What have been the most significant learnings for us as an organisation? The venue is not the brand.

Richard Davidson-Houston, Director of Audience Development and Media, Glyndebourne

Glyndebourne is one of the finest and most celebrated opera houses in the world. In normal years it delivers performances to some 150,000 people across a summer Festival and an autumn tour.

With lockdown forcing the cancellation of its 2020 season, we asked Director of Audience Development and Media, Richard Davidson-Houston, how Glydebourne was pivoting its offer and what lockdown had taught the team about both their audiences and their organisation.

1. How have you kept audiences engaged with Glyndebourne during the pandemic?

Our number priority was to ensure that our members felt properly looked after and well-communicated with.

Our second focus was to showcase the Glyndebourne brand to as wide an audience as possible. Our tactics were biased towards doing those things that would enable us to learn new skills useful in the long term.

Rather than get caught in the stampede for attention, we waited until what would have been opening night of this year’s Festival to stream 2019’s Rusalka to our members as a world exclusive.

This was the starting gun for our weekly Glyndebourne Open House streams which will continue until the end of August. We will have streamed 16 full length operas by the time we are done. We have learned a great deal.

As lockdown began to ease, we started to plan for what could be done outside in our gardens. 

Gaining our confidence with Open Gardens, we moved on to Garden Concerts. This week we open our Outdoor Opera season. By finding a way to be open, albeit in a different and vastly reduced way, we have been able to remind thousands of people what is so special about Glyndebourne. 

It’s been a summer like no other and everything has had to be reimagined.

2. What has been the audience response to these activities?

Well, tickets for the outdoor concerts and operas sold out in 40 minutes, which rather speaks for itself. There is incredible demand.

It’s clear that lockdown absence has made the people’s hearts even fonder of live music as it no doubt has of sport and other activities. 

We are constantly challenging ourselves as to how we can safely increase capacity so as to be able to achieve the goals of looking after our members and showcasing the Glyndebourne brand. But safety has to come first and we have been very conservative on numbers.

It has been really touching to see the emotions of people, some of whom literally are coming out their homes for the first time. That they have trusted Glyndebourne properly to look after their safety is hugely rewarding. And that trust is well placed. Being together – performers, audience, staff – has been a bonding experience.

As for the live streams…we calculated this week that the total viewing time for the YouTube streams is a little over 20 years!

As a way to showcase the brand, globally, it’s been nothing short of spectacular.

3. What are the particular challenges and benefits to your operation that enabled you to respond in this way?

We are blessed to have outside space. That, very sadly, remains necessary to stage performances in front of a live audience, but it is not sufficient.

We have a imaginative and strategic team always asking “how-might-we?” in the face of challenges.

Despite the relentless bad news, we have kept our chins up and, as well as mourning what is lost, been focused on what can be done.

Our creative ambition did get slightly ahead of the regulations at one stage and we had sold all our outdoor season tickets before we realised that we were not really meant to have done! Fortunately things caught up with us just in time.

Some people suspected that we must have had a tip off but it was sheer luck. They do say fortune favours the brave!

4. Looking ahead to Glyndebourne’s future, are there any particular activities which you will continue to support?

By being closed, we have become more open. We have had to become open to new ideas, to new kinds of experiences, to new ways of doing things and of course to new audiences. I want that openness to continue.

It’s been lovely to be outside this summer but it’s not sustainable. Our audience size has been restricted to 200 whereas our theatre capacity is 1200 and you don’t have to be an accountant to spot the problem.

When the theatre opens, the gardens will go back to being gardens but I am sure we will continue to open them to visitors.

Coming to spend time at Glyndebourne in any capacity is the best way to break down any misconceptions that someone might have about the place. Lowering the barrier to entry – literally and figuratively – is important. 

Streaming will continue in some form. We have to look at the shape of the DVD market and the rise of paid streaming. We will decide what role streaming plays in that context not only as a commercial endeavour but as a form of marketing and perhaps as a benefit of membership.

5. What have been the most significant learnings for you, as an organisation, during the past few months?

I’ll pick three things among so many.

First: that the venue is not the brand.
Glyndebourne has had to exist and maintain its core meaning and purpose even while the venue is closed.

Second: people are extraordinarily generous.
I am thinking chiefly of those who have donated money to help us to help our freelancers but in fact it goes for staff at all levels as well who could have thrown in the towel but instead keep on fighting.

Third: when a crisis like this hits, it tests the creativity of everyone in the organisation, working together across teams to problem-solve and to innovate.

And we’ve learned that Glyndebourne passes that particular test with flying colours.

Images: Glyndebourne