Public Diplomacy is a tool that is needed more than ever in the current digital age, where the abundance of information makes it increasingly difficult to have one’s voice heard. Time brings about change and public diplomacy officials have been and are continuing to adapt to the changing environment that we are in. However, these officials need to look no farther than the field of opera, where the approach of attracting and maintaining an audience is drastically different than 50 years ago..
Every year there are a multitude of articles posted about how opera in the United States is a dying art form. From the cost of attendance to the ‘elite’ nature of the music, many believe that opera is on its way out. However, the artistic directors and executive directors of opera companies don’t want to see their industry die. They have begun to innovate and are attempting to reach out to different demographics that other directors have previously neglected. Their creative solutions can and should be used by other industries to constantly bring in new “people to the seats”. Here are five ways that public diplomacy officials can learn from opera companies.
(Eliud Pacheco/ Secretaría de Cultura Creative Commons)
The power of surprise is one that Opera Philadelphia heavily relies on. They constantly bring their art to audiences without the people suspecting or immediately recognizing what is happening. “Flash Mobs” started in the dance world but Opera Philadelphia uses this concept to introduce people to their art form and their upcoming season. The company goes into tourist areas in Philadelphia and performs a famous opera aria (song) which consistently delights the crowd. (You can see a video of it here.) By using spontaneity in a creative way, public diplomacy officials can brighten someone’s day but also give them information about the United States. An example could be bringing in a food truck to a busy tourist street and offering free food from the truck. The truck as well as the food wrapping could have facts about the United States on it. Thus, the action is spontaneous and interactive and potential consumers do not feel as if they are being beat over the head with information.
(Mrs. Gemstone Creative Commons)
Opera Companies are quickly learning that young people are not interested in sitting in a stuffy theater for two hours. Instead, during the summer and fall months, companies have begun to live cast an opera in a popular public place. Washington National Opera live casts an opera in Nationals Park as a part of their Opera in the Outfield program. The Metropolitan Opera puts on Opera in the Park. Companies that don’t have access to an outdoor venue have begun to even change the theater venue of their performances. San Francisco Opera has introduced the concept of an Opera Lab where there is a relaxed atmosphere and the hall even has a bar. Public Diplomacy officials are at a great advantage because their programming does not have to be limited to a single location. Have a talk on the beach. Sponsor a karaoke night at a bar. Offering a lighter atmosphere where foreign nationals can engage in the culture of the United States increases the opportunity of having a large crowd.
A constant international criticism of the United States is that “It is All America, All the Time.” Public Diplomacy officials must be able to tap into the cultural values of the country they are stationed in. Opera Companies are recognizing that as well and attempting to use the neighborhood they are based in to draw in a unique audience. In the United States, there is a sizable Hispanic population. Lyric Opera of Chicago sees this and implemented a program to attempt to attract Hispanics as consumers of their good. Their program showcased the connection between mariachi music and opera in a Hispanic neighborhood. With the sphere of the influence of the United States being ever reaching, diplomatic officials should have no problem identifying an area in their stationed country and putting on a program to highlight the connection of values between that country and the United States.
English National Opera, based out of London, is the best opera company when it comes to changing their visuals. Research has shown that a captivating image can draw in a consumer to the message. Once that visual is made, it must be displayed on all available platforms that public diplomacy officials have available to them. This includes on social media and mobile sites. When the English National Opera introduced this concept, the average age of their customer dropped from 55 to 30. Embassies need to invest more in graphic designers because sometimes all it takes is one image to get someone previously not interested in your message to join you.
To continue to combat terrorist ideology, diplomatic officials are going to need youth engagement. For opera companies to continue, they are going to need young people to fall in love with the art form. Young people buying in is the key to the success of any brand. Opera companies are letting young people ‘buy in’ by making them the content creators. The Royal Opera encouraged young people to design a mobile game that centered on the plot of an opera. They even commissioned a young composer to write a fanfare that played when patrons walked up to the theater. Even if embassies don’t want to use young people directly, they can allow a space for them when putting together programs targeted at their parents. Vienna State Opera pitched tents for children and in the tents, they performed scaled-down operas. If embassies were to have children-friendly areas, these spaces could have coloring books dedicated to United States foreign policy and toys that when pressed could issue a fact about the US’ foreign policy.
(Rachel Andrew Creative Commons)
Public Diplomacy officials must be creative in how they attract new consumers to their message. Various United States’ embassies abroad have started to recognize the power of flash mobs with Armenia and Belize as good examples. People love to be entertained and watch spectacles.
In thinking about events, it is important to take an all-inclusive mindset to programming. Instead of giving a speech in an auditorium to celebrate Earth Day, members of the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo volunteered and cleaned up trails in a park. Not only did the Embassy have a program outside, they also showcased cooperation in working with the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina to clean up their national park.
By continuing to use 21st century strategies similar to opera companies, embassies can begin to see an immediate shift in who their message reaches.
Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.