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San Diego Opera’s ‘Listening Tour’ Asked What Opera Means To People

General Director David Bennett talks about the results of the tour

San Diego Opera's General Director David Bennett looking at one of the word c...

Photo by Beth Accomando

Above: San Diego Opera's General Director David Bennett looking at one of the word clouds created from data polled at the Chula Vista stop of the "listening tour," June 16, 2016.

San Diego Opera General Director David Bennett has been on a "listening tour" to find out what San Diegans think about opera. Here are the results.

San Diego Opera General Director David Bennett has been on a "listening tour" to find out what San Diegans think about opera.

Opera is all about listening to what the human voice can achieve.

San Diego Opera’s "listening tour" has been all about hearing what San Diegans have to say about opera in their community. Some of the words people initially used represented ideas David Bennett wanted to challenge.

"There were some words that came to people’s minds that were 'inaccessible' or 'tired,' like there was 'anachronistic' was one word that came to mind," Bennett said.

Bennett is entering his second year as San Diego Opera’s general director. He worked with Kirsty Nunez of the market research firm Q2 Insights to create the "listening tour."

"The opera wants to make sure that this is an opportunity for the community to really feed back what they want and what their expectations of the new opera are," Nunez said.

The "Listening Tour" provided clear feedback regarding the barriers — both real and perceived — that have kept people from coming to the opera.

"Cost probably a real barrier, transportation a real barrier," Bennett said of some of the results. "Then not sure what the experience of opera was going to be like in a grand space — perhaps perceived. But there were some real learning points from those conversations."

The ability to learn from data was built into the very design of the "listening tour," which involved smartphone technology that could immediately process results from the audience.

"We presented information regarding our new vision and core values and then asked a series of questions about responses to those, we showed them the responses in real time so we were able to graphically show the bar chart or a pie chart what people’s reactions were," Bennett explained.

One reaction Bennett was particularly interested in was to a new series he was launching called dētour. Essentially, it is everything that is not grand opera, so that includes chamber opera, concert opera, musical theater and opera from other cultures.

"We are on a path now as a company in making real what the community asked of us," Bennett said. "So we are on a path, we are doing new things that are on that path but that are a little bit of a different direction. So the word 'detour' came to us, a path that’s other than ordinary. So staying on the same direction of honoring what makes opera special but doing it in different ways and different kinds of spaces."

Photo caption:

Photo by Beth Accomando

The slide of one proposed alternative opera space, Mt. Helix, that was presented as part of the Chula Vista stop of the "listening tour," June 16, 2016.

When Bennett showed images of those different spaces, there were audible reactions from the audience.

"Once the conversation started about the exciting potential of performing atop of Mt. Helix and performing near the water. There is so much beautiful outdoor space here in the Courtyard, Makers Quarter. The idea of opera actually happening in those places — people are very excited to see that," Bennett explained.

After presenting all the information on the series, Bennett was happily surprised by the results.

"People seem excited and open to the potential of what opera can mean. So that’s very exciting to me because it was an untested hypothesis," he said. "Right now people are buying tickets."

Nunez added, "New people that have not been to the opera in the past are very excited about the detour series and we are seeing this as an opportunity for people to come in the detour series and then be more comfortable moving to the grand opera."

At the end of each of the four "listening tours," this question was posed to the audience: "How am I feeling about the opera now?"

"What we are getting back as people’s sentiments are this is really innovative, this is really exciting, I’m really looking forward to the future," Nunez said.

That pleases Bennett.

"The expression of innovation we communicated through the tour is key to the future of opera that was very clear," Bennett said. "I think the challenge is to try to synthesize as much of what we’ve learned into our planning and that we are incorporating as much of it as possible."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Jean=Baptiste Millot

Piotr Beczala will perform a recital at Balboa Theater on Sept. 17.

Audiences can start listening to the results when San Diego Opera kicks off its new season on Sept. 17 with a recital featuring Piotr Beczala at Balboa Theater.


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