Singing the praises of ENO’s warm welcome

Holly Bee, Education and Communications Manager, GEM

What do you imagine when someone says “a night at the opera”? Aside from the Queen album, that is. Suits? Champagne? Steampunk binoculars perched on upturned noses? Of all the different aspects of arts, heritage and culture, opera is perhaps the one with the most perceived barriers to entry. Foreign languages, complicated compositions, expensive tickets, and a long history of very particular pop culture portrayals. These stereotypes certainly put me off, and I didn’t seek out opera when I moved near London and started searching theatre deals. But then English National Opera (ENO) announced some cheap tickets for their production of La Bohème and so I thought it was time to give it a shot. I’d like to share the experience of the evening and its string of pleasant surprises: the things ENO did to actively craft a warm welcome, all of them dead simple and easy to replicate.

Before arrival

First of all, being able to book a ticket for £12 was a huge draw. I had recently thought about seeing a different London-based opera and when the only tickets I could find started at over £100 it had immediately confirmed that the artform was out of my price range. The cheap ticket not only made it practically possible for me to go, but it made the whole experience stop feeling intimidating: how fancy could they expect me to be if that’s all they wanted for a ticket?

Furthermore, ENO has a brilliant website that puts welcome and access at the front. The prominent “Your Visit” page offers clearly marked information to make booking and visiting as easy as possible, in particular:

  • The first thing they signpost is “Ways to save”, rather than sneaking cheap tickets into the individually-labelled seats in the booking process.
  • “On the day – it’s showtime” gives you all the information about arrival times, how to collect tickets, store bags, eat, etc., in a friendly and easy-going way. For example, the lovely phrase “It’s really important to us that people with dietary, medical or access requirements can relax and have a wonderful night”, a sentiment that is repeated throughout the website.
  • “Attending opera for the first time?” is a wonderful little myth-busting page, reassuring you that you don’t need a dress code and giving you an idea of what to expect from opera and ENO in general, it promises that around a third of the audience tends to be a first-time visitor (a sure sign that they’re doing good access work!), and that seasoned visitors are friendly and happy to share. I’ve never seen something like this on an arts and heritage website (not to say that no one else has done it) and the fact that “Your first opera” is also a link on the homepage tells me that making you comfortable is ENO’s top priority.
  • “Disabled access” is another very prominent and clear page, expressed in a friendly tone that encourages trust in the organisation. Not only is access information provided, but ENO has an access scheme to offer priority booking, discounts and on-the-night support, as well as specialised performances and materials.

The ENO website is one of the absolute best examples I’ve seen of pre-visit practice and if you take nothing else from this article, I would really recommend checking out: https://www.eno.org/your-visit/

Curtain up

On entering the London Coliseum, I felt instantly welcomed. Staff were everywhere in smart-casual uniforms with big smiles on their faces. It felt so easy to ask questions and never like I was expected to know some secret code for opera-lovers. The finishing and interval times of the performance were clearly labelled, as were toilets, bars and programmes. This meant I didn’t have to deal with any anxiety around feeling trapped in a seat, unsure of being able to break or get home (as a former IBS-sufferer, this is a big deal for me, lack of information in theatres used to send me into a real panic). 

Signs also encouraged us to photograph the theatre, which I’ve never been allowed to do before. I snapped away and this really made me engage with the stunning architecture of the space, pointing out details to others and sharing them on social media. The simple permission to take and share pictures turned the theatre from someone else’s house to a public space that I had some reign over.

The programme explained the plot of each act clearly. This is pretty common practice in opera and ballet, to my knowledge, but it got me thinking about how we could apply the practice in museums. Giving short summaries of the contents of galleries could help visitors navigate, especially if there is content they wish to avoid.

Subtitles

On the theme of disability access specifically, the entire show was subtitled (or “surtitled”, as they call it). A scrolling screen was suspended above the stage subtitling the libretto (sung script), including colour changes for different singers. I honestly couldn’t say whether this was a specific access measure or if it is standard opera practice, but either way the presence of subtitles was a masterstroke for engagement. ENO already translates all its productions into English, making them instantly easier to follow for those of us new on the scene, but obviously operatic singing isn’t how we’re used to hearing our language spoken and the words could easily be obscured. Having the subtitles made it easy for me to follow the interactions and narrative. In smoothing that path, ENO opened a whole new level of appreciation for me.

La Bohème is not an opera with a lot of long solo pieces, it relies on the quick conversation of a few close characters and the easy-to-follow text let me fully understand and form a relationship with those characters. The story opens with the hero, Rodolfo, burning his play manuscript to keep himself and his friends warm in their stark flat. This is a brilliantly witty scene in which they describe the flares of drama and the dying of the audience’s enthusiasm as each page burns and smoulders. The dialogue ricochets between the two men on stage and steps up again as two more enter. This is a piece of writing that I’m sure will keep me warm next time my heating goes off. I’m so glad I could catch every quip. The characters in La Bohème are young, hot-blooded, impulsive, loyal, creative, exciting, and extremely likeable. Subtitling was the key that unlocked the heart of the production. All the love and work that had been poured into this opera became visible to the audience in a way it rarely is, because we could really digest the characters and the story. How different the experience was when that bit of extra ease was included (mostly in making me realise how much I need a Team Marcello t-shirt. Actually, I need a Team Marcello pink beret – trust me, it’s on brand).

ENO also used the subtitling technology inventively to add to the atmosphere. Throughout the lead up to the start and the interval, messages sent in by audience members scrolled across the screen, wishing happy birthday, congratulations and love. ENO’s own messages of greeting were included, encouraging tweeting and wishing us all a good evening. Small details that make a space more friendly are one of my favourite things to shout about in arts and heritage. Having the company saying hello and goodnight was genuinely heart-warming and really contributed to a feeling of welcome. The weight of history behind the production and the theatre wasn’t diminished, but it was made to feel like an old friend, rather than a revered hierarch.

From audience to community

Before the production began, the Music Director of ENO, Martyn Brabbins, came onto the stage and made a few announcements. He told us that making their ENO debuts in this production were singers Natalya Romaniw, Jonathon Tetelman and Nicholas Lester, and conductor Valentina Peleggi. He encouraged us all to give them extra support and this was met with enthusiastic applause. I really loved this moment in which the audience were brought into a familial bond with the company. Rather than having them appear as stiff professionals, they happily admitted to being new and being nervous and asked us to show them some love as they would us through their performance. It made me feel instantly affectionate towards the company and eager to see them do the amazing job they of course went on to do. It was another small detail, like the subtitle messages, jeans-wearers, signage and photographs, that made the whole environment one of ease and care.

Brabbins also told us about ENO’s Access All Arias programme, in which opera attendance is made affordable and accessible for 16-29-year-olds. He celebrated the influx of new audiences, seeming genuinely excited to see young faces in the crowd, and spoke with real joy about the work ENO is doing to diversify who comes to opera, as well who pursues careers in it. I was so happy to see a director making himself visible to the audience (rather than relying on an access-specialist spokesperson) and being excited to see new people (rather than assuming everyone felt lucky to be there). Also, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve known about something really cool that a heritage site is doing for community participation or access, then when I’ve tried to spread the word I’ve not been able to find a scrap of evidence for it because we are chronically awful at shouting about this. Having Access All Arias visible on the website, up on posters in the box office, and specially announced by the Music Director as part of the evening’s experience was so refreshing. The huge cheer it solicited shows that the ENO audience is keen to be as welcoming as the team.  We should absolutely be as loud as possible about anything we do to tackle barriers to access. It was so heart-warming and motivating to have the most senior members of ENO and the most prominent comms loudly saying “we want you here”. 

Curtain call

I left ENO’s La Bohème feeling warm, cheerful, like I’d just made a new friend. When asked how my evening was, I, for the first time ever in an arts experience, honestly responded with “cosy”. The small steps taken at every stage of my visit to say “we’re so glad to see you” built an experience for me that went way beyond enjoying a piece of art, (though that piece of art was fantastic).

I will now add a big caveat and say that I am a pretty easy person to engage. Culture has never been hard to reach for me and so I can’t speak for others in different circumstances about how successful ENO’s efforts would be for them. But on that note, the evening did something really important for me in that brought it home better than anything has before that we all need access. Having a strong and embedded message of welcome and stress-reduction meant that the evening wasn’t just one of entertainment, it was a moment of meeting. I have now signed up to the Access All Arias scheme and will be making a point of learning more about the company and the artform. A whole new arena of experience has been opened to me and all it took was a scrolling screen, some decent signage and a friendly face.

Too often the access conversation, particularly disability access, is framed as “helping a minority”. This raises all sorts of questions over whether we really need to bother, how much difference does it really make if we have the majority already? But here’s the question, do we have the majority? Really? Why do we assume that just because someone isn’t meeting a specific access barrier that a space must be inviting to them? Society doesn’t throw a whole lot in my way and I was still very unsure of whether I would really belong at the opera. It took so little to prove me wrong and make me want to go back again and again. Access All Arias and other such measures aren’t necessarily aimed at me, but that didn’t stop them making a massive difference to me as a member of an audience, and, I now believe, as a member of a community. It’s so important that professionals in the sector check our privilege, but we should also check our barriers and think about how a warm welcome affects “us” as well as “them”. Do that, and we remember that the line between “us” and “them” was pretty nonsensical all along.

I’d like to close by saying a sincere thank you to everyone at ENO, from management to cast to creative team to front of house, for a truly special experience, for being a friend, and for bringing me into a community. I would encourage all of you to check out their programme this year; take a look at the work they’re doing to make opera accessible for all, and make access holistically meaningful.

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