Moving to Digital—How the Atlanta Opera Keeps Innovating Post-COVID
In April of 2020, the Atlanta Opera quickly responded to effects of COVID-19 on their business by going digital. So, where are they two years later? Change Logic’s Vanessa Ceia sat down with Tomer Zvulun and Micah Fortson from the Atlanta Opera to get an update from them.
LISTEN TO THE CONVERSATION HERE
Vanessa Ceia – Change Logic: The reason why we want to reconnect with you is because, in April of 2020, the Atlanta Opera quickly responded to COVID and the impact it was having on live entertainment. And so, while the vast majority of live entertainment companies were shutting their doors and taking a wait and see approach, you seized the day and moved quickly to transform the Atlanta Opera from a live only company to a digital one. Now, two years later, you’ve undergone a lot of changes, some things have remained the same, and we’d love to hear more about the outcomes of this digital transformation.
To get a sense of where you were at the start, just before the pandemic, and where you are today, perhaps tell us a bit about your initial goals for going digital and how those have evolved over two the last two years.
Tomer Zvulun – General and Artistic Director, Atlanta Opera: We just had a retreat with our senior managers and our board and we talked about strategy. And the thing that emerged from this retreat we just had this summer of 2022, is that strategy is good up to a point. You have to combine it with emergent strategy. You have to combine it with what happens in the world that is going to turn everything upside down, and then you either freeze or you use this equilibrium for its opportunities.
And that’s exactly what we’ve done with COVID. And the three things we’ve done during COVID was find a tent where we could perform safely, because everything else was closed, so we had to invent a location. Number two, we took care of people. We hired 18 singers and paid them benefits and salaries while no other singer was employed. And number three, to your point, we created the digital initiative because our greatest fans did not want to come see our productions live, or could not come see our productions live, and we wanted to deliver them to their homes. And so, this equilibrium created an opportunity to create competencies that accompany us now into what is a post pandemic world, we hope.
Vanessa: So, this idea of the emergent strategy, one of the biggest concerns in organizations is this notion of risk. And there was a lot of fear around COVID, no one really knew what was going to happen, what would be the business outcomes of acting versus not acting. How did you manage risk? How did you at least overcome it? Overcome risk or the fear of failure during that initial period when you were-
Tomer: I think the fear should be of not taking risks. That’s what the fear should be. Because if you’re stagnant, you should be afraid of being stagnant because you’re going to be gone. It’s either that, you realize that if you don’t innovate, you die, or you don’t realize that. And I think a lot of people are just afraid. They’re afraid of the fear of just doing something different. And that’s not how Michah and I think.
Micah Fortson – Managing Director, Atlanta Opera: And information is key. We were looking at risks on both sides. There was the risk of our company folding if we did nothing, which is what a lot of opera companies were doing. And the risk of doing nothing would be cutting all of our staff and keeping people out of work and having a company that was less successful going into the future and that was crippled. On the other hand, we had the risk of health and health and safety with being able to perform. So, what we did is we sought out epidemiologists, we sought out experts, to help us craft a world in which we could keep performing in the most safe environment possible while going forward. We said this is a risk that we’re going to have to take in order to keep people employed, in order to keep the company going, but we’re going to mitigate as much of that risk as possible with knowledge and with the experts and moving forward. So, I’d say that knowledge was also key to it.
Vanessa: So, part of it is just this courage, on the one hand, to take the leap. And the other one is using information, arming yourselves with data.
Another question that I have is this question of audience. The digital channels have allowed you to tap into new audiences, But also, some of the audience that digital has opened up is perhaps entirely different from the original audiences that you had. Would that be fair to say?
Tomer: It’s a combination. It was meant to create a channel for our nearest and dearest to see our production when they were not comfortable coming in physically. But it has also allowed us to create a platform that will be accessible by people all over the world that have an interest in opera. And it also allowed us to exponentially increase the number of eyeballs, both when it comes to our brand, but also from an education standpoint. So, if our Pirates of Penzance in schools was able to reach 300 schools in cafeterias and gyms, now it can go to another 50,000 kids in areas all around Georgia and maybe Florida because now it’s virtual. So, there are impacts that we did not think about when we had that knee-jerk reaction of, let’s make sure that our patrons have a chance to see the operas that they can’t attend physically.
Micah: And I’ll add to that, even beyond the film initiatives that we took on—the digital initiatives—we inadvertently created a new experience for people that became a real catalyst for the company. Not just for the staff being able to work in this outdoor environment with an immersive experience, in a tent where we were creating opera, utilizing every safety measure and incorporating it into the costumes, incorporating it into everything. But we created an experience for the patrons that came to see it; a much more intimate, upfront, immersive experience that we didn’t realize we could create and that we didn’t realize people wanted.
And we’ve taken that going forward and realized that there is a whole new realm of experience that our patrons are seeking and wanting, which has helped us with our branding, and bringing in new people to the art form and to our opera. We just completed a show at Pullman Yards here in Atlanta, which is a big outdoor space, and had a hugely successful performance of Cabaret with a whole new audience that came to see it. And so, it really taught us something about the experience that we can provide.
Vanessa: And so how has audience acquisition … Or how is audience acquisition different for digital versus live productions? Or live content?
Tomer: Do you mean paying audience or do you mean audience?
Vanessa: I guess I mean eyeballs, whether they’re digital or people in a seat.
Tomer: Okay, because there’s a huge difference between somebody who is going to see your product without paying and somebody who’s going to pay $200 to see your shows. And when you only have the second option, of somebody that will pay $200 to see your shows, you’re limited. If you do, let’s say, a production of Madame Butterfly, you’re limited to, at the most, 12,000 people that will see the shows. At the most, if you sell out every seat, which never happens. Typically, we sell 60, 70, 80%. So, you would consider it a success if you have 9,000 people watching your shows.
Now, if you have a digital initiative, and it’s picked up by Georgia Public Broadcasting, and it’s broadcast on a Sunday afternoon, then suddenly 13,000 additional people saw it. And if you put it on your social media for free, then you could have 50,000 people more seeing it. And if you stream it like we did in this past season, you can ensure that 1000 more people will see it when you stream it on your platform. Now all this, though, is unpaid audience and there’s a big distinction between unpaid audience and paying audience.
Vanessa: So does some of this unpaid audience also bring in new audiences or grow the audience that is coming to live shows as well?
Tomer: I don’t know if there are new people that come to the shows because they saw the show digitally. That I don’t have the data for, and I doubt that that happens. But what I do know is that the footprint and the branding and the eyeballs are now not just in Atlanta, but they’re worldwide.
Vanessa: So in the last two years, so you’ve created a number of initiatives, and which would you say have been some of the most successful initiatives throughout this transformation? Or how?
Tomer: I mentioned three, I mentioned people, location, digital. Two out of the three were slam dunk: digital and immersive experiences. They’re accompanying us into the future. When it comes to having company players or a band of artists that are fully employed by the company, I’m not sure that that’s something we will pursue in the future. Two out of three, not bad.
Vanessa: So let’s talk a little bit about organizational structure as well. At the organizational level, what was required to successfully pull off and sustain these new businesses?
Micah: I’ll say that, with the help of Change Logic we had to really revamp our entire thinking about organizational structure in order to be able to present a season within the COVID pandemic environment with only a couple months lead time. When the pandemic hit, it completely eviscerated all of our plans, just like Tomer said. And the organizational structure was not serving us. It was a structure based on planning two, three years in advance and a certain bunch of systems that were set up for that. But what we needed was a show in two months and a way to do it.
So, with the help of Change Logic, we developed our Sprint system where we took staff members from different departments and paired them up, gave them a goal and said go make it happen. Whatever you need to do, put it together. We want to remove roadblocks and help you make decisions.
And the staff put together a show around a tent, bringing an entire venue into a baseball field and putting the show together. There was a lot of moving fast and breaking things to get that show on the road. And it took a complete revamping and understanding of what organizational structure meant.
As we’re going into a system of planning, now deeper into the future, we’re re-engaging some of the older systems. But where we need certain decisions made quickly, we are using that Sprint tool to be able to engage new projects and to make things quicker.
Last season, we started something called the 96 Hour Opera Project, which is something we’ve never done before. It was a libretto and composer competition to be able to identify underrepresented talent in the field. And we didn’t have a plan on how to put that together. How do you bring in contestants? What kind of an agreement do they sign when they’re in an application? How do you select the contestants? What are the rubrics for judging the contestants and then having the competition? All of this was brand new to us, so we put together a Sprint team and said, make it happen. Let’s put this together. And they just started making things happen.
And so it’s a real excellent tool for innovating something new and getting a team of people to just put something together really quickly. And then you can move it into the phase of these longer planning cycles in a different system, which is what we’re working on now. So I’d say, in that sense, the innovative structures that we brought to the organizational structure have been lasting and really helped us get through this.
Tomer: And if I may add to that….there are three things. The first one being vision. Clarity of vision. When you don’t know where you’re heading anyone can take you there. It’s like, you need to have a clear vision. And we had a clear vision about, we wanted to create a platform and to broadcast to our patrons the shows they couldn’t see. The same thing with, we wanted to perform live despite the inability to do so.
Two, culture. No fear of innovation. No fear. The fear should be of not doing anything. And that’s a cultural thing, because people are afraid, and that’s normal, of doing something they haven’t done before.
I have people here that are experts in marketing, producing, selling, and fundraising for traditional shows. You tell them you need to market, produce, sell, and fundraise for an immersive show outside in a circus tent. You have to market, sell, produce, and fundraise for a film. Are you kidding me? So, the answer is, “we can’t do that. I don’t understand, I don’t know. That’s not in my wheelhouse.” And so, the culture has to be, ‘yes we can.’
And that leads me to the third point, which is leadership. You must have stubborn, very stubborn, almost foolish leaders, that are listening to perspectives but also that can stick to their guns when they believe in something. Andy Binns just came to Atlanta and was a part of our retreat and he said, “The thing that I think was critical for the success that you had during the pandemic is that you were almost stupid in how you refused to listen to the people that said no.”
He said, “I remember members of your team calling me and they said “Tomer is crazy. We can’t do shows in a tent. We should not be doing this. This is nuts. How can we do this?” And you insisted on that, and people thought you were crazy, but you know what? You don’t take risk, you don’t get anywhere.
So I’m not saying this to pat ourselves in the back, I’m saying this as, this is a lesson. Sometimes you have to be crazy if you have a vision that you really believe in, and stick to it, and convince people to do it.
Vanessa: Sounds like good tips for budding corporate explorers around the world, and also rules to live by, more generally speaking.
Maybe we can just end off with you giving us a quick preview of what we can expect from the Atlanta Opera this Fall.
Tomer: So it’s a big blockbuster season and we are doing four main stage productions that are some of the most famous and beloved masterpieces. Madame Butterfly, with an amazing cast. Candide, again with a fantastic cast. Don Giovanni and Das Rheingold, the first installment of the Ring Cycle. We’re also bringing two shows to our discovery series. One is Bluebeards Castle, which will make its Atlanta premier. It’s fantastic opera by Bartok, and the spin is really interesting. It’s about dementia and the decline of elderly people through the lens of this fantastic musical piece, Bluebeard’s Castle. And then, in the Spring we are going back to Morehouse College to produce a piece written by an African American composer, Joelle Thompson. It’s called The Snowy Day and it’s based on the famous children’s book, A Snowy Day. So it’s a very exciting season for us.
Vanessa: All right. Well, Tomer, Micah, thanks so much for your time.
Micah: Thank you, Vanessa.
Tomer: Thank you. Always a pleasure.