Streaming gives opera a new stage

Hit hard by the pandemic, streaming is a lifeline for the arts, but requires technology infrastructure investment.

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A night at the opera no longer means travelling to the great opera houses of Vienna, London, Paris or Sydney. Streaming of opera productions was already growing in popularity before Covid-19 silenced the world’s great operas, but in the post-pandemic economy, a digital night at the opera is set to increase in popularity. For the technology teams backstage, a new stage is being set as they modernise the technology estates to deliver impact both in the theatre and on screen.

Entertainment and media witnessed its largest drop in revenues in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Accountancy and business advisory group PWC reports a 3.8% decline in global revenues, box office revenues for movies fell by 71%. Physical distances prevented not only attendance to the opera and theatre, but also ended rehearsals and of course made the roles of set building, costumes and lighting impossible due to the need to work physically close to colleagues and performers. Early in the pandemic Cirque du Soleil, a theatrical circus performed in major theatre and opera houses in the main, had to make 95% of its workforce redundant.

Digital response

Many leading opera and artistic organisations responded in the same way as families and workers, deploying online video as the new stage from which to reach its audience - and in many cases a new audience, who, locked in their homes were open to experiencing new cultural outlets. Russia’s Bolshoi Theatre took its collection and archives online, and within a week reported over four million visits. The Paris Opera found earlier in 2021 that its plans to re-open in January could not take place, its performances of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Andrew Gretry and Chevalier de Saint-Georges were filmed and released via the Opera de Paris on-demand video site. A similar strategy was followed by Scotland’s Edinburgh International Festival in 2021. Whilst in the USA, the Lyric Opera of Chicago moved its production of Der Ring des Nibelungen to a car park, physical attendance was possible by driving from scene to scene, and non-drivers could watch a streamed version.

As global vaccination rates increase and economies reopen, there is a return to the opera houses and theatres taking place, but streaming of opera and theatre is, like many of the digital trends of the pandemic, set to remain in place and in all likelihood grow. PWC believes video streaming will grow by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.6% by 2025, and make the streaming industry worth $81.3 billion. Good news for opera houses is that music is set to be the strongest area of growth, seeing a revenue growth of 12.8% CAGR over the next five years, according to PWC, who calculated that in 2020 live music revenues dropped by 74.4%. The PWC study states there will be a good return to live music, alongside this growth in streaming.

The roll out of 5G networks, delayed in some economies by the pandemic, will increase the consumption of streaming services and the PWC Global Entertainment Media Outlook 2021-2025 report finds that internet access made up 34% of entertainment and media spending by consumers in 2020, and the accountants believe this will increase by 4.5% CAGR by 2025, driven by mobile internet access. 

“The pandemic slowed the entertainment and media industry last year, but it also accelerated and amplified power shifts that were already transforming the industry,” says Werner Ballhaus, Global Entertainment & Media Industry Leader Partner at PwC Germany. “Whether it’s box office revenues shifting to streaming platforms, content moving to mobile devices, or the increasingly complex relationships among content creators, producers and distributors, the dynamics and power within the industry continue to shift. The hunger for content, continued advances in technology and new business models and ways of creating value will drive the industry’s growth for the next five years and beyond.”

Ballhaus adds that younger generations have: “little awareness of, or interest in, traditional media”, which increases the importance of arts such as opera investing in streaming to attract new audiences to its art form and live performances. “Media platforms designed for young consumers or that enable lightly-produced, authentic content have boomed.”

This boom is not without its challenges for operatic and theatre organisations. In London the National Theatre told UK newspaper The Guardian that it screened 17 productions during the pandemic, which 15 million viewers consumed, across 170 countries, but the donations received from those viewers was not enough to make the theatre financially viable.

Faced with a similar challenge, the Royal Opera House, across the River Thames from the National Theatre recently carried out major modernisation of its technology infrastructure in order to support both the continued growth of streaming, but also to make the opera house more efficient. “We are increasing our streaming to both cinemas, live and on-demand to people’s homes,” says Daniel Rubie, Head of Technology Operations at the Royal Opera House.

With the Royal Opera House closed during the pandemic Rubie and team led the modernisation of the server, virtualisation and hybrid cloud infrastructure. “We wanted to be in a good position when we could open again.

“We had two co-location data centres and a MPLS network that linked back to the opera house in Covent Garden, and the data centre equipment was getting very old,” he says. The Royal Opera House wanted to use cloud computing to improve services to customers, the performance of its business applications and analytics. Hybrid cloud, underpinned by Nutanix technologies were selected as the best fit for purpose, delivering lower storage costs, technology capacity flexibility, and cloud service management for the Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure platforms the opera house uses.

“With the old estate we could not deliver what the business needed,” Rubie says, adding that as with his peers in the enterprise, The Royal Opera House is now using technology to work in new ways. “Our technical production teams, who are responsible for stages and costumes, for example, previously had data sets in different systems, that has now been rationalised onto one system. We have enabled greater remote working and our AWS hosted ticketing system links seamlessly with the financial and CRM systems,” Rubie says. At the riskiest time, the Royal Opera House has reduced the risk the institution faces by cutting costs and putting in the technologies to support increased physical and streaming audiences. The opera house, in normal times, stages 420 live performances a year, which with the legacy technology estate provided no time for maintenance and upgrades.

The pandemic demonstrated to many the importance of a well-funded healthcare system, bird song, family and the arts, but the cost of the pandemic could yet weaken the arts, making technology strategies and modernisation vital. Scientific and cultural body Nesta recently stated: “Despite having an important role to play during and after the pandemic, arts and cultural charities are under significant threat due to the crisis’ economic implications.”

Rubie at the Royal Opera House says of the organisation’s senior leadership team: “They want us to take a lead and show what the art of the possible is”. A term widely used by CIOs and CTOs, in a post pandemic economy, opera and the arts will need a stream of the possible.