Pittsburgh Opera Innovates to Reach New Audiences

Pittsburgh Opera strives to engage audiences with high-impact experiences. In 2018, they embarked on a ground-breaking project to make opera less daunting for new audiences and share deeper insights with opera lovers. They delivered visual & audio commentary to patrons’ mobile devices throughout the 2018-19 season. And they did it during performances.


Christopher Hahn discusses why Pittsburgh Opera engages audiences via mobile devices during performances.


Finding the Next Step for Engaging Audiences

Pittsburgh Opera faced many questions in considering their next step in audience engagement. First, how could they ease the concerns of potential opera-goers? “A lot of people are a little wary of diving into opera,” says General Director Christopher Hahn. “They think they have to know something. They have to learn something. They have to be prepared.”

How could they make opera less daunting? How could they guide new patrons toward positive experiences?

Second, how could they strengthen the connection between returning audiences and the production? How could they reveal new layers of a work to patrons who may have seen it many times? When is the best time to share that information? What form of content would they use? How would they deliver it?

Exploring these questions led Pittsburgh Opera to an idea. What if they delivered commentary and multimedia content during performances? This idea did not adhere to traditional assumptions. Production information and commentary typically appear in printed program books. Patrons receive the program books upon arrival. But they are most often read before the performance, during intermission, or after the show.

Many opera companies do not create multimedia content for interpretive or educational purposes. If they do, it lives on their website or social media channels. They do not encourage audiences to access that content inside the performance hall.


Christian Cox explains why Pittsburgh Opera delivers audio commentary during performances


In thinking beyond traditional approaches, Pittsburgh Opera uncovered a potential opportunity. They could ease new audiences into the opera experience and increase their comfort level. They could also deliver special information to opera lovers at the most relevant points in the production. Plus, the idea of simultaneous content was not a foreign one for the organization.

Like many opera companies, Pittsburgh Opera projects supertitles above the stage during performances. Displaying the text of the libretto enables audiences to follow along with every word as it’s sung. It keeps the story accessible for patrons who might not understand the vocal performance. This is especially needed when the opera is in a language foreign to most audience members.

In 2003, Pittsburgh Opera pioneered the use of audio description technology within the Pittsburgh Cultural District. Audio description makes performances more accessible for patrons with visual impairments. Patrons can hear the supertitles read as they appear on the screen. Patrons also receive vocal descriptions of the sets, characters, and costumes. To access audio description, patrons must check out assistive listening devices from the venue. This places a cap on the number of patrons who can access this service.

They had experience with delivering text and audio during performances. But this would be different. Rather than describe the performance or present the libretto, Pittsburgh Opera would deliver written and audio commentary about the production and the music. They would explore key aspects of the opera to bring audiences closer to the performance.

How could they deliver this content without distracting from the performance?


Christian Cox shares how Pittsburgh Opera prepared for potential pushback to the use of mobile devices during performances.


Identifying the Solution

In 2017, Pittsburgh Opera launched their own mobile app powered by InstantEncore. The app provided information about current and upcoming productions. But patrons consumed that information before or after attending a performance.

In 2018, InstantEncore announced a new service called LiveNote. This interactive performance guide delivers program notes, translations, and images to mobile devices. The Philadelphia Orchestra created LiveNote in 2014. After four successful seasons, the orchestra partnered with InstantEncore. They released a new version of LiveNote for arts organizations everywhere.

With LiveNote, Pittsburgh Opera could stream commentary and images to their app users during performances. Its use of darkened screens would minimize ambient light. LiveNote would allow users to adjust font size for optimal readability. It would also allow Pittsburgh Opera to stream multiple content tracks. Each track could focus on different elements of the production.

Pittsburgh Opera’s app could be a viable channel for engaging audiences during performances. Patrons could choose to access the content on their own devices. Encouraging audiences to use their mobile devices during performances might be counterintuitive. But there was a successful precedent in the field and a service for implementation.

According to Christian Cox, Pittsburgh Opera’s Director of Marketing and Communications, there was one thing LiveNote did not offer - audio content. “The compelling thing about audio is that a person can sit in a performance wearing an earbud. They can watch everything onstage. They can receive this commentary to help explain or give extra insights into the production. And they never have to take their eyes off the stage.”

The organizations devised a plan. InstantEncore would develop the capability to add audio commentary for a performance. The feature would require patrons to plug in their headset or sync their headset with Bluetooth. This would prevent the audio commentary from disturbing other patrons during the performance.

Pittsburgh Opera would add LiveNote to their mobile app for the 2018-19 season. They would test the delivery of text and images for Madama Butterfly and Hansel & Gretel in the fall of 2018. Once the capability to deliver audio commentary launched in January 2019, Pittsburgh Opera would incorporate it into their testing for the rest of the season.


Emily Hughes talks about recruiting beta testers and the differences in their experiences.


Developing the Testing Process

Throughout the season, Pittsburgh Opera recruited specific beta testers for the project. The total pool of beta testers ranged in age from 17 years old to over 65. They also had a wide range of technological savvy and knowledge of apps in general.

Many of the testers came from Carnegie Mellon University's Master of Arts Management program. Pittsburgh Opera recruited testers from their own education department’s volunteers. They asked members of their staff, board, and various committees to serve as beta testers. They also asked some vendors to take part.

During performances, testers sat sequestered away from most of the audience. If anything went wrong, they would not distract or annoy other patrons. Pittsburgh Opera representatives sat with the beta testers to provide help if needed. As Cox recalls, “When this was brand new for us, we thought, ‘Better to be safe than sorry.’ We tried to go out of our way to dip our toe in the water carefully and strategically.”

Beta testing occurred during Madama Butterfly, Hansel & Gretel, afterWARds, Glory Denied, and La bohème. After each performance, testers completed an online survey about their experience. Pittsburgh Opera shared testing results with InstantEncore. The feedback informed decisions for ongoing development of LiveNote.


Mia Bonnewell reveals her process for creating Pittsburgh Opera’s visual and audio commentary.


Creating the Content

Creating commentary for delivery during opera performances requires an intimate knowledge of the music, the production, and the narrative. Pittsburgh Opera tapped classical singer and teaching artist Mia Bonnewell to create the content.

She begins by studying the score for places where things are happening, or not happening, in the music. Identifying natural lulls in the performance is critical for audio content. “The audio needs to be short enough to fit into those spots,” says Bonnewell. “Opera’s a little tricky...You have to be careful not to step on any of the action, dialogue, or sung arias.”

Next, she studies production notes to identify items of interest that could reveal a new layer of understanding. Cox recalls an example from Madama Butterfly: “There was a scene where one of the characters was holding a prop in her hand. If you’re sitting pretty close to the stage, you could tell what it was. But if you’re sitting in the back of a massive theatre - what is that thing? In the app, we had a close-up picture of the prop with an explanation of what it was, the cultural context, and its significance.”

Then, there’s the narrative. “I try to be sensitive to the arc of the story,” Bonnewell says. “A lot of the content I’ve done has been heavier at the beginning of the show. Often by the middle and the end, you’re building up to something. Then, it comes to this emotional climax. I don’t want to interrupt or ruin that for the audience.”

Balancing worthwhile content with frequency of delivery is an ongoing challenge. “What’s too much? What’s not enough?” says Bonnewell. “And making sure that I keep the bar high for quality. I think that’s the reason patrons would want to use this. So, the balance of those things. That’s different for each opera.”


Mia Bonnewell shares lessons learned during Pittsburgh Opera’s test season.


Responding to Feedback

Pittsburgh Opera will conclude beta testing with the 2018-19 season’s closing production of Don Pasquale. Feedback throughout the season has been positive. “The beta testers responded very favorably to the experience,” says Cox. “There was certainly a novelty factor to it, but they also found the content compelling and engaging.”

Digital Marketing Manager Emily Hughes agrees, “They see that Pittsburgh Opera is trying to connect to them in a different way. I think that has helped them to see this as a positive route.”

She notes that they did see some differences in survey responses based on age. “From the younger cohorts, we did see that they had an easier time navigating the app. They also reported having a more positive experience than some of the older testers. But that was something we expected based on their app knowledge and how they consume media.”

On the other hand, some of the older testers very much enjoyed the commentary. “They could experience operas they had seen 10 to 20 times in a different way,” says Hughes.

Some of the survey feedback led to changes in content focus. During Madama Butterfly, Pittsburgh Opera provided two content tracks labeled “Beginner” and “Advanced.” Cox explains, “The genesis of that was going back to thinking there are two kinds of users. There are aficionados who already know a lot and want that extra level of detail. They can go to the Advanced track. For the neophytes, who are newer to the opera world, we’ll give them the basics with the Beginner track. That was the reasoning for trying that approach the first time.”

Some testers were not sure how to determine if they were a beginner or advanced patron. Or what Pittsburgh Opera identified as a beginner or advanced patron. In fact, 64% of testers followed both tracks during the performance. As Bonnewell notes, “It seemed like people read the Beginner and Advanced tracks, and thought, ‘Well, I can handle both of these without a problem.’”

Beta testers did want more production-specific content. They wanted to know about the costumes, the sets, and the scenery. What made this production different from other productions?

Based on that feedback, Pittsburgh Opera changed their content strategy for Hansel & Gretel. They provided one track for music notes and another track for productions notes. Testers responded very positively to the change. 58% followed both tracks during the performance. Pittsburgh Opera kept this content approach for the rest of the season.

“We’ll never think that the first way we do something is the only way to do it, or even the best way to do it,” remarks Cox. “If we always did things the same way, we’d never improve.”


Pittsburgh Opera staff reflects on what they hope to achieve with engaging audiences in this way.



Breaking from traditional practices is risky. Pittsburgh Opera did three key things to mitigate that risk. First, they gave themselves time to experiment. This enabled them to try many ideas throughout the season. Second, they mapped out a thorough testing process. This provided them with first-hand data to inform their developing engagement strategy. Third, they responded to feedback and adapted with each test. This pushed Pittsburgh Opera to devise a stronger solution.

The risk paid off. They have thoroughly tested a new approach for engaging opera audiences. As their season draws to a close, Pittsburgh Opera stands ready for the future.