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The Culturephiles

Behind the Music

How the Dallas Opera Won the Internet

Andrew Recinoa

Andrew RecinosPresident, Tessitura Network

TitleBehind the Music: How the Dallas Opera Won the Internet


Read/View Time7 min

You have rock stars: are you leveraging them now to strengthen relationships?

Since the start of the pandemic, Tessitura has talked with thousands of cultural professionals about their challenges and successes. We have synthesized our learnings into Six Traits of Forward-Looking Cultural Organizations. This post is about Trait 2: Strengthen your Relationships.

Our story begins with Milli Vanilli. In the late 80’s, the pop duo had risen to great fame, fallen into great ignominy, and then promptly disappeared. One day, years later, two executives for the music video channel VH1 were having lunch and wondered together, “What ever happened to Milli Vanilli?” After months of research and cajoling, they brought Milli Vanilli in front of the VH1 cameras, not to sing, but to talk. To tell their story in a new format VH1 had decided to try out. They called it “VH1: Behind the Music.”

Words  'VH1 Music First' and 'BEHIND THE MUSIC' over an blue and orange background.

With that, one of the channel’s highest rated shows was born, and in the decades since, Behind the Music and other copycats have become a sub-genre of their own. Why are these tell-all shows so popular? Knowing the story behind the person makes the whole experience richer, the connection stronger.

“Knowing the story behind the person makes the whole experience richer, the connection stronger.”

You can listen to Bruce Springsteen albums all you want, but for those lucky folks who got to see the sold-out Springsteen on Broadway, they left the theater talking not about music, but about all the stories he told between the songs. As the Guardian noted “There’s a new fragility and a new light cast on the songs.”

Fragility, intimacy, vulnerability. All words that speak to the raw humanity of people we often think of as untouchable superstars. All words that speak to the moment we live in right now. Behind the music, behind the art, behind the theater: even in the COVID age, telling the stories behind the culture is a potent way to strengthen relationships with your audiences, especially with live performance on hiatus.

“Fragility, intimacy, vulnerability. All words that speak to the moment we live in right now.”

Just ask The Dallas Opera.

As the COVID pandemic shut down live attendance at performing arts institutions across the globe, opera companies quickly moved to share their work digitally. Led by the Metropolitan Opera’s lush productions, opera companies began streaming archival performances in an effort to remain connected to audiences.

Unlike the Met and others, The Dallas Opera didn’t have a huge archive to stream. How would they stay connected? The answer didn’t come from their marketing, digital or fundraising teams. Rather, it was their Artistic Administrator, David Lomeli who had the brainstorm. They couldn’t share what was onstage, but they could share life from backstage: Behind the Opera.

As Lomeli recounted on NBC 5 in Dallas, “Instead of being the NBA, why don’t we become ESPN and talk about it? It was about singing. We don’t sing, but we talk about singing in different ways.”

It was the same idea the VH1 execs brainstormed decades before.

Lomeli brought the idea to General Director Ian Derrer, and Derrer said simply, “go for it.”

“Instead of being the NBA, why don’t we become ESPN?”
David Lomeli, The Dallas Opera

With the green light from Director Ian, the Dallas Opera’s TDO Network was born. Modeled on an actual TV station, Lomeli and colleagues created a series of recurring online shows featuring Dallas Opera personalities:

  • #AskMaestro featuring Music Director Emmanuel Villaume
  • Diva Who Hustles with soprano Susan Vinnik who is also a successful fashion designer
  • Taking the Stage with Kristian and Quo with Education Director Kristian Roberts and Company Culture Manager Quodesia Johnson talking education, community engagement, equity and diversity
  • And many, many more

And from there? Things blew up. TDO Network has now been viewed in 50 countries with more than nine million views on Facebook, far surpassing most other opera company outreach worldwide since the start of the pandemic.

And without ever streaming a single opera production.

  1. Knowing the story behind the person makes the whole experience richer, the connection stronger. The people who perform, deliver and curate your culture are - just like Springsteen - your rock stars. Utilizing star power is a great way to build relationships at a time when they aren’t on stage.

  2. These moments of unvarnished humanity are COVID-proof. VH1 found that artists chatting in a studio can provide an experience as meaningful as performing on-stage at an arena, and the chats can be accomplished while observing pandemic restrictions.

  3. As the Dallas Opera has found, shining a light Behind the Culture is a low-cost, high-impact way to Strengthen Relationships with their audiences (Trait 2).

  4. Finally, by offering episodes for every taste, The Dallas Opera is doing their best to Engage All Audiences (Trait 1), using their art form as the launchpad for a variety of experiences and discussions including the importance of centering equity in the business of arts and culture.

In short, the Dallas Opera formula has been:

  • Leverage your artists and administrative team;
  • Don’t be afraid of a little vulnerability;
  • Work inside and outside of your core product; and,
  • Do it all with a goal of strengthening relationships with your community.

At nine million viewers and counting, it would appear that The Dallas Opera’s formula is working.

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