Thinking outside the opera house box

Recently, travel guru Rick Steves posted a video showing a giant screen attached to the Vienna State Opera House live streaming the opera that was playing inside. A small crowd filled a section of the plaza, sitting in camp chairs, leaning against walls, standing on the periphery.  Steves’ comment, “Europe is inspiring.”


The idea of live streaming performing arts is certainly not new.  Several major cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Opera and many symphonies, live stream their concerts online.  Some charge (The Met, for example, live streams audio performances, but charges $14.99 per month to subscribe to Met Opera On Demand and also live streams into movie theaters nationwide at a cost slightly higher than the cost of a movie) but some, like the Detroit Symphony, are experimenting with substantial free offerings as a way to engage new audiences.  Several organizations have mobile apps, which offer not only full performances (the Vienna site even offers a choice between watching “raw” or edited footage of live performances) but additional content including program notes, interviews with performers and conductors, and behind-the-scenes features.

This is, however, the first I’ve heard of a performance broadcast live, for free, outside the building where the performance is taking place…but when I posted this, I immediately heard that the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene, Oregon, is testing this same idea, so I imagine that others are too (let me know if you’ve heard of any!).  It’s a fairly complex undertaking…daunting not only because of the potentially expensive infrastructure and technical logistics but also because of copyright issues, labor contracts and ticket sales considerations.  Do you broadcast a performance even if the inside seats are not sold out, or is it more like a sports deal, broadcast only if seats are not available?  How do rebroadcast rights work for contract musicians?

As complex as the issues are, it’s still wonderful to see performing arts organizations think outside the venue box.  We know that arts audiences today – not just “new” audiences, but traditional audiences as well – are attending live performances in fewer numbers, but we also know that in large part, this is because of their livestyle and entertainment habits, not because they don’t like what is being presented to them.  A giant screen mounted on the outside of an opera house may not be the answer for everyone, but it’s a huge step in the right direction of taking art to where the people are, and respecting the way they wish to access our work.


About Ellen Rosewall

I am Professor and Chair of Arts Management and author of Arts Management: Uniting Arts and Audiences in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2013). I believe that arts and culture are undergoing a profound change in the 21st century, and I love talking with people about how we continue to bring arts to our communities and individuals give the brave new world of social media, technology and economic changes. Join the conversation!
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