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OPERA

Opera Omaha invites audience to tweet
By Bob Fischbach
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER


Opera fans can be notoriously fussy about their opera-watching experience, as anyone caught coughing — or noisily unwrapping a cough drop — in mid-performance might discover.

So it’s something of a surprise that Opera Omaha has become the first fine arts organization in the city to invite Twitter users to do their thing during a live performance.

Well, almost. A group of about 15 invited tweeters — some opera lovers, some not — will attend the dress rehearsal tonight of “Bluebeard’s Castle” at the Orpheum Theater. Performances Friday and Sunday will not be open to live tweets.

Still, the decision puts Opera Omaha squarely in the middle of a national debate about whether arts organizations should or even must embrace the use of social media during performances to expand audiences and cater to younger tastes.

A growing number of theaters nationally, from Broadway to smaller cities, have been experimenting with tweeting.

Twitter, which limits tweeters to 140 characters for each electronic post, is all about instantaneous comment and reaction.

“Word-of-mouth is great,” said Amy Ellefson, ticket sales manager at Opera Omaha. “But each person tweeting thoughts to 2,000 followers as they watch — well, it’s a great way to communicate information in a different way and to get new people into the theater.”

Users typically post from smartphones. That raises concerns about light from the phones distracting fellow audience members and even performers. Ellefson said the Orpheum is large enough that seating Twitter users in a place where others won’t be bothered — a loge area, for example — is not a problem. Still, she said, Opera Omaha is being careful not to alienate its core audience. The experiment is limited this time to 15 handpicked Twitter users and to dress rehearsal, not a paid performance.

Another possible drawback: Opera Omaha has no way of knowing what the Twitter users will say.

“We’re opening ourselves up here,” said Ellefson, who pitched the idea of Twitter at Opera Omaha after seeing a Palm Beach (Fla.) Opera posting that invited applications for its “tweet seats.”

This is the second season “tweet seats” have been offered for opera dress rehearsals in Palm Beach’s Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, which also has had tweeters at pop concerts, the symphony and Broadway musicals.

The National Endowment for the Arts started a Twitter conversation in February that posed the question: To tweet or not to tweet during a performance? The rousing debate went on for a week between those who favor added interaction and awareness and those who see it as simply rude. The naysayers also fret that people tweeting are not focused on the performance, and that artists deserve their full attention.

Some theaters have limited Twitter posts to before and after the show, or during intermission.

Ellefson said use of Twitter will only grow. Opera Omaha had 1,614 Twitter followers last month, up 60 percent from eight months ago. Ellefson uses it for opera news, special ticket offers and promoting shows.

Jonathan Fischer, 35, said he thinks tweeting during a show is a terrible idea, but he’s happy to take part anyway.

“If they want to invite somebody who knows how social media work, I’ll be happy to sit and tweet, try to raise awareness,” said Fischer, a commodities trading compliance officer for a Gretna company. “I just don’t think tweeting is the way to go about raising awareness.”

Fischer, who lives in midtown and successfully auditioned for Opera Omaha’s 2013-14 chorus, said rehearsal tweets might be all right, but at a performance, conductor Hal France “would probably throw his baton at somebody.”

Bailey Hemphill, an assistant editor at Omaha Magazine, said she has discreetly tweeted before at Orpheum shows, including the Broadway musical “Mary Poppins.” As a representative of the magazine, she said, her posts from the opera “won’t be nearly as crazy and casual as my personal side would be.”

Hemphill, 23, said she’s loved opera since she was “in the womb” and is curious how it will work to try to pay attention to the show while tweeting.

“It will definitely be interesting to see what other tweeters will have to say,” she said. “We come from very different backgrounds. For some it will be mind-boggling, for others boring. Some may suddenly fall in love with opera.”

Whatever the reaction, Hemphill said, it’s a shift from the traditional live-theater rules that “we need to sit still, be quiet and not discuss what’s happening.”

“At home you can pause the DVD and talk,” she said. “With theater, it’s going to take a little while.”

Ellefson said people in the arts understand the value of luring a new audience. If you can do it without alienating your current audience, she said, it’s a huge plus.

Roger Weitz, general director of Opera Omaha, sees the potential for thousands to hear about the vibrancy of opera through Twitter.

“Perhaps best of all, they’re hearing about it directly from their peers,” he said. “Platforms like Facebook and Twitter open up a dialogue. I believe the next generation of operagoers is looking to engage and participate rather than simply attend.”

Contact the writer:
402-444-1269, bob.fischbach@owh.com

Contact the writer: Bob Fischbach

bob.fischbach@owh.com    |   402-444-1269

Bob reviews movies and local theater productions and writes stories about those topics, as well.

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