Opera Australia’s opera buddy program makes opera more accessible and wins fans

If you happened to pass the North Foyer of the Sydney Opera House on the first Thursday evening in February, you would have seen an elegantly dressed group of people chatting animatedly to each other as they sipped wine and enjoyed the panoramic views of the harbour. They were attending the inaugural night of Opera for One, a program that is designed for people who want to attend the opera, but don’t want to go alone.

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Opera Australia’s opera buddy program makes opera more accessible and wins fans

Judging by the reactions so far, the concept is a hit:

This is a wonderful idea, congratulations!’

‘This is something I would like to take advantage of. I don’t have an opera loving friend... Thank you, thank you!’

‘What a fantastic idea! I am sick of sitting on my own and having no one to discuss the opera with. I will be booking a ticket or two. Hats off to Opera Australia… Brilliant.’

John Quertermous, Head of Marketing and Tourism for Opera Australia, explains that the idea for the program was born from the company’s attempt to identify and remove barriers to people attending opera.

‘In surveying first-time opera attendees or people who had never been before but are interested in attending, 21 per cent cited “No one to go with” as the thing that holds them back from attending opera.’ John said the research confirmed feedback from lapsed subscribers who typically no longer attended the opera because, ‘My husband died’; or ‘The friend I used to go with moved away’.

International research supports this finding. The US government arts agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, surveyed 31 million people, and 22 per cent said they didn’t attend the arts because they had no one to go with. Innovative ideas for solo opera attendees tested well. Of those citing ‘no one to go with’ as a barrier, 90 per cent were interested in a good seating section for those attending alone, and 89 per cent were interested in a pre-show private party with a talk from the director.

Apart from a 10 per cent discount on tickets, patrons booking through the Opera for One program are met by a host and introduced to each other so they find common ground over some complimentary drinks and nibbles. A member of the creative team gives a short talk and then the group are seated together for the performance.

Lara Mahood, Marketing Manager for Opera Australia hosted an Opera for One evening and Matthew Barclay, Senior Resident Director at Opera Australia, gave the creative talk. Lara says the talk was more of a Q&A session interspersed with anecdotes that really started conversations among the gathering.

So far, the events have attracted a mix of people of different ages, ranging from their 20s to a much older demographic. There is also a range of experience from some who had been to opera before by themselves, some who had been to Handa Opera but found finding a regular opera buddy hard, and some who had been regular opera goers with their spouse but stopped coming after they lost their life partner.

‘We are not targeting the program specifically at seniors but by the nature of the program it appeals to this demographic’, says John.

While the program clearly resonates with the older demographic and meets an obvious practical need, by bringing like-minded people together, it also breaks down age barriers and builds community.

Lara is enthusiastic about the possibilities and benefits of the program. ‘We’d love to see opera buddy friendships form — we think that would be ideal, but also, for those people who like to do things by themselves or don’t have a regular partner, at least they know that there will be a couple of nights in the season where they can pop along and have a chat to someone.’ She added that a number of the women she hosted said they didn’t mind attending the opera by themselves, but that they really missed the post-show debrief, where ‘you get to share what you loved about the performance’.

Lara was clear about the motivation behind the concept. ‘As a national opera company, we always want to make sure that we make it easy for as many people to come to opera as want to. This is one thing we could do – and it was a simple thing to do.’

Opera for One tickets are available for Massenet’s Werther evening performance on 28 February or the matinee performance of Puccini’s Turandot 30 March. Opera Australia will roll out Opera for One in Melbourne in the autumn and plan to bring it back to Sydney after that with the possibility of it being a permanent part of the company’s program.

‘It’s something we definitely want to grow and expand, and reach more people through the program. This is definitely the infancy stage of it’, said John.

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