Philadelphia's Festival O presents a new take on an old saw about how you get to Carnegie Hall (practice, practice, practice), but in this case, it’s plan, plan, plan. “We started planning for this four years ago,” says Frank Luzi, vice president of communications for Opera Philadelphia.
The idea for the festival was two-fold: to further establish Philadelphia as a cultural center, but also as a response to current trends. “We took a deep data dive into the habits of our patrons,” explains Luzi. “We discovered that more people were coming but fewer tickets were sold and our subscriber base (season ticket holders) was shrinking. We realized that many people want to consume opera differently.” In addition to the data, Luzi and his team considered current trends, including how people binge-watch Netflix programming. “Opera Philadelphia doesn’t just stay in our lane. We try to take good ideas from everywhere, whether it’s other events or a corporate culture of customer service like Disney.”
After two full years of planning, the 12-day Festival O debuted this September with 31 performances in a variety of spaces, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a free broadcast at Independence National Historic Park (which drew 6,000 people). “Our company has been changing the perception of opera for the last decade. It’s not something we are preserving—it’s a contemporary art form too,” says Luzi.
The 12-day festival included radically different performances, from “We Shall Not Be Moved,” which blended hip-hop, spoken word and opera, to a reimagined live-action cartoon take on Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” Three world premieres entailed significant artistic planning and the festival itself required hundreds of hands. “We brought a small army in since we had five different performance spaces, which means we also needed five rehearsal spaces,” explains Luzi.
While the staff is typically under 50 people, the festival required up to 400 (including artists). The biggest challenge? “Being everywhere we needed to be at once. One day we had five different events—fully produced operas—in five different spaces. Nothing totally prepares you for that crush of activity,” says Luzi. Another challenge was inherent in the use of different spaces. From ticketing procedures to translation technology, many of the spaces were not equipped for professional-level productions. “We designed a new ticketing system just for the festival, as well as an app,” says Luzi. “The app allowed patrons to access tickets, receive translations right on their phones, included maps for getting from one performance to another and even had hotel and restaurant specials from our partners.”
While the festival was indeed a “big, all-atonce effort,” those efforts certainly paid off. “There were 32,000 tickets issued (including the free broadcast) and three of the five operas were sold out weeks in advance,” says Luzi.
Next year, the festival will be 11 days and will be timed to coincide with the ending of the popular Fringe Festival. “We have plans as far out as 2021 already,” says Luzi. Venue challenges are already rearing their heads. “We have a composer writing a world premiere about Alzheimer’s and we’re looking for a space that will give you the feeling of not quite trusting what you are seeing.”
Seeking venues that heighten the experience, forming hotel and restaurant partnerships and even creating special branding opportunities (Flying Fish Brewery crafted an “OPA,” or Opera Philadelphia Ale, especially for the festival) is all in a day’s work for the dedicated Luzi and his team. “We are known for creating adventurous, artistic experiences and we are already the only company in the United States to offer a regular season and a festival,” he says.
Never content to rest on any laurels, however, Opera Philadelphia seeks to reach further afield. “We want to grow the international profile of Opera Philadelphia, the festival and this city.”