Opera is embracing the virtual world with Instagram, the photo-driven social media platform that now has an active community of classical music fans and industry users. Typing “#opera” into its search bar yields more than three million posts.
Many of those posts are coming from performers who see the platform as a way of connecting with their fans. But for others, it’s becoming an important part of developing their career.
Instagram has become a tool that helps boost a performer’s chances of getting work, as opera houses – many of which are struggling to fill auditoriums – see an opportunity to sell tickets by hiring a performer who is popular online.
And artists aren’t just going it alone. Some see a well-curated feed as such a vital step in getting the attention of directors and others involved in the casting process that they’ve turned to professional communications experts to cultivate their brand and build their online presence.
“We aren’t directly selling a product to our followers.” says Olivia Renaud, a Paris-based American communications specialist who works with tenor Benjamin Bernheim and soprano Nadine Sierra. But, she says, “we’re potentially selling tickets” by showcasing performers.
“I know some houses do look at social media followings and how active [they are], because they know, especially in the U.S., that there is a little bit of difficulty in some ticket sales. So if they see the younger generation is really into an artist online, they say, ‘Oh, there’s a high number of followers, maybe those people will come and buy tickets.’”
Elizabeth Bowman, who runs classical PR firm Bowman Media, agrees. “Opera houses are looking at artists who have a lot of followers who they can piggyback onto. … It’s all a big game of piggyback.”
So while opera superstar Anna Netrebko is renowned for her voice, her Instagram presence (she has close to 400,000 followers) certainly helps to promote her. Netrebko also posts photos of food, family and friends in order to help her demonstrate that opera stars have lives just like anyone else.
“Anna was already very famous before Instagram,” notes Israeli soprano Chen Reiss. “It’s not like the platform made her famous. But it has changed our world, tremendously.”
Reiss, who won acclaim for her Royal Opera House debut as Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni this past spring, also uses her Instagram feed less as advertising than as a tool to communicate with fans. While she post photos of herself in costume and onstage, as with Netrebko, she posts photos of her family, too. “If someone goes to opera and hears me for first time, it’s nice for them to find me and see my photos, and learn a bit more about my life. I think it’s natural; people are curious,” she says. “But when I go onstage, I am who I am, and if I start thinking about branding and how I want people to perceive me, I think it would affect my artistry in a very negative way.”
French tenor Bernheim, who made his American debut in the title role of Gounod’s Faust with Lyric Opera of Chicago last season, says users should “see us as people that they can reach,” instead of distant, haughty artists. He adds that the platform is useful to connect with “younger generations of singers who want more feedback, or experience of stories about how we began our careers. It allows us to have a link.”
Bernheim, with Renaud’s help, maintains a highly curated Instagram page focusing solely on his career. There are photos of him in suits, in jeans, of opera house exteriors and shots from the stage; fashionable, slick, visually meticulous, his feed is a lesson in high-end marketing. “I really wanted to work with someone and not be alone with this because I didn’t trust my own perspective,” Bernheim explains. "I wanted two opinions to brainstorm, to think about strategy.”
“He didn’t want to show as much of his personal life, he really wanted it to be about singing,” Renaud explains, “and I felt that this look fit with the message we were trying to project, and the types of roles he’s singing – romantic heroes. We wanted people to feel they were knowing a certain aspect of him.”
"It’s very important for artists at a certain level to delegate this type of stuff because they do need to focus on their performance,” Bowman says. The New York-based specialist handles a number of Canadian artists, including Joyce El-Khoury and Wallis Giunta (both of whom, she notes, are “very proficient on their Instagram channels”), as well as her husband Benjamin Bowman, concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Elizabeth Bowman creates what she calls “an overall branding idea” for her clients. “If, for instance, a singer is making a transition from Puccini to Verdi repertoire, and they may not be known for singing any Verdi, we try and curate content to form our own narrative about that.”
Other narratives can be formed as well – not all of them accurate, or desirable. American baritone Jarrett Ott, currently with the Stuttgart State Opera ensemble, posted photos of his summer nuptials and received some unexpected feedback. “People said, ‘Oh my gosh, where do you get the money to do this stuff?!’ I am an artist starting out, I don’t have any kind of family money, but I try to make the best of what I’ve got. When I saw those messages, it kind of took me aback, and I thought, maybe I do need to start posting the bad stuff. Because we’re a product, we have to figure out what we want to put forth.”
Mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb agrees. A graduate of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio, the Canadian-Tunisian singer won third place at this year’s annual Operalia singing competition. Her Instagram feed is a mix of dog photos, performance shots and fitness routines. Earlier this year, Chaieb experienced a relationship breakup, broke her foot and moved to another country. Her posts alluded to her hard times. “People can post what they want, but they don’t post realistic things, and they don’t post the bad things. If you’re going to use Instagram as a little sneak peek of what life is, well, my life is not peaches and roses all the time! People need to know it’s not this perfect lifestyle.”
“I like to say ‘honesty resonates,’ because the important thing is, whatever you’re projecting, there is an element of realness,” Bowman says. “If you really are showing something, it will go a lot further, and people will relate to it.”
Being realistic, however, frequently gets lost amidst the tiny-bikini/yoga-pose posts that garner attention. “If you want to move far away from our art form and post provocative photos, then maybe that will convince people to go on your website, but are they going to go to the next step, of hearing you sing opera?” Reiss wonders. “What you are selling onstage is not what you are selling on Instagram; it’s a completely different image.”
“There needs to be an element of real,” Bowman says. “That is very key to a successful post. Every step counts; we’re all in this together. We’re trying to keep classical music alive, and to keep opera well.”