The Mile-Long Opera: An Effective Template for Engaging Diverse Audiences

As my readers know, my blog Arts and Culture Connections has the mission to examine, critique and share global community engagement initiatives, as well as celebrate projects that are creating access to the arts for all people, especially those marginalized communities. This week, the focus of my blog is the ambitious effort to bridge the five boroughs of New York City through a common story and a chorus of 1,000 voices on the High Line. The project is called “The Mile-Long Opera: a biography of 7 o’clock,” and the free performances will take place October 3-7, 2018.

“The Mile-Long Opera” is a classic example of the tremendous commitment, effort and resources it takes to reach out to, engage and partner with diverse audiences to create an inclusive cultural event. This is especially true for classical music, which has struggled to find and sustain a diverse audience. Begun six years ago, the project was conceived by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang and is being co-produced by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the architects of the High Line, a 1.45-mile long, linear park built on a historic freight rail line along Manhattan’s West Side, and The OFFICE performing arts + film. The producers brought in Peoplemovr, a Brooklyn-based organization that specializes in advancing equity, diversity in the arts and culture, to develop and organize the extensive public engagement initiative.

Peoplemovr asked 150 New Yorkers across all five boroughs about what the hour of 7 p.m. meant to them. From those interviews, the libretto for the opera was created by poets Anne Carson and Claudia Rankine, incorporating the multiple perspectives about what it means, according to Ms. Rankine, “to eat, to gather, to work, to ponder, to rest, to wish, to share — or in other words, to live.”

Peoplmovr also established local anchor partners throughout the five boroughs: Abron Arts Center and the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce in Manhattan; ARTs East New York in Brooklyn; Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement in Queens; THE POINT Community Development Corporation in the Bronx, and Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden in Staten Island. Each partner has been responsible for recruiting choirs, holding rehearsals, workshops and community events.

When I was first asked to lead the marketing efforts for this production, I thought of it as a great opportunity to further my objectives of expanding access to the arts. This was due to the fact that within the fabric of the project’s creative process was a major thread weaving together diverse participants—from the creative team to the performers—from all five NYC boroughs. Peoplemovr has done a great job of engaging community-based, diverse arts organizations and ensuring that the scope of the project not only embraces all New Yorkers , but also the choral performers look and sound like New York on a typical day at 7 p.m. My company has furthered their efforts by identifying 35 community and restaurant partners in each of the boroughs who also will serve as an information gateway and welcoming entry-point to their respective communities. We’re also tapping into each borough’s community calendar of events to inform prospective audiences about this unique production through discussions and/or mini-performances. This is a great, collective effort to educate, engage and provide various points of entry to a genre of music that many people have never experienced or explored.

The racial and ethnic landscape of America, impacted by blended families, migration and immigration, is rapidly changing. The new cultural dynamics will directly impact the way prospective audiences view the arts and seek access, especially since arts education and exposure to the arts is no longer a regular part of the public education curriculum. “The Mile-Long Opera: a biography of 7 o’clock” can serve as primary template for many arts organizations and cultural institutions to study, embrace, replicate and implement. I believe it represents the most effective way to extend the invitation and welcome these new American audiences, and the only way these organizations and institutions can assure their ability to survive and thrive in the coming decades.