From The Director’s Desk: Building Innovation Without A Building

The Director’s Desk: A blog series offering perspectives from members of On Site Opera’s leadership team

“Building Innovation Without A Building”

by Piper Gunnarson, Executive Director

Not long ago, I stumbled across this image on social media (right) that claimed the following:

The largest transportation provider in the U.S. does not own a single car = Uber
The largest movie company in the world does not own a movie theater = Netflix
One of the largest hotel companies in the world does not own a single hotel = AirBnB
Having a successful business does not require owning a building, but it does require innovation!

Full disclosure: I wish I could credit the original person who wrote this, or their sources, but it was shared on social media without any such accreditation. Perhaps the facts within it are slightly off, but it does point to a fascinating trend in our economy, a trend which extends to the performing arts. The final sentence resonates with particular strength for On Site Opera: Having a successful business does not require owning a building, but it does require innovation.

The broader trend of fewer brick-and-mortar establishments reflects a growing movement by businesses to meet their customers and audiences where they live. Likewise, at On Site Opera, we have devised an entire business model around the notion of meeting our audiences on their terms: by bringing opera out of the traditional opera house and into new and unexpected spaces. While we don’t own a big building ourselves, we still rely on the brick-and-mortar facilities of our venue partners, which gives our audience a different relationship to the opera-going experience. The Netflix model is about decentralizing our entertainment away from a hub (ie. movie theater). On Site is decentralizing the opera experience by not asking patrons to come to a singular opera house somewhere, but by going into the places where people live and scattering our venues in a way that become remote islands of entertainment that people can choose to partake in. It’s the closest live theater can get to a movie shifting from a multiplex to your smartphone.

Through this process, we reach new neighborhoods, communities, audiences, ideas, architecture – everything! That said, the brick-and-mortar structure still plays a significant – even integral – role at On Site Opera. We may not have our own performing arts facility nor do we rent theater venues for our productions, but we carefully select physical spaces that will imbue each opera with an added layer of meaning. The venues where we stage our productions become characters unto themselves, creating an even deeper resonance between the opera and the audience than we might find in a conventional theater space. Performing arts are always a communal experience, whether presented in a grand auditorium, an outdoor bandshell, a stage in a park, or of an antique Chinese courtyard inside a major art museum (as with our 2019 world premiere of Murasaki’s Moon). Our ongoing experiment has been to embrace the communal gathering aspect of the performing arts experience, and to recognize the crucial relationship between art and the space in which it exists. On Site Opera will always need those physical spaces and structures in which to stage our productions, but we approach this with a curatorial eye that will bring together artists and audiences on new terms. Just like the major commercial enterprises that are innovating within their markets by shedding the traditional storefront or overhead inventory, On Site is continually innovating within the operatic art form by shedding the fixed lighting grid in favor of new LED equipment, or foregoing the orchestra pit for strategically scattered musicians. This process certainly comes with challenges and is not for the faint of heart, but the discoveries and rewards within each production are always worth the climb.  

Each new production offers a world of new discoveries, many of which we don’t even notice until our artists or audiences point them out. One of my favorite examples of this was during our production of Morning Star at the historic Museum at Eldridge Street, housed in one of the country’s oldest synagogues. Our stage manager, Sam Greene, stumbled upon a pew that had letters carved in it, which we surmised had been carved by the hand of an adolescent boy in the 1930s who must have had a wandering mind during services. What a delightful find that issued another layer of specificity and history to our performance venue. We love when artists and audiences point out their own personal findings and experiences at our venues. Have you discovered something at an On Site Opera venue that you wouldn’t have experienced in a traditional theater? Share with us! We can’t wait to hear your story behind your site-specific opera experience.

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