a source of creativity.”
Devan says that the company’s artistic leaders think about the way music “slows down time and allows us to interrogate things more deeply.” Using digital production as a vehicle for this exploration is the backdrop to Opera Philadelphia’s adventurous new works programming. Today these efforts are widely lauded. A recent NY Times article that said, “Compared with other American companies, Opera Philadelphia is laying claim to the mantle of making new material during the pandemic. Still, what’s most notable about OperaPhila.tv is not its mere existence, but the strength of the work on offer.” Now Opera Philadelphia is working to sustain this effort and continue to reach out to the new opera fans it’s finding online.