Binge-watching opera: Philly festival tests new models

Arts / Article

Today, Knight Foundation is announcing $2.5 million in support for Opera Philadelphia’s innovative, new opening festival. Below, Vice President for Arts Victoria Rogers explains why.

Opera Philadelphia’s first  “O,” a 12-day urban opera festival, debuts in September 2017, and I, for one, can’t wait. 

Think about the fun of binge-watching seven seasons of “West Wing,” all six of “Downton Abbey,” past episodes of “Orange Is the New Black”or “Game of Thrones.” Now, imagine 12 nights of live, innovative opera with Philadelphia as the stage and you have O17, an opera happening. This new business model is the result of five years of data analysis; an honest recognition of what wasn’t working; an ongoing commitment to artistic excellence; and, a passionate belief in opera as a living, breathing, and relevant art form.

The results of a two-phased consumer segmentation research study that looked at the motivation, values and consumer experiences of current and potential audiences enabled the opera to redefine the way it will connect to the public. One aspect of the research revealed that a large component of opera audiences wanted more unexpected, immersive experiences. O will test the concept of festivals as artistic, cultural and economic accelerators. Opera Philly’s willingness to share its research methodology and results, as well as what it learns from O, bodes well for the broader field.

I got a taste of what O can be three months into my position as Knight’s vice president when I was in the audience for “Andy: A Popera,” a collaboration we funded between Opera Philadelphia and the small but wildly talented Bearded Ladies Cabaret. “Andy” is a perfect example of Opera Philadelphia’s commitment to new works that tell both our individual and collective stories in unique, yet accessible ways.  

After a cup of Tang and vodka (a cocktail popular during Andy Warhol’s pop period) around 200 of us made our way into an adjacent warehouse for the production. Together we saw 14 singing Andy’s, dancing Campbell Soup cans, Edie Sedgwick, Candy Darling, and 15 minutes of fame as our images were projected upon a screen above the stage.   At the end, a couple seated next to me remarked, “isn’t it wonderful that Knight Foundation would fund such an avant- garde production.”

Yes, it is wonderful.  Knight believes in the power of art to connect us to one another and to place, to expand our minds, to engender conversation around difficult topics, and to transform our lives.  Knight takes calculated risks.  We are banking on Opera Philly’s ability to create a new opera paradigm.   If the diverse audience I experienced for Andy – an enthusiastic mix of millenials to octogenarians is any indicator, they are well on their way.

Victoria Rogers is Knight Foundation’s vice president for arts.