Sunday, 19 February 2012

Birmingham Opera and the New York Met: different creativity, different audiences, different marketing. Same goals.

Opera. Big-budget belters and small-scale savvy. It’s all good… but it’s still a bit of a secret. 

A fat lady. Not singing for BOC
With 21st century media, there’s no connection between what you find and what you pay. Works of towering genius go for free; silly sums are asked for derivative crap. Often, we're charged for the cost of distribution rather than the creativity. I can’t complain when I find brilliance for pennies. Creators, rightly, do. 

Two very different things are going on in Opera in Birmingham. There’s a local company that does brilliant work, so rooted in its market, with passionate local participation, that sell-outs are virtually guaranteed. People fight for tickets. The other operation offers work from one of the most powerful, stylish and all round fabulous companies on this planet, for a relative pittance. They have had to fight, ultimately successfully, for their audience. It doesn't make sense, but it's great all the same.

Although they’re not that well-kept a secret, the first time you’re likely to hear about Birmingham Opera Company (BOC for short) is when you read yet another five star review of an edgy, provocative performance that’s already been and gone. Venues are never conventional – warehouses, old factory premises – nor are the productions.  
BOC operates from a tiny office in the Jewellery Quarter, bulging with paperwork and posters. Luxurious it’s not. Jean Nicholson runs it; Graham Vick drives it, directing and working part-time. From a core full-time staff of three, staff numbers scale up and down around productions.  

Past BOC glories
 The company is famous for its shows and the way it involves you in those shows. The action explodes around you. Go to a show – if you can get a ticket – and you’ll be surrounded by singers. It’s great. People LOVE them. So now they have an interesting dilemna. 
Kindly reproduced courtesy of Birmingham Opera
“The ethos of the company is to take work to places audiences that didn’t get opera” explains Jean Nicholson, “to make opera speak to more people, and to have lots of involvement with local people alongside the professionals. One of the great myths is that it’s cheaper to do it this way.. but it’s not. It’s more expensive because it takes more people more time to get it to the standard you need it to be.”
You can guarantee to sell out these days – not least because of the number of people who are involved with the people who participate. So how does that square with your mission to take work to new areas and new audiences?
“In general the ticket-buying public, regular users or music, theatre and the like, know to book ahead. A lot of the people we’re trying to reach don’t. They’re very last minute. We have to skew our tickets to those people. That can make it hard to find tickets. It’s a difficult balance to achieve. I have to hold a proportion of the tickets for friends, relatives and colleagues of people who are appearing in the show. It’s of great importance that people who spend many, many weeks, working really hard, can get their kids, their partners, their grandparents in to see the show. Those people won’t be first in line with their credit cards, ready to buy tickets. And without those people, the shows don’t take place.” 
Kindly reproduced courtesy of Birmingham Opera
All that said, if you’re quick, you can grab tickets online. 50 percent of tickets for the next production are now on sale through Ticketsellers via the BOC website. So it’s possible that by the time you read this, they may have already gone.

The production ‘Life Is A Dream,’ a world-premiere production, runs for seven nights between 21st and 31st March at the Argyle Works, the former McDermot factory building in Digbeth, Birmingham. Here's a shot from the press show/
live rehearsal, by kind courtesy of Pete Ashton; there's more below, and a link to the full flickr page.

From 'Life Is A Dream': photo Pete Ashton
Life was hectic in February, with full-scale choral rehearsals and detailed show prep work in hand; now with the production running, it's even more so.
“One of the biggest problems for us in choosing a venue is size. There are very few buildings that are big enough now. The nature of Birmingham’s industry is small engineering, so our choices are limited. We used this building two years ago, and we are going back there now – although the heating doesn’t work anymore!” 
Size matters. A BOC production involves a lot of people: around  200 people, and up to 500 audience members. I keep finding people I know – generally adventurous music types - who are deeply committed to BOC. They sing in the chorus, or build sets, or dj at afterparties. You read that right – afterparties. For an Opera company. The Dj in question last time out was Marc Reck. I find that impressive and very cool.   
Sue Nicholls is a BOC chorus member, when she’s not working on rock tours, or playing gigs. She loves it to bits.
“Mere mortals like me don’t get to perform at the BBC Proms! But we got to perform Britten’s ‘Curlew River’, the first staged opera in the history of the proms. And WE did it! Birmingham Opera did it! And we got four five-star reviews for it! You don’t get to do that in real life, and perform with world-renowned opera singers. It just takes your breath away. Five stars in the Times! And it’s innovative! And it’s in Birmingham!”
A brilliant institution. But tickets are hard to find, so go get yours now. And/or volunteer - they can use all the help they can find. Here's a link to the Life Is A Dream page on the BOC site. As on Monday 21st February , tickets went on sale. Great price, too. 

At the time of this mid March  update, the show is in mid-run, with an even more spectacular show promised for the summer. Here's some more shots from Pete Ashton's flickr page:
From 'Life Is A Dream': photo Pete Ashton 
From 'Life Is A Dream': photo Pete Ashton 
From 'Life Is A Dream': photo Pete Ashton 

Now, another best-kept secret. A world away from funky warehouses, in the Cineworld multiplex up at the top end of Broad Street, you can catch New York Metropolitan Opera performances, live, about once every three or four weeks. It's a bargain: work from one of the world’s biggest and best, flashiest and most stylish opera companies, for twelve quid a pop - the same as for BOC productions. You didn’t know about this? Nor do many people, but word is spreading fast. Three years ago, the Met productions were pulling in a few dozen people in Birmingham. Now, maybe four hundred roll up, and the numbers are growing. They’re thinking about running the shows in several rooms.
New York's Lincoln Centre, home of the Met
It’s a brilliantly simple concept: live relays of shows at the New York Metropolitan Opera, under the overall banner of 'Live in HD'. A 1pm matinee in Manhattan runs at 6pm in Birmingham, 7 pm in Paris, 8pm in Helsinki, and 10pm in Moscow.. They screen at Cineworld and a number of other locations around the Midlands. The productions are top notch, with the biggest names, great production, and brilliant onscreen hosts to walk you through the whole operation, working backstage and shooting live. A lot of spit and polish has gone into the relay, and it unquestionably works. The big challenge has been for Cineworld’s local staff to develop their audience.
“When we first started, we weren’t sure how it would be received” says Cineworld’s Vinod Mahindru. “We hadn’t shown Opera before, and our first audience numbers were pretty small. But we wound up talking to choirs, societies, our own audiences, and music institutions around Birmingham. It really was a question of getting the word out. Now, there’s strong word of mouth, and we’re very pleased”
Götterdämmerung's fabulously flexible hi-tech set. Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera
They should be. A week ago, the biggest screen in the multiplex was packed, for a six hour star-studded Wagner marathon – Götterdämmerung, the conclusion of the Ring Cycle. Go Vinod! That’s some going for an institution which knows how to sell 'The Iron Lady' or 'Shrek', but which has had to work out how to reach an entirely different audience. It turns out that Birmingham’s attendances are among the best across the Cineworld chain. What’s more, their audiences are now getting younger. And it appears they’re rather better behaved than your average 'Lord of the Rings' or 'Twilight' crowd.

Following the lead set by the New York Met, other opera and theatre companies are now offering live relays and repeat screenings. They’re going to have to work hard to catch up. The Met has gone out of its way to engage with its global audience. Just like Birmingham Opera, they don’t simply put out a show and wait for the punters. They reach out, very effectively.

The goal is to bring great work to new audiences. Both operations are succeeding. Both operations are totally different in scale, in budget, and in their own unique senses of adventure.  And I for one am really glad we have both of them in our town.

Birmingham Opera Company

Metropolitan Opera Live In HD season details


Silas Marner said...

Great post! Birmingham Opera is the musical highlight of my year as a chorus member. Check us out!

Brice Kirkendall-Rodriguez said...

It is amazing what the Met is doing with its HD presentations. FWIW, the Met also offers a subscription website that allows you to watch past and classic performances online.

Your comparison to the Birmingham Opera foreshadows a possible trend. We may be witnessing an end to expensive productions in media and performance at the regional level. As entertainment options multiply only the national and global brands (such as the Met Opera) are likely to survive.

In the US, for example, numerous orchestras and operas are struggling as their audiences age and their public funding dwindles due to budget cuts. The audience is still there but it is more dispersed and can't always afford the price point required to sustain a major production.

At the same time, I think we will see an explosion of hyper-local and low cost outlets emerge. Blogs are replacing newspapers and the Birmingham Opera's approach will make the form far more accessible to those who don't own a tuxedo:-)

Ironically, this may actually be coming full circle. In the Jazz Age everything was local and live. The limits of technology prevented broad content distribution and allowed small performance venues and mediums to flourish. The expansion of technology and improved distribution channels led to consolidation that crushed little players. Now the latest expansion of technology creates uber consolidation on the top end and opens room for inexpensive micro presentation at the other end.

Live and local is more personalized and could see resurgence. Furthermore, the global brands of tomorrow may arise from those that have "gone viral" due to enthusiastic support of their local audiences.

Good luck Birmingham Opera! You may be a shining example of the future.

Robin Valk said...

Brice, your trend spotting may well be absolutely on the money. The Met was first into this market; they, do what they do, fabulously well, in a way that really engages the audience. I haven't noted that approach with ANY of the other live relay operations. So long may it continue; this may well be the key to the long-term survival of the Met.

The big BUT in all this is: if the Met, in its fight to survive, squeezes out middle ground operators - in Birmingham we have six or so week-long visits a year from the excellent Welsh National Opera, who are damn good but rather more expensive than either the Met or BOC - does that leave budding talent anywhere to go, once they have been nurtured by the BOC and other brilliant local operations?