Social media is revolutionising how theatres and their artists communicate with audiences and fans. Teatro alla Scala, which has an august, though often severe, reputation is, surprisingly, emerging as one of the top players in social networking. It had some catching up to do. The Royal Opera House and the Metropolitan Opera opened their Twitter accounts at the beginning of 2009. La Scala didn't get around to tweeting until December 2011.
Silvia Farina, head of Social Media at La Scala, explains.
I came in to work in the digital department at La Scala in April 2010. Before I arrived all that existed was our old internet site, which used the traditional beige and red colours and styling of our posters, and a newly opened Facebook page which was primarily used as a means to communicate with those involved in our Under30s project.
The La Scala Under30 scheme offers season tickets at greatly reduced prices, as well as the opportunity to assist preview performances. The obvious way to communicate with this age range was with Facebook, but the social platform is not only for the under-thirties.
One of my first priorities was to change the way we used Facebook. At the beginning it more or less reported the theatre's calendar and that was all. We still do this today to inform people about what's on in the theatre, but it has become far more interactive, and we make every effort to respond to each compliment or complaint that we receive. When people are angry because there is a strike and a performance is cancelled, or a singer or dancer is ill and has had to be replaced, we try and put ourselves in their position and explain the situation. Usually this has a suitable calming effect because the person doesn't feel ignored by the theatre and knows that their complaint has been noted. We do the same on Twitter.
Opening up the Facebook page to everyone certainly worked as the distribution of active followers is almost the same throughout the eighteen to sixty age range. However, it was also necessary to open up to a non-Italian audience.
In the beginning, our Facebook page was only in Italian, which, considering La Scala's international profile, was a great error. Now everything we do on social media is bilingual. Of course, this also had the benefit of drastically increasing the number of likes!
Farina also set about changing the theatre's website: its online visiting card.
In December 2010 the site was completely overhauled. It became what you can see today, but we are now starting work on the launch of a new version of the site which will be more responsive for viewing on mobile devices.
The theatre was still without a Twitter account and, unbelievably for a visual-arts organisation, a YouTube account too.
A year after I arrived I realised that we had to open YouTube and Twitter accounts. Everyone was already uploading videos taken with their phones and so on, so we wanted to provide some high-quality content that could be viewed and shared.
Like all organisations, La Scala uses Twitter, Facebook and their site to inform audiences about changes of cast, and give reminders about television broadcasts, opening of booking periods, and so on. However, apart from providing useful information, they can also provide interesting information.
I remember traveling on the metro to work and thinking what I'd personally be curious to see, and so I decided to provide content that even those paying for the most expensive seats in the house couldn't see: what happens behind the scenery.
On 7 December 2011, when our new production of Don Giovanni opened the season, we also débuted on YouTube with video clips of the production, and Twitter, providing live tweets of what was happening onstage as well as backstage.
Every tweet had an attached photo or video along with a comment or explanation, in English and Italian, and they were sent out to coincide with the action on the stage. This was interspersed with what was happening in the dressing rooms, in makeup and wigs. For this Don Giovanni we captured Daniel Barenboim embracing Stéphane Lissner before entering the pit, Barbara Frittoli doing vocal exercises, and President Napolitano greeting the singers after the performance, all shot and uploaded with a normal cell phone.
We had a huge success with this venture, so we have continued with this approach, and it has become something of our trademark. I think we're probably the only theatre who does this also when the opera or ballet company is on tour; we've just got back from covering our run of Giselle in Paris.
We then did the same thing with the first ballet of the season which was Excelsior in January 2012. Roberto Bolle was in the cast and he has always collaborated willingly with our various initiatives.
Japan Tour 2013
I asked Bolle about his thoughts on social networking.
I believe that today it is fundamentally necessary to use social media and the various other possibilities that the internet offers. Only in this way can we attract a younger audience to a place and an art with such an antique tradition, often not well known or appreciated.
To enjoy fully the society we live in and participate in contemporary life means to adapt and take advantage of all it has to offer. Social media offers new forms of communication that are important and innovative.
Bolle is somewhat of a social media veteran, having joined Twitter a couple of years before La Scala.
I started using Twitter and then Instagram and have gained a large number of followers. I like these platforms because they offer a new way of interacting with the public, to let people be part of an artistic journey, to allow them to follow you into the theatre, in the rehearsal room and even backstage, in a way that has never been possible before. It revolutionising how we communicate.
But doesn't showing an Étoile putting on his makeup or publishing selfies in the dressing room take away some of the aura?
First with the traditional media, then with the help of the new digital media, the perception of the artist has drastically changed. There are no longer the remote and inaccessible divas of years gone by. I think that showing the human side of an artist can only enhance their appeal, and bring him closer to the public.
It shows the human aspect certainly – “Look, they're like me!” – but we only show a part of the offstage preparations. It helps audiences and fans know more about the people they usually see as stars onstage. Perhaps it generates even more curiosity about the performer.
Being filmed and photographed backstage… does everyone cooperate?
Well yes, though of course some people aren't comfortable talking to camera, and some want to wait until they have their full makeup on before being photographed which, of course, is completely understandable! For example, some Russian dancers would rather not speak in English or Italian, but they're fine about us taking a photo with rollers in their hair. It is also getting easier as everyone is now used to these forms of communication and many of the artists use social media anyway.
The YouTube videos that La Scala puts up are well made, but at a price… zero.
Soon after I started this job we began collaborating with the IULM Università di comunicazione e lingue [University of Languages and Communication] which produces our trailers, our ‘The making of…' series, backstage clips, interviews, and so on, and at no cost for the theatre. The students are apprentices, getting experience recording some of the most famous artists in the world in stunning surroundings, and we get beautifully realised videos for promotion and publicity.
Everyone cites the use of social media as a way of enticing a new audience – often a younger audience – into the theatre.
Paolo Besana, head of La Scala's Press Office, says,
Our presence on the social networks allows us to reach a wider and diverse audience, including those who have never been subscription ticket holders, those who don't receive our newsletters, and those who don't read the cultural section of the newspaper. Usually we're talking about a younger public who maybe have more limited finances.
How does that happen? How are they ‘reached'?
With Twitter, each time I send a tweet – says Farina – many of my friends and followers will see it. Therefore if I tweet a photo of Roberto Bolle, maybe a Twitter follower will see it who has never heard of Roberto Bolle. However, for that person to notice it, and maybe even retweet it, it needs to be interesting and it needs to grab their attention.
What else can be done with Twitter and Facebook?
At this time, we have this great Étoile Roberto Bolle, but using social media helps us to show off new talent and introduce new names and faces too.
This is something that Besana finds particularly interesting.
Traditional communication via newspapers and magazines often concentrates on the famous name or title as a way for the page editor to attract attention to an article. There is more opportunity in the social media to draw attention to emerging talents, lesser known works or the less obvious aspects of a performance. The backstage streaming we did for the opening of the opera season with Fidelio is an example of this, where we were able to talk to the stage technicians. These are things that the public are interested in, yet with a newspaper there is not the space to say, “La Scala has an ambitious new production, so let's talk to the props maker.” Perhaps the journalist has an interest, but the editor, obviously, couldn't justify dedicating precious space to an unknown face. Obviously we talk a great deal about the new public to be found via social media, but I think one of the most important factors is the content.
An important point. I have friends in the traditional media who ingeniously find ways of expressing their thoughts on a four-hour opera in 500 words or so. A blogger can ramble on as much as needed – and often, not needed – and dedicate as much space as he wants to the new face or the lesser-known work. The odd thing is that sometimes an offbeat piece about the unknown can attract more visitors in the long run than the sure-fire hit article about a famous name. Whatever, it doesn't matter to the blog's future. Newspapers can't take many such gambles.
Farina has also noticed the power of online competitions for stirring up interest.
We have had great success with online contests. The first was with Sasha Waltz's Roméo et Juliette. At first, it was first thought that Bolle would be in the cast which always guarantees a certain level of ticket sales, but when it was announced that he wouldn't be, and people realised that it wasn't MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet either, we had some difficulties in attracting audiences. To stimulate interest, a contest was launched using a video from our rehearsal rooms with the dancers stopping during a pas de deux between the two lovers, and saying “If I say, ‘Romeo and Juliet', what comes to mind?” The best answers on Twitter were rewarded with tickets to see the ballet and they tweeted their reactions during it. They were free to say whatever they liked, using our hashtag for the event. We received thousands of tweets, so it was extremely difficult to choose the winners. It had the result of also greatly increasing interest in our Twitter account and we're now nearing 130,000 followers.
At the end of October 2014 La Scala reached 100,000 followers on Twitter. In just three months the number has increased by 30%, overtaking The Royal Opera House and now edging ahead of The Met.
Have there been any negative reactions to the use of social media by the theatre?
The only negative comments about our activities that we've received is from people who believed that we were tweeting with our phone screens lighting up the theatre. Of course, we are very careful about this, using boxes where neither other members of the audience or the artists on stage can see what we are doing.
Backstage at La Scala
So now everything is up and running, what happens next?
Well, we've just opened on Instagram, after having to free up our name as someone else was using it, as had happened with both YouTube and Twitter incidentally.
After the success of our backstage glimpses using Twitter, we decided to try the more ambitious project of live streaming from the wings during Barenboim's last opera as music director, Fidelio, which opened our current season. A four hour live stream! It was complicated to set up but, when you consider we were competing with a live transmission on Italian television and in cinemas around the world, international radio, and with the many local and international TV crews who were transmitting from the foyers, we were rewarded with a large number of viewers who didn't have access to these other channels to follow the opera. Again we used apprentices from IULM so apart from the cost of setting up a dedicated data line, it cost the theatre almost nothing.
Certainly something to underline in Italy's current economic climate!
We were able to show the Chorus Master giving indications from behind the proscenium, technicians absorbed in the action on stage, and so on. Then when the curtain was down, before and after the opera and during the interval, we were able to switch on our lights and microphones and we interviewed everyone from the soprano to the chief technician, from the orchestra leader to the head of props. Now we hope to repeat the experiment for ballet.
Of La Scala, Fred Plotkin wrote,
If any opera house is first among equals, it is the magical La Scala. It is every singer's dream to appear there and every opera lover's dream to hear a performance there.
But like most opera houses it receives constant criticism about elitism, an opinion the theatre is trying to change through social media. Farina says,
There are prejudices about this theatre which, to be fair, are obviously based on truths, the main ones being than it is not accessible for ordinary people, that the tickets are pricey etc. Well, the tickets are certainly more costly than those for the cinema, but there are many ways of coming to see something at La Scala without emptying your pockets. With our social media we try to let people know about these opportunities.
Of course, if you win one of our contests, you can get in free!
Join La Scala online: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.