Thursday 30 November 2017

Operatic struggles

Walking around in Vienna, three or four years ago, I came across the poster of Oper Frankfurt’s “Hansel and Gretel”. Much time has passed, but I can still recall the smile and the warm feeling this poster provoked. Simple, direct, funny, informative. It was that one moment and it was about opera.

More or less at the same time, the Greek National Opera (GNO) was embarking on an attempt to win hearts, to create a closer relationship with those living in the capital, Athens, as well as in the rest of the country. It is a national opera, after all. It was a fight for survival and there was a determination to win the battle (more on my 2013 post Opera and the City). It was much more than promoting opera a, b, c. It was about defining an identity (one that embraced values and principles) and about establishing relations on a new basis, one of proximity, relevance and support. Within this context, the GNO intended to refresh and mondernise its profile, in order to also communicate with new people, other people, people that didn’t use to relate to it. It was also clear to them that this effort, this process, had to have a concrete visual expression, one that would be immediately recognised, especially in the streets and in print media, considering the intense competition for people’s attention. The GNO wished to be part of people’s hearts and minds, in all sorts of ways, including its publicity. This resulted in a series of highly effective and distinct posters, which caught people’s attention through their simplicity and strong colours, making it immediately clear that it was GNO, and no other, communicating with them.

In 2016, the English National Opera (ENO) also embarked on an attempt to relate to new audiences or become more accessible. ENO had also been through a tough time, as the Arts Council had announced a cut of £5 million in 2014, a reduction of almost a third. A new artistic director and a new CEO took over in early 2015. The new strategic plan involved a number of management decisions, including a process of rebranding that lasted approximately 18 months and involved a new brand strategy, visual identity and a new logo. ENO had found out, through research, that people struggled to differentiate it from other opera companies. So, a change of direction was decided, a new beginning and this, naturally, involved a visual expression of ENO’s intentions. The marketing strategy was also based on the idea of summing up operas in one sentence (an attempt to move beyond the usual “opera title + production image” that would primarily connect with people who knew about it). This effort resulted, among other things, in bold, striking, emotionally engaging posters, presenting a particular element of the production together with a captivating short summary of the story (more about the rebranding, as well as its first results in this article).

And this inevitably brings us to our São Carlos National Theatre. When I shared on Facebook my negative reaction to the “Turandot” poster (negative because of the total absence of an identity, but also because of the absurd – perhaps careless – presentation of the information), one colleague reacted saying that São Carlos doesn’t need to do publicity and another said that perhaps this was a welcome (and intentional) simplicity, considering that we are being bombarded with images. Two quick answers to that: first, Coca-Cola doesn’t need to do publicity, but it does it, and does it well, because it knows there’s more to it than simply promoting a drink (GNO and ENO got that too); second, the “Turandot” poster is also an image, only it does not fulfill its purpose in any way, neither in communicating the organisation’s identity nor in informing us. The current production’s poster, “The rape of Lucretia”, has just come to confirm it.

São Carlos makes me feel that it is not “struggling”. Not enough, not like other national opera companies. It has got guaranteed funding from the State (higher than any other national theatre’s) and probably feels comfortable, also because it can count on its habitués, its loyal followers. I also read that the fact that its productions are now presented in different venues, (the Lisbon Coliseum, as well as the Porto Coliseum), is the wish of its new artistic director, Patrick Dickie, “in order to be accessible to more people”, rather than a fundamental principle of the house, of its management, no matter who the artistic director is.

I believe São Carlos should urgently reconsider its communications policy. I am afraid it might also be thinking that it “doesn’t need to”, because this is exactly what it has been communicating to us: that it doesn’t need to – that it doesn’t need us. Well, it will, one day. There’s no doubt about it. But when it will realise it (like others have), it might be too late. It might be erased from our hearts and memory, as it has been erasing itself from its own posters.

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