By Nancy Malitz
CHICAGO – If you want to share your excitement about one of the great classical art forms with your college-age nephew or your grandchildren, how do you go about it? Do you send a letter? Pick up the phone and leave a voicemail? Clip a newspaper article? Dash off an email?
The correct answer is none of the above.
When Lisa Middleton joined the staff of the Lyric Opera of Chicago as director of marketing in early 2013, the company – like most adults over the age of 25 – was playing catch-up in social networking on the Internet. The rate of change in the digital world of communication had been outpacing the adaptation rate for some time. And then it accelerated.
Grappling with the realities of this pervasive cultural shift is an enormous and urgent challenge for arts organizations. “When I came on board, the Lyric was only devoting a portion of one individual’s time to social media even as it was mushrooming, and so I felt that we were going to have to jump in with both feet,” said Middleton, who came to the Lyric from the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada. Traditionally known for its Shakespeare, the festival is both cultural and recreational, catering to a broad range of theater lovers from the U.S. and Canada throughout an extended summer season.
Lyric Opera’s Facebook and Twitter presence has intensified as a result of Middleton’s influence. Perhaps more surprising are the other social networks in which the Lyric is now very active: Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, and TripAdvisor.
Lyric’s social networking choices were at the leading edge of trends discussed by a panel of prominent arts writers in attendance at a June conference of the Music Critics Association of North America during the San Francisco Opera’s 2015 summer season. I moderated the panel discussion, and had interviewed Middleton beforehand so that I could offer her perspective, and it was evident that the panelists — Anne Midgette, of the Washington Post; Paul Hyde of the Greenville News, S.C.; Janelle Gelfand of the Cincinnati Enquirer; and Joshua Kosman, of the San Francisco Chronicle — were seeing similar experimentation in their markets. Each of the writers was also aggressively participating in the new social networks, maintaining connections with their readers even as their newspapers struggle. Midgette, who qualifies as a genuine digital pioneer, has been on Twitter since 2009 and has more than 16,400 followers.
Middleton, whose background includes two decades in strategic planning focused on database analysis and segmentation, said the characteristics of each network are different, reflecting various ages, genders, interests, and habits worthy of special attention. Instagram, for example, is a mobile app for photo and video sharing used primarily by college students and young professionals, and it’s very new for the Lyric. Instagram played a big part in the company’s April promotion of Carousel.
“We were hearing from the younger side of our audience, college students in particular, ‘Well, if you’re not on Instagram, then you don’t want to be part of our world,’” said Middleton, speaking by phone from the company’s offices at the Civic Opera House, an Art Deco landmark on the west side of the city’s downtown Loop. “That is not a Facebook crowd. If we at the Lyric really want college students to interact with us in their introductory years, we need to devote our time and resources to reaching them the way they want to be reached, so that means a lot of photos and information on Instagram about what’s happening at Lyric.
“Most of our Carousel artists had Instagram accounts, and they were sharing shots that we would never normally get, like ‘Hi, we’re having lunch’ or ‘Our new Chicago Bulls player Pau Gasol’s in love with opera and here we are backstage with him.’ That one got 20,000 ‘likes,’ which is just amazing for us.”
During the Carousel run, the Lyric’s front lobby had an Oscars-style “step and repeat” banner for photo ops, used hundreds of times for poses with the Lyric and Carousel logos, artfully positioned, with a glimpse of the gilded foyer behind. “There’s a certain amount of status to being able to say ‘I was at the opera,’ and if people are going to get dressed up and take that shot anyway and share it through their networks, why shouldn’t we figure out a way to help?” Middleton said. The San Francisco Opera provided a similar Instagram-able moment off the front lobby during the summer 2015 season; the subjects appeared posed inside the chandelier-lit house, with their backs to the curtain.
“We’re in a culture right now of sharing your experience,” Middleton said. “It all harkens back to the first point, in 2007, when two things happened simultaneously: Apple announced its first iPhone, which literally put a computer into every person’s hands, and Facebook came out of its university setting to become public, so that you could find out for the first time, on a 24/7 basis, what your colleagues, friends, neighbors, and family members were up to, and get their input on what they were doing with their leisure time. The number of social media platforms has expanded dramatically since then. So we have the opportunities. But we have to take advantage of each of them for what they are.”
The Lyric Opera performs in an architecturally distinctive auditorium and produces grand opera with leading international singers, their creative teams drawn from an increasingly cross-pollinated music and theater realm. The company has also striven to further broaden the reach of its brand beyond the pure opera crowd.
In addition to a classic Broadway musical each spring, the company’s multi-faceted programming has included mariachi and klezmer operas, opera blended with comedy-improv, and other projects aimed at new audiences. (A partnering with Chicago’s Second City for comedy was actually the idea of Renée Fleming, the Lyric’s creative consultant.) Bloggers’ nights, backstage videos, and after-hours social events are part of the mix. The opportunities to reach these various audience groups digitally continue to evolve.
Lyric also pays attention to Pinterest, which operates as an online scrapbook. Users can pull images pulled off the Internet and “pin” them to their own Pinterest boards.
Middleton likes the network because she knows that women typically delegate the family entertainment dollars. “And, I would be shocked if Pinterest isn’t 80 percent female,” Middleton said. “It’s very important for us, because women are the decision-makers regarding the household budget and opera’s a highly visual art form. We do lots of pages on Pinterest that are show-specific, and there’s a definite fashion element regarding what people wear on opening nights.” Pinterest is also about to become shoppable: Macy’s and Nordstrom’s are testing shareable “pins” embedded with “Buy” buttons. “We’ll be watching with interest to see how that goes,” Middleton said.
Upon arriving in Chicago, Middleton learned that the Lyric didn’t have much of a presence on the TripAdvisor travel website, although Chicago is a significant cultural destination. Lyric itself depends on cultural tourism and schedules weekends each year aimed at visitors who want to catch at least two different shows. In addition to flight schedules and hotel information, TripAdvisor provides reader-written reviews and destination-specific message boards where people can ask questions. Middleton noted that Chicago’s Art Institute is listed in TripAdvisor’s Travelers Choice Awards as the No. 1 Museum in the U.S., while the Metropolitan Opera is ranked No. 5 among 350 Theater & Concerts listings for New York City. She thought the Lyric Opera could perhaps improve its showing.
“I think of TripAdvisor as a pseudo-social medium because of its recommendation feature, which is based on the number of 5-star ratings an organization gets from readers,” Middleton said. “We realized we could not neglect the forums. We had to be in there.” She asked the staff to start monitoring the Top Things to Do message boards for Chicago, answering questions and trying to be generally helpful about Lyric’s location, dress recommendation, seats, and shows, whatever was being asked. “We found out in June that Lyric has been elevated to No. 4 out of 149 in the Theater & Concerts listings section for Chicago,” she said. “That was huge for us.”
The opera company gathers documentary video and behind-the-scenes takes throughout the season. Some of that footage is turned into a YouTube series called Patter Up! – interviews with well-known artists that are boiled down to 60 seconds of fast-paced questions and answers. Switzerland’s Verbier Festival has been doing its own flashcard-style interviews, called Wallcasts, for several years, and the Lyric clips tend to be similarly unpredictable and addictive, falling somewhere between formal performance and waggish bar stool confessional.
Lyric’s YouTube promotional videos also run the gamut from full-dress performance excerpts to casual backstage pitches from the singers themselves, as in the example at right.
Meanwhile, there is Facebook, which Lyric’s opera lovers have long taken to their hearts. The last thing Lyric wants to do is to lose touch with them. “People think Facebook is a bunch of teenagers talking, but the actual average age on Facebook is much older,” Middleton said. In the U.S., Facebook’s users are typically in their early forties, according to a recent study by Pew Research. That’s somewhat old for the Internet, but it’s somewhat young for the Lyric, said Middleton, “which makes it perfect for us. Lyric’s audience averages in the late forties.
“Facebook’s also good for the true opera lovers because it allows space and time for conversation,” Middleton said. “You are not so limited by length in a single message, as you are on Twitter, and you can embed a video or add a slideshow. You can also ask a question with a decent chance of a knowledgeable response, and you can see all the comments directly connected. We have a lot of followers in there who are deeply interested, and the knowledge is readily apparent.”
Twitter skews slightly younger. As a micro-blog that limits the user to 140 characters per message, Middleton said, Twitter’s challenge is that “you have that microsecond to catch people’s attention” in a steady stream of ever-changing updates. “People are taking their knowledge in bite-size pieces, so sharing in the mood or whimsy of the moment is a big part of it.” The night of the 2015 Tony Awards, when costume designer Catherine Zuber won a Tony for best costume design in Broadway’s The King and I, Lyric was all over Twitter with the fact that she also designed Carousel and will do Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet in February-March 2016.
“If you’re going to tweet, you have to tweet a lot,” Middleton added. “For us at Lyric, Twitter’s as much about listening to people as it is about talking to them, because if you really pay attention, you’ll discover ways to help them based on typical questions they’re asking and frustrations they are having. With Twitter, you can count on those occasional ‘aha’ moments, such as, ‘You know, we really should be reminding readers in a timely fashion to make their restaurant reservations and link them to nearby options.’ ”
There are platforms that Lyric doesn’t bother with, at least not yet, or not anymore: The short-form video-sharing service called Vine has been very popular, but those endlessly looping six-second videos seem to have attracted interest only among the very young. And for a time, Middleton thought it would be necessary to have a presence on a social layer called Google+, which the multinational search, software, advertising, and cloud-computing company was adding to its empire, but she put that idea on hold as the platform struggled to compete.
The Lyric will still maintain its own blogging site, Lyric Lately, Middleton said, although both the blog and the opera company’s main website are in a massive state of redesign now that the season’s over, rendering almost all of its content unavailable. The website and blog are envisioned as a continuing medium for “long-form communication,” as Middleton puts it. Though little is yet visible, the new look appears streamlined to suit mobile devices. The blog will be upgraded to accept reader comments, the lack of which is a sore point for a marketing director who’s all about social interaction: “If you’re going to have a blog,” Middleton said, “you should be able to have a conversation.”
Meanwhile, the Lyric’s Twitter, Instagram and Facebook sites are alive with enticements to attend the company’s summer #LyricAfterHours receptions, with cocktails, small plates and live music aimed at professionals in the Chicago Loop. The Lyric’s promising a sneak peek of the set design for Bel Canto, a new opera by young Peruvian composer Jimmy López scheduled for December. The opera season itself has been over for months, but when it comes to experimenting with social networking, the season’s just beginning.
Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today, and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.