LoftOpera: Dumb Luck or Ingenuity?

Quick-to-rise LoftOpera enjoyed yet another monster-media loving production this past month. Their latest intimate dish, Lucrezia Borgia, received high praise from several leading publications. This low-budget, wily company has managed to make a mountain out of several scrappy Brooklyn mole hills. We want to know: take the hipster out of the equation, does LO’s model still have widespread civic appeal?

Lucrezia Borgia was nothing new to LO’s loyal fans – small space, a spat on audience and zero rules. (rules that most have accepted over the past century or so and that keep opera at a distance from its audience). It’s true. Even Corinna da Fonseca-Wolheim of the New York Times explains that “LoftOpera…draws much of its appeal from its willingness to break things.”

Like said rules.

Opera in the round at LoftOpera | Photo by Sam Slaughter
Opera in the round at LoftOpera | Photo by Sam Slaughter

Rules like disregarding the fourth wall. This is the imaginary wall in a traditional 3-walled proscenium that is created between the actor and audience; the window in which the drama is able to be witnessed. Break this wall and the make-believe world extends into the audience. Case in point, during Lucrezia, an audience member’s view was slightly obstructed and he tapped the back of Matthew Anchel, the obstructor and also playing the leading Duke of Ferrara, unknowing that he was about to make a musical entrance. It’s rumored that Anchel, really the Duke at that point didn’t have time for such peasant nonsense and stood his position with precision.

Alright, so among the curly mustached and keenly suspendered they’re breaking the rules; taking down barriers; having a beer-swishing, bottle breaking, ticket holder obstructing spit-fest all over the audience. And the media is eating it up. What of the unsuspecting audience?

We took a good friend of OperaPulse to the production in order to gather some feedback about the trending performance approach and in a nutshell this is what we got while she was reflecting on audience interaction:

“I love seeing that the artists are human.”

Only hipsters allowed at the opera? | Photo by Sam Slaughter
Only hipsters allowed at the opera? | Photo by Sam Slaughter

Can productions like LoftOpera’s Lucrezia Borgia exist outside of Brooklyn’s hipster haven? Is the success a stroke of luck, talent, perfect timing or a combination of all three? Can opera companies outside of NYC learn something from their approach?

Well, let’s just ask the wizards behind the curtain ourselves, shall we?

QUESTIONS ANSWERED BY Daniel Ellis-Ferris // LoftOpera Executive Producer

The LoftOpera slogan is: “Something between a loft party and a startup opera company.” What’s been the greatest benefit from this approach?

We’ve found the “loft party + startup opera” approach to work because it’s primarily an audience-centered approach. It has allowed us to shrug off so many expectations and standard production methods, and create something from scratch with the audience’s experience in mind. Sure it takes a lot of care when you’re working from a new vantage point—we’ve made mistakes and learned a ton—but the freedom it’s granted us has been invaluable.

Does your success have anything to do with how dense a city’s hipster population is?

That’s certainly a good part of our audience. People who identify or are identified as hipsters (and I count myself among those ranks) are hungry for new experiences and want to feel like they are a part of a developing scene. But they’re not the only ones who crave the new and exciting.

LoftOpera Founders, Brianna Maury and Daniel Ellis-Ferris | Photo by Martina Maffini and Michael De Pasquale
LoftOpera Founders, Brianna Maury and Daniel Ellis-Ferris | Photo by Martina Maffini and Michael De Pasquale

How can a robust transit system help? Or is it a major player in LoftOpera’s success?

This question actually speaks to a larger idea about whether or not LoftOpera is a particularly urban experience. In it’s current iteration, LoftOpera is about density, closeness, and a fast, tumultuous pace. The entire story, from beginning to end, is about getting on the train, getting off in a neighborhood you may not be familiar with, and being delightfully surprised when you walk through a warehouse door to find a full production inside. Driving 30 minutes with NPR playing and the AC on, pulling up to a parking lot and walking thirty feet to the entrance would certainly be a different story. But that’s not to say there aren’t translatable parts of the experience: the intimacy and rowdiness of the performance, for example, could be worked into any small company’s production to ramp up the adrenaline.

What cities do you think would have the easiest time being successful with your model?

Well, you need two things: 1) a good stable of young, adventurous talent—that’s singers, musicians and production folks—and 2) a nightlife/music culture that values new experiences. Not every city has these main ingredients, but there are plenty that do. The model can and should work in many, many places.

Today arts organizations are having an increasingly hard time receiving corporate support, however, as a small outfit you’ve been able to partner with Brooklyn Brewery and big name fashion brands like Philip Lim and Etro. Does the relationship with your audience dictate what type of corporations you approach?

Every choice, every partnership, is dictated by the relationship with the audience. Every single one. It has to, or else the show won’t be a complete experience. Our decisions to partner with Etro to provide couture costumes, or with OperaPulse to reach a broader audience and simplify ticket sales, were made with the audience in mind. And that doesn’t mean just figuring out what people want and giving it to them: the choice to use benches, for example, is a deliberate move to push audience members a bit out of their comfort zones, to make them sit up in their seats.

Costumes provided by Etro | Photo by Sam Slaughter
Costumes provided by Etro | Photo by Sam Slaughter

If you could talk directly to other companies searching for groundbreaking new ways to engage the community, what tips would you give them?

The music has to be top notch, that is obvious and mandatory, but I would also talk about the idea of branding. You are the complete steward of your brand, and you need to be thoughtful about how you are perceived. I know that’s marketing language, and we’re in the music-making business. And it’s true that the music holds up on it’s own when you’re in the room with it, regardless of branding decisions. But the fact is you can’t get people into the room on the music alone anymore. You can’t just post that you’re producing some Donizetti and expect a thousand heads to show up. You need to think tirelessly about how your audience experiences your brand from the first article or shared Facebook post they read, to their experience of your website (because that’s where they’re educating themselves about your product, and that’s where you really build trust), to their walk from the subway to the entrance to your show, and, of course, to their experience in the room.