BRAD COHEN, 16 FEBRUARY
I’m back in Oxford as I write this, but a week ago WAO was in Langley Park for our annual celebration of opera, supported by the City of Perth and Lotterywest, and reaching the widest audience of our season. We calculate that over 20,000 people saw Gianni Schicchi last weekend, either in the park itself or via the simulcasts to twelve regional locations in WA and dozens of Community Resource Centres. This is our highest audience figure ever for Opera in the Park, and we are delighted that the response has been so positive and enthusiastic.
Last year I wrote about the dark arts of season planning, and in this post I will retrospectively reveal some of the tweaks and changes we made for Opera in the Park 2016. Some of them will have been obvious to you, others almost invisible. But all were made for a reason, and a lot of thought and planning went into them. I welcome your thoughts about how you felt they worked or improved the event.
Direct as if for TV
At Opera in the Park 2015, I did a lot of walking around during the performance, to understand better how the audiences experienced our presentation. It was obvious that, even when not far from the stage, most audience members related to the screens rather than the stage itself. The subtitles were only on the screens, which was a big factor – but in general, people are very comfortable watching a screen, and the closeups of the singers were much more immediate than a distant view of the stage.
So in 2016, I asked Lindy Hume, our stage director, to create a staging as if for a TV opera. The moves, expressions and design of the set were optimised for presentation to camera. This affected the artists’ style of acting, which was more sitcom than grand opera. For a zippy comedy like Gianni Schicchi, I think this worked perfectly – and the powerful responses we have had suggest that this ‘performance for screen’ enhanced the audience’s experience and their sense of immediacy.
Allison Fyfe, our redoubtable surtitles operator, is responsible for surtitles not only during HMT seasons but also Opera in the Park. This year there were many iterations of the subtitle styling, including changes in text colour, shading and shadowing, right up until the last minute – all in pursuit of the clearest, most legible subtitles possible on LED screens. The pacing of surtitles is an art in itself, and I might tap Allison for a future interview on the topic – displaying the right text at the right second, particularly in comedy so that the laugh is not spoiled, takes incredible precision and rehearsal.
Improve family entertainment
Carolyn Chard, General Manager of WAO, had the genius idea of increasing the family entertainment before the show itself. We had face painting, a petting zoo, a games arcade, a photo booth, and bouncy castles for young and old. The photos are a delight to see – check them out HERE
Opera in the Park is a family event and we want as many people, of all ages, attending as we can. An outdoors event, with amplification, means that the noisiest baby or the sulkiest teenager have almost no impact on the enjoyment of those around them (except for the unfortunate parents).
Present a short opera
In some ways this was the most significant calculated risk we took this year. I believe that long-form opera (the four-hour, five-act type) is not suitable for all audiences, especially the young, and particularly for those who may be new to opera. Remember that Opera in the Park is our evangelical rally, if you like – a chance to reach those who may be suspicious of or antipathetic to opera in a traditional setting. So I was keen to try something wonderful, something short, and ideally something funny. Gianni Schicchi, never before presented by WAO, was (I thought) the perfect choice. And directed by Lindy Hume as a zany sitcom, with a wonderful cast and orchestra, would be a really good testbed for these ideas. The initial reaction suggests that it was a winner.
In the points above I have shared my personal tick list with you – the changes to a much-loved format which I wanted to finesse without disturbing the balance, while maximising your enjoyment and engagement.
So how well did they work for you? I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts. We want to keep improving, optimising and responding to the possibilities Opera in the Park presents, for next year and beyond. Because of volume, I may not be able to respond as I normally do to your suggestions, but please send them across!
Until next time,