Opera Australia Marketing and Communications Director, Liz Nield, this month leaves the Company after 22 years, to take up the position of Development Director at the University of New South Wales. She speaks to Allerta! about her long and happy career with Australia’s national company.
Did you always love opera?
My parents played it at home and have subscribed to opera since the very first season. They took me to the opera occasionally when one or the other was unable to attend. We used to listen to ‘Singers of Renown’ every Sunday evening. I later became a youth subscriber and when I joined OA, bought a pile of opera CDs and I played them and played them and played them. It does feel as if I’ve always loved it.
How did you manage the career transitions that your various roles at OA demanded?
I joined OA in 1990 as the Corporate Development Co-ordinator, and was appointed Melbourne Development Manager in 1992. In 1995, I left the Company to take on the role of Development Manager with the Bell Shakespeare Company. I rejoined OA as Development Director in 1997 and in 1999 became the Marketing and Development Director. That was a very big learning curve, however, I was surrounded by very clever and experienced senior colleagues who taught me the business of opera. Trial and error is also a great teacher.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in marketing opera was learning how to deal with the fallout from the GFC. We had to find a way to stay afloat when going to the opera was not the top priority for many people who had previously attended regularly and when afterwards they seemed to have got out of the habit of going to opera. At OA commercial and artistic disciplines are tightly integrated, and the decisions we made reflect that. Under Lyndon’s direction we changed our product: Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH), for example, is a completely different offering from what we usually do. It’s still opera, but opera wrapped in a package of adventure and spectacle and place. Julie Taymor’s Magic Flute is specifically designed to appeal to families. Both productions are examples of creative decisions the Company has made to appeal to a broader audience.
Has OA come through that difficult period?
I think we’re still travelling through it. The problem was not just the immediate downturn in ticket sales; it was the fact that people had changed their buying habits. The fundamental problem with opera is that it costs so very much to produce. Ticket prices are subsidised by government funding, sponsorship and philanthropic donations, however balancing the enormous costs of opera and the various income streams is like walking a tightrope. I admire the fact that OA is trying to find creative solutions to attracting a bigger audience.
|Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour|
Was Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour marketed in a different way from what you usually do?
Absolutely. Every time we put on an opera, there is a precedent that tells us how to market that opera. We have figures going back to the end of time telling us how an opera performed and how we sold it. With HOSH, there was no precedent – we had to make educated guesses. Moreover, the most efficient way to market is to promote to a database of people who have demonstrated by their behaviour that they’ve been to a similar event. We didn’t have a database for La Traviata. We speculated that it would appeal to a lot of new people, but trying to reach new patrons is a lot harder (and a lot more costly) than trying to reach an audience that already exists.
The other really difficult thing was that all of us at OA had a good sense of what this La Traviata production was going to be: we went to the design presentation; we were given updates about the casting and about what was happening with the site. But trying to explain that in a few words in an ad was almost impossible. And we didn’t have any pictures. Marketing next year’s production will be much easier.
Did word of mouth play a big part in selling HOSH?
Yes, when the show opened we still had $2 million worth of tickets to sell, and we did it. That’s because from the first performance, reaction to HOSH has been overwhelmingly positive; the product sold itself.
|Andrew Jones (Papageno) and Nicole|
Car (Pamina) in The Magic Flute
You’ve always responded to complaints personally. What is the thinking behind that?
I always want to know what is happening in our customers’ minds. Even though it can be dispiriting, it is of enormous value to listen to our audience members’ feedback. Also, if someone has made the effort to contact us, they deserve a considered response.
HOSH has been a highlight in OA history. What have some of the other highlights in your career with the Company been?
OA is an extraordinary company and a privilege to work for. I have enjoyed all of it. The skills that you need to sell opera are pretty much the same skills that you need to sell dog food. But I don’t think I’d get out of bed in the morning with the same excitement and optimism if it weren’t for the product that the national opera company sells. My career with OA really has been one big highlight.
You’ve also been with OA through some really difficult times. What lessons have you learned from that?
There have been some tough times at the Company both financially and reputationally. The Company is under enormous scrutiny from the press and sometimes an inaccurate story just grows and grows. I think what I have learned from those times - when the media has shone a harsh light on the Company – is the need for utter transparency. Really good journalists find the truth a lot more interesting and can engage with the complexity of difficult issues.
As a marketer, what do you expect of artists?
A good product is easy to market; you just have to tell people how to get it. The best a singer can do for the Company is perform to the best of their ability.
|Opera Australia's Facebook page|
How has social media changed the marketing landscape?
It’s changed the PR landscape. But I don’t think social media has sold very many tickets. OA’s engagement with social media has demonstrated that the company is relevant and part of contemporary culture. It’s also a good way to keep people informed about our activities. It is, however, enormously time-intensive and needs to be constantly monitored as answers are required immediately.
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge facing OA today?
The number one impediment to going to the opera is the price of a ticket. The biggest challenge facing the Company is therefore: how can we produce this remarkable thing called opera at a price that is reasonable. Going to the opera for the first time is a big risk; it’s not part of popular culture and people are not sure of what they’re getting. If we could sell tickets at a lower price, people would be less fearful of trying it out. The problem is: how do you produce opera for less?
Why are you moving on?I’ve never been happier at OA than I am right now. But I’ve been here for 22 years and I would like to broaden my mind. There’s a whole new market out there, people and causes with which I would like to connect. I’ll always go to the opera, that’s for sure.