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The Royal Opera House is a digital leader in its sector, creating exciting ways to bring ballet and opera to new and existing patrons.
I caught up with Tom Nelson, creative producer in Learning and Participation at the Royal Opera House, to discuss a current project involving 360 degree video.
We covered everything from virtual reality, mobile, the future of digital experiences and the role of the Covent Garden auditorium.
Tell us about your role
Part of the Royal Opera House’s mission is to introduce new audiences to ballet and opera and re-engage existing ones.
Both art forms have been around for centuries, however, they need to be continually challenged. At the moment, one of my focuses is to find new ways of opera and ballet speaking to an increasingly digitally aware audience.
Statistics show that short form engagement is the future of digital in many ways so we are working to create snapshots of what you can see in the theatre itself; we’ve just made our first 360 degree video of preparations for The Nutcracker.
Is virtual reality the next logical step for the Royal Opera House?
VR is a really exciting medium but for us it needs to be used within the right context.
VR is a very solitary experience, you put the headset on and you are in that world, on your own.
Coming to a theatre is not a solitary experience at all - it is all about the collective experience, much in the same way as when you go to a festival or concert.
What we are keen to explore is how we can take the spine tingling sensation of being sat in our theatre and translate it to digital platforms.
Does that mean you are focused on drawing people in to the Opera House?
Our audience is constantly evolving. It is no longer just the 2,000+ people we can seat in our auditorium.
In 2016 our audience can be a 15-year-old watching live streams on YouTube in Ecuador, a family that catches a screening of The Nutcracker at their local cinema in Devon or attending a BP Big Screen.
Of course audiences are still engaging with our product, the world-class theatre productions that are put on the stage, but they come to us via a variety of mediums and the desire for this plethora of access points is what keeps us on our toes.
How does that play into commercial goals? How do you justify serving the 15-year-old in Ecuador?
It’s about building audiences of the future, we hope to lead the digital offering in our sector resulting in emphasis on live streaming partnerships and broadening our cinema and online offer.
Some of your interactive work has been via web apps. Do you see mobile as another challenge - to convey the splendour of the art form on a small screen?
Nothing beats coming to Covent Garden and watching a performance, but for various geographical or economical reasons this is not, of course, a viable option for everyone.
Our cinema screenings are a great way to convey the art forms, but even if you can’t see a show there is a huge amount of content via our social channels such as YouTube, Instagram and Twitter.
I don’t think we’re ready to go down the route of streaming a full-length performance to mobile just yet - who would sit in front of their device for more than two hours at a time? But who knows what the future holds?
What type of content does your audience want?
We’re finding a massive interest in behind-the-scenes content. Traditionally, a theatre would never allow the audience behind the proscenium arch; it’s all magic - ‘how do they do that?’
But now, things have changed - people want to see how things are done, they want to see the journey our world-class dancers and singers go on.
They want to understand the director’s vision - ‘why have they set this opera in Sicily in 1920?’
Hopefully explaining these artistic decisions offers audiences greater understanding of the end work.
What challenges have you encountered in opening up the organisation?
There are always challenges when you try something for the first time, but everyone at the Royal Opera House from the backstage crew to the artists are keen to push the art forms to their next level digitally and that makes my job a lot easier!
Is this a challenge for artists?
Yes, and the thing to understand is that artists are all under such immense pressure.
It’s similar with politicians, I was reading an article about Jeremy Corbyn - he can’t say anything in private without it leaking on Twitter within the hour.
Now, when a singer comes to Covent Garden they may be performing in a live cinema relay or being interviewed for one of our live-streamed insight events. More than ever before, we need to be understanding of the demand placed on them.
Fortunately many are already active through their own social channels so enjoy the additional content.
How do you decide on the balance between targeting new and existing patrons?
In truth, we don't. With all of our digital work, we aim to find a language which speaks to new audiences without alienating our core.
What are you doing next? Is there an endpoint you have in mind (for digital’s inclusion at the ROH), or is it about picking the right tool for the moment?
We’re about to embark on a building project called Open Up, creating more permeable public spaces, a more buzzing community in the day time as well as night.
This obviously has an impact on digital ideas which we hope will have interactivity at their very core.
For the future we are also looking towards gesture based interaction. I find the possibilities of gestural interaction with digital and art very exciting - there's an obvious link there with dance.
Recently, I was up in Durham at the Lumiere Festival and there were some amazing installations there which combined playfulness with interactivity.
Everyone talks about digital as an add on to the core business offering, but in a few years everything’s going to be a digital experience and that word’s going be completely redundant as a way of describing how audiences engage.
Digital will almost be like a piece of cling film laid over the top of all customer interactions, whether you like it or not.
So does the Opera House now become somewhere that people will visit even if they aren’t seeing a show?
Absolutely. It’s an amazing building, and we want it to be a welcoming place. A place to interact with live events and performance but also it can be provoked by digital artworks.
Tell us about the 360 degree video project (Guide to our Orchestra). What experience are you trying to create?
It's an incredible introduction to the workings of our orchestra in a unique way.
We were able to fit GoPro cameras to several members of the orchestra and placed a 360 degree camera rig by our orchestra pit whilst they rehearsed an opera overture with our Music Director, Antonio Pappano.
It takes content that’s captured in quite an idiosyncratic way, which the YouTube generation is well versed in, and packages it as an experience that will offer people a playful way of navigating around an orchestra and experiencing the instruments from a first person point of view.
You enter through the 360 degree view so you can look around the entire theatre. Then there are hotspots over the instruments, which allow access to individual cameras.
So this could be the go-to tool for those trying to understand what an orchestra is and what it does?
We hope so, yes.
When you’re sitting in the audience you don’t really think about it, but actually there’s no other collection of people who are so much masters of their field.
Each of those orchestra players have trained for at least 15 years to do what they do. You could think of them like consultant surgeons in their field - they’re all having to give away a bit of themselves in order to create the whole work.
A football team is only 11 people, an orchestra is 60, 70 or 80 - there's a phenomenal amount of artistry there.
So, we really wanted to break that down a bit and celebrate the individuality of it.