Make New Friends But Keep the Old: The Pittsburgh Opera Changes Its Image

Cynthia CloskeyGeneral

The Pittsburgh Opera has been working to appeal to a broader audience — and working hard. Most of the advertising and marketing this season features a cartoon image of a funky-looking gray-haired lady named Beth Parker, “The Opera Lady.” Ms. Parker turns out to be a real person — before and after opera performances she stands at an Opera Lady booth in the lobby of the Benedum Theater, smiling and chatting with patrons.

The Opera Lady’s key task seems to be making opera accessible to the masses, primarily by demystifying the experience. From the Opera Lady FAQ page:

Is there any special etiquette I should know about?
A little common courtesy is all you need. I’m sure you hate it when people talk and rattle their candy wrappers at the movies, or show up late, or get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the show? Same here. And if you’re not sure when to clap, just wait until everybody else does. If you really like what you hear, yell, “Bravo!” Or just cheer, which is what Opera Lady does a lot.

What’s a good show for opera newbies this season?
Pagliacci is fantastic, a fiery Italian opera that packs a powerful punch in just 90 minutes. It has the most famous aria ever written, too. In the spring, you will love The Magic Flute. It’s by Mozart so it’s guaranteed to be gorgeous. Also it combines romance, comedy, and drama, plus a dragon, an awe-inspiring Queen of the Night with incredible high notes, initiation into a secret society, and three ladies who are either naughty or nice (it’s hard to tell… ) Now that’s what I call fabulous!

Some of her answers are a little more surprising:

What should I wear?
On Saturdays’ opening night, some men like to trot out the ol’ tuxedo just to get their money’s worth. But just wear something comfortable whenever you come, people show up in jeans at every performance or what they wore to the office that day. Ladies can wear bling, a little black dress, whatever.

“Ladies can wear bling”? Yo, yo, yo, Opera Lady in the ha-zizzie.

Is the Opera Lady a force for Good or Evil? It may seem a simple issue — or no issue at all, but she has attracted both friends and enemies already. She been debated in the letters to the editor section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on local blogs and the Opera Blog, and no doubt throughout the lobbies of the Benedum.

Some call the Opera Lady and the overall flashiness of the current season’s marketing “silly and sensational”:

The card sports the most vibrant colors imaginable (magenta, turquoise, yellow, orange and red!) and employs an array of letter fonts and sizes. You would be wrong to think that the title of the opera must be prominently featured. In spite of the logo devised to complement the name of the opera (an umbrella-shaped tent reminiscent of … the circus?! Don’t they know that “Pagliacci” stands for “players” or “comedians” and does not mean, in this case, “clowns”?), you promptly forget about it. In fact, the variety of items on the card is such that not only can you not linger on the name of the opera it is supposed to bring to your attention, but also pretty quickly you either feel dizzy and overwhelmed, or lose all of your interest (or both).

Others say the opera needs to get with the times, and traditional opera-goers need to lighten up:

Many Pittsburghers the age of Ms. Savoia’s students will also remember Krusty the Klown singing the Rice Krispies jingle in The Simpsons cartoon. I laughed and saw it as a way to tie into the collective unconscious. And although I was blessed with a multilingual upbringing, as a language professor I am sure you realizes that helping people pronounce foreign words will make them better communicators. Would you rather that the “Opera Lady” left her audience ignorant of the proper way to speak unfamiliar phonemes? How can people talk about something they can’t pronounce?

It’s not an easy situation. The Pittsburgh Opera, like every other cultural institution, is struggling to cope with a changing entertainment landscape. But as they bring in new customers, they risk alienating their existing customer base.

That is, when an opera company invites jeans-wearing no-nothings to show up at the opening night of Pagliacci and The Magic Flute, long-time opera supporters in floor-length gowns and tuxes are just not going to feel they’re getting a True Opera Experience.
And they may not win over the newbies either.

Here’s the thing: The Pittsburgh Opera is never going to skimp on quality — the performances and music will remain top-notch. But the product the Opera produces isn’t just what’s up on stage. It’s the complete experience that one has in going to the opera. It’s dressing up, even a little. I don’t mean pulling out the clean jeans or the brightest bling. I mean feeling that what you’re attending is special, and appreciating it as such.

This experience is the brand. It’s the Pittsburgh Opera’s greatest asset, and it’s what they must take care not to damage. They won’t know the effects of these changes to their marketing for some time: Subscribers continue to give the benefit of the doubt for two or three years, and new potential customers take a couple of exposures to take a new brand into their hearts.

I believe this marketing campaign will have a net positive effect. But I would advise making the copy a little less faux street. Don’t be what you’re not.