April 2021

Opera North is a national opera company based in Leeds, and is a leading UK arts organisation. Their core purpose is to use music to bring extraordinary experiences to people of all backgrounds and ages, every day. Inherent in this work has been the act of bringing people together; musicians, audiences, students, participants all in the same space to make and share music. As the scale of the crisis became clear, that fundamental part of their work became impossible. We spoke to the team about their Covid-19 response strategies and how they have been coping in the face of a pandemic. Opera North's five-point Community Story covers:

  1. Life in Lock-down
  2. Adapting to New Approaches
  3. Considering our Comeback
  4. Navigating the New Normal
  5. Data-led Decision Making

Life in Lock-down

On Monday 16 March, as with many other cultural organisations, Opera North was forced to cease all live activity. In recent years we had been growing our digital capacity, but overnight all our focus shifted to three key areas and how we could use digital to:

  • Stay connected to our audiences, supporters and participants.
  • Continue to make music
  • Replace the lost income of live performance

The past year has seen cancelled performances, a fundamental shift to digital, a few live performances back in the theatre summer 2020, and now we start to look towards blended digital/live and moving back into live performance as lockdown eases over the coming months.

Adapting to New Approaches

We’ve used this time to experiment with and develop our digital offerings. We’ve learnt a lot. One key takeaway is to take risks, accept failures, learn from them and try again. Collaboration across teams has been absolutely key to success. These are just some of the key things we did:

  • Developed our website, extending and improving the “watch online” section where 3 performances already existed. This was shared with existing audiences and increasingly reached new audiences around the world (paid digital marketing building on this)...
  • We created an 'OperaNorth@Home' strand, sharing regular content repurposed from the archives & gathered into themes, or creating new filmed and written work.
  • We created an ONDemand platform in partnership with Substrakt. So far we’ve had 2 livestreams and 2 pieces of streamed content available on the platform and we are developing this on an ongoing basis. This was a huge learning curve in understanding how audiences act differently to live digital content, right down to understanding the technical details of livestream.
  • From Couch to Chorus, our online virtual choir, has reached over 5,000 people and raised incredible amounts in PAYF donations. Around 60% of participants are new to Opera North, over 90% say it has improved their wellbeing. We’ve analysed data and surveys, and made improvements with each iteration.
  • We’ve created a new series of PodcastsThinking with Opera – in partnership with the University of Leeds. Exploring opera and its component parts with special guests.
  • We launched a soundwalk for Leeds: As You Are. Pick up some headphones in Leeds city centre and take a 2km walk past many of the city’s landmarks accompanied by an original soundtrack by South African composer and cellist Abel Selaocoe. The ticketed timeslots were hugely popular with many dates sold out but as non-essential shops closed we were unable to continue, though hope to re-open very soon.

Considering our Comeback

As lockdown eases there remain questions and uncertainty, and planning is challenging as things change constantly. We, like most organisations, are looking at different options for seating plans in the venues we tour to, reviewing pricing, sense-checking audience sentiment in the latest surveys and trying to gain an understanding of how this might all come together as we are able to perform again.

Communicating to build confidence is key. We’re doing work around various audience segments to understand who has remained engaged during the last year, who we need to reaffirm our relationships with, as well as looking to build on our new digital audiences.

Staff have been undertaking COVID marshall training, so both front of house and backstage we have trained staff who can ensure the environments we and our audiences operate in are safe and secure. Marketing campaigns will undoubtedly have a whole new element of messaging to them as we re-open and we craft content that reassures audiences they will be in safe hands when they join Opera North for an event.

Navigating the New Normal

Over the past 12 months we’ve seen how well our livestreams and ONDemand platform have worked and this digital output will continue in some form alongside our live performances. We’ll be looking to invest in digital upskilling of staff and digital R&D so we can continue to develop this strand and embed it in the core work of the company.

Through our online workshops we’ve found a large new audience of people who may not feel comfortable to attend in person, are from further afield - whether London or Australia, or are physically unable. It’s important we continue to keep these audiences engaged whether through blended digital/live events or purely digital activities.

Coming soon will be a series of online events and concerts for audiences to enjoy. As we approach June, we hope to bring live performance back in both indoor and outdoor settings, alongside ongoing digital and online events. In Autumn/Winter 2021 we’re planning to be back to live performances in our venues across the country.

2021 is a big year for Opera North as our capital redevelopment project, Music Works, comes to an end and our new facilities are opened up to our communities including a new bar and restaurant, a new orchestral rehearsal studio, an Education Studio and the re-opening of the Howard Assembly Room. So it will be more of the new, and less of the normal, for us!

Data-led Decision Making

We’ve done audience surveys after each of our major events to learn and improve following audience feedback. Every single survey we did resulted in at least one change to our approach or offering, whether it was to add evening classes to From Couch to Chorus or to update our comms for ONe-to-ONe (Zoom serenades!) clarifying what to expect.

With ONDemand, audience surveys were vital and we took the first livestream survey results and responded to them with changes to the booking and logging in process, and to our communications, to increase audience satisfaction by 26%.

We’ve participated in the Indigo/Insights Alliance ‘After the Interval’ and ‘Act 2’ surveys and used the resulting data to inform our thinking and planning. We’re just about to send out the next tranche of surveys too...

We’re working closely with The Audience Agency on our Howard Assembly Room segmentation as we look to re-open the venue later on this year. The insights The Audience Agency has delivered will be at the very core of the marketing messaging, and also the programming and repertoire choices we make. It won’t stop there, as we load the segmentation into Spektrix and work on developing our various segments over the coming years.

The Audience Agency webinars, insights at online events and newsletters/articles are always read and shared by the team and the findings are useful in guiding where we might go with pricing, how our audiences might be feeling and how what we offer needs to be informed by that.

Interested in contributing a Community Story of your own? Download the template HERE.

If you have any questions or are ready to send over a story, please get in touch with vanny.lambert@theaudienceagency.org