The past two years have seen a fundamental shift in how audiences interact with live performances. Theater Bonn, a state-funded Opera house in the former capital of Bonn, was no exception. The pandemic forced Theater Bonn to adapt to new formats and offerings, an immense challenge for an Opera house that relies on consistency and time-tested working methodologies to ensure smooth running.
I had a chance to speak to Rose Bartmer, the Director of Mediation, Diversity and Transformation, who walked me through me of the opera house’s journey through the pandemic and beyond.
The municipal theatre company of Bonn, known as Theater Bonn or Stadttheater Bonn, produces a variety of artistic genres, including operas, musicals, ballets, plays, and concerts. It operates several venues in the town, such as Oper Bonn for music theatre, the Kammerspiele Bad Godesberg and Halle Beuel for plays, and the Choreographisches Theater for ballet and dance. With a staff of around 500 people, the theatre company plays a significant role in the cultural life of Bonn and its surrounding region.
At the outset of the pandemic, Theater Bonn was forced to close its doors to live audiences, and it soon became clear that the traditional methods of engaging with patrons would no longer be feasible. But rather than simply cancelling shows and waiting for the pandemic to pass, they decided to try out new things.
One of the first initiatives that Theater Bonn launched in response to the pandemic was the Hinterhof-Opera project. This innovative program brought live opera performances to courtyards and public spaces throughout the city, allowing audiences to experience the magic of the art form in a safe and socially distanced setting. "We wanted to bring opera directly to the people," Bartmer recalls. "We knew that we couldn't gather in large groups, but we still wanted to find a way to share the beauty of this art form with as many people as possible." The Hinterhof-Opera project was a resounding success, with hundreds of people turning out to enjoy the performances. Here, they took a large-scale opera piece and scaled it down to two singers and three musicians, who then put up 20-25 minute long performances in residential spaces. This was a free initiative to invite people at home to engage with the artform. Bartmer says they were overjoyed with the results and plan to continue offering this format in the future.
They've also used the project as a jumping-off point to explore new initiatives, such as a program for expats in Bonn in collaboration with the United Nations where they invite them for rehearsals, talks, or backstage tours in the Theater. They also have a program for older people who might be isolated, which was inspired by the Hinterhof Opa. "We have to do a lot more," says Bartmer, adding that not all audiences were able to access arts and culture using technology and media, and it is imperative for them to find ways to continue connecting with non-tech savvy audience members.
On the education side, Theater Bonn continued offering workshops for children in schools and remotely, often inviting its actors and musicians to have Zoom talks with students. They also collaborated with the Beethoveen Orchestra in Bonn to offer digital workshops for teachers as well as collectively work together to find new ways of using technology and digital means to be connected.
While Theatre Bonn offered livestreams of their production archives throughout the pandemic, they also tried new digital formats, though Bartmer admitted that they still have a lot to learn in this area. She explained that digital can work well for education and for introducing people to theatre, but that the magic of theatre lies in being in the room together.
They've had some success with Zoom talks with actors and classes, and have even started exploring virtual reality. However, they still firmly believe that theatre has to be experienced in person, and that the best way to connect with people is through live performances.
To this effect, Theater Bonn participated in Autotheater, an initiative by different theatre houses in Bonn to offer open-air performances which audiences could attend whilst sitting in their cars. This was a dedicated effort to offer live theatre to audiences whilst maintaining social distance and protocols.
The pandemic has made it imperative for the Opera to measure its audience and see if anything has changed. For example, they are working on finding ways to measure how old their audience is and how big the percentage of the audience under 27, so they can measure whether or not their program to offer tickets at reduced prices for young audience members is making a difference. "I really need to measure my work," says Bartmer. "And to see if something changed from here." Bartmer hopes that this data can allow them to design programs and initiatives with better results and that more people can come to the Opera than before.
The pandemic has taught us that theatre and opera are essential to our lives. They bring people together and create a sense of community. Theater Bonn has adapted to the pandemic with new formats and offerings, and they have come out of it with valuable lessons. As Bartmer puts it, "Getting people together, that is one of the main functions of theatre and opera. And I think that's what people missed a lot."