When coronavirus steered the UK into lockdown earlier this year, many organisations had no choice but to either keep their employees working from home or resume services, but socially distanced. For some, this transition was challenging but manageable, yet for others, this approach was practically impossible.
A survey by the Office for National Statistics found that the arts, entertainment and recreation industry, had the largest proportion of its workforce on furlough (at the time of 13 July to 26 July) at 46%.
At such a difficult time, how do these organisations meet changing customer demands?
The English National Opera (ENO), based at the largest theatre in the West End, has had to completely transform the way it presents its performances in order to stay profitable and appease members.
We spoke to Andrew Given, Development Director at ENO, to discuss how the opera house innovated through COVID-19.
Adapting services to meet customer demand
When you think of the word ‘opera’, often the first image that would likely come to mind is a grand performance displayed in a spacious, yet enclosed, opulent setting with bright lights, high ceilings and a large ensemble of talented musicians led by a passionate composer.
The London Coliseum, where ENO resides, has an audience capacity of 2,359 people per performance, while ENO’s performers are made up of a 69-piece orchestra, a 44-piece chorus and around 12 principle singers.
Socially distanced indoor theatre performances were given authorisation to go ahead by the government in August, however, how can such a large opera house, whose attendees are used to a particularly deluxe experience, possibly abide by such guidelines successfully?
“With social distancing in place, our organisation is not financially viable, because even at one meter, you take out 50% of the seats in the theatre,” says Andrew Given.
“We calculated the maximum capacity we would be able to have is 38% in the theatre. However, most theatres breakeven point is 60% for any kind of production. So, we started to look at how we can keep performing.”
Alike to many organisations, both in and out of the arts industry, ENO briefly considered going completely digital. However, this idea wasn’t entirely beneficial.
A nationwide survey for theatregoers conducted by Indigo discovered that while 83% of respondents wanted access to digital content, only 43% were willing to pay for it.
ENO has around 3,500 members and wanted to do something for them. They decided to move their usual ‘behind the scenes’ events—where theatregoers can meet singers, directors, musicians and conductors—to Zoom and adapted solo performances to feature online too.
However, they needed something bigger for their usual performances, for both their staff and attendees.
Introducing Drive & Live: the modern-day Opera experience
After investigating multiple solutions, including Perspex screens in-between seats, ENO decided on a unique idea: Drive-In Opera.
Based at Alexandra Palace, with a two-metre high stage displaying a 90-minute performance of Puccini’s ‘La bohème’, two large screens also broadcasting the performance and audiences listening through their vehicle’s FM radio and from stereo sound across the car park, this outdoor event aims to provide a safer, more suitable customer experience with live opera, launching 19 September until 27 September.
Rolling out such a change to the way opera performances are displayed was met with enthusiasm from ENO’s staff, eager to get back to their schedules.
“We reassured [ENO staff] that they're going to rehearse the production in a COVID-secure manner,” Given says.
“Everything has been rehearsed in small bubbles up until the point where we get the production on stage. We designed the production so that it has two casts, therefore if any of the cast do get ill, only their bubble will be affected and there's another cast that can take over as understudies.”
Despite the name, ‘Drive & Live’, this experience isn’t exclusive to drivers. ENO has partnered with Uber for attendees to book their own branded ‘Uber box’, travel to the venue and sit in the static vehicle to enjoy the performance.
For cycling enthusiasts, there is an option to book a bike with Lime and cycle to Alexandra Palace to watch the live performance.
“For drivers, we're very conscious of the green impact of a drive-in production, so we asked everyone to make a contribution of £3 towards the carbon offsetting of the entire run of events,” Given says.
“Over 90% of the ticket buyers are including the carbon offsetting in their purchase.”
Continuing to innovate throughout coronavirus
Innovation isn’t a new concept for ENO. As the only opera company that has performed at Glastonbury, this traditional art form can adapt and modernise.
“We haven't had any criticism from within the arts industry,” Given notes. “We've had people contacting us to talk them through what we're doing and how we're doing it, so they can adapt it for their countries.”
“We work in partnership with about 120 opera houses all over the world and I know there's definitely been interest from opera houses in Germany, and in California, who want to do drive-in operas and take the model forward.”
Being open to new, unusual ideas
In a growing digital age, for many, the first solution when coronavirus started, was to do virtual events and while this has kept thousands safe and secure, it hasn’t worked for everyone. For Given, adopting new ways to continue operating, while keeping consumers safe, is key.
“Don't rely on putting your existing product out on a digital platform,” Given says.
“The idea for ‘Drive and Live’ came from a management team meeting where we were just trying to work out how we can perform in a socially distanced way with screens between audience members and then someone mentioned that the best way to socially distance is in a car with your family.
“That just sparked a whole load of ideas and conversation and there's no such thing as a stupid idea.”