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Programming both Cantonese and western opera, the Hong Kong Arts Festival has a challenge when it comes to audience development. Tisa Ho shares her strategy.

Photo of an audience of young people in concert hall
Young Friends attend a festival event

Earlier this year, the 45th Hong Kong Arts Festival was held with a programme of 132 performances in over a dozen venues across Hong Kong. Of those performances, 84 were sold out, but audience cultivation and development is never done. In both the programming of the annual festival and its related activities, as well as in the work we commission and produce, our audiences remain at the forefront of the decisions we take.

An experimental approach

We approach audience development in a variety of different ways that have been shaped by audience research, from major immersion, including co-creation with full production support, to lowering or removing barriers to entry in terms of information, cost, location and challenges of content.

Even the most curious and open-minded new arrival to the city can still find Cantonese opera a challenge

It’s important to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, and although a particular strategy might yield great results in the cycle of one season, it doesn’t necessary follow the same pattern the following year. We must stay nimble, be open to adjusting and experimenting with our approach, and challenge ourselves by seeking feedback from those around us.

As an annual festival that prides itself on programming homegrown talent alongside international artists, we also ask ourselves how best to encourage audiences to explore different artforms and go beyond what they know.

In Hong Kong, with strong native cultural traditions co-inhabiting the city with well-garlanded imports, I have seen how difficult it is for even the most willing audiences to cross over from one artform to another. Even the most curious and open-minded new arrival to the city can still find Cantonese opera a challenge.

Equally, I have friends who are aficionados of this form, know the major canon by heart and are familiar with both great performers and rising stars, and yet remain resistant to western opera, which bewilders them and causes dismay. I believe that it is our responsibility to offer information and opportunities for deeper engagement to support audiences on their cultural journeys and explorations.

A cultural environment

Audiences absorb more than they might first realise from their immediate environment and we know it is therefore worth casting our sights wider than our own work when thinking about audience development. Media outlets and shopping malls, parks and workplaces should all be firmly in our sights. We need to imbue our environment with music and drama, with storytelling and imagination.

Every location we can think of is more than just a channel for distributing our publicity and reaching ticket buyers. They can also help to make what we do a natural everyday part of life. To return to the idea of trying out new artforms, such as Cantonese opera or contemporary dance, had these been a part of our everyday lived experience since childhood, they might not feel so far away and alien.

Reaching out to the young

Effective audience development will encourage ticket buyers to try new artforms even if it stands outside an audience member’s typical cultural frame of reference. This is particularly true of young audiences. Reaching out to young people is imperative, so that the next generation grows up with the art, and understands their place and possibilities within it. We have offered half-price tickets for students since our inception, and have colleagues, patrons and donors who recall queueing up for them when they were at school.

2017 is also the 25th anniversary of our Young Friends programme. This is a paid membership scheme that gives low-cost access for students and young people to a range of activities including special rehearsals and performances, backstage tours, open rehearsals and meet-the-artists events.

Young Friends have access to a dedicated website, reporting and reviewing, blogging, volunteer and training opportunities. Many young people tell us how beneficial it has been for them to experience arts administration from the inside and gain an insight into the cultural industry.

I’m proud to offer a real, tangible entry point for young people who might be considering how to turn their passion for the arts into a career path, and to support their journey not just as potential audiences of the future, but as potential collaborators and colleagues. To date, this programme has engaged more than 710,000 students and young people.

In tandem with the performances we present, we offer an extensive arts education and outreach programme. This year there were more than 300 to choose from, including lectures, masterclasses, meet-the-artists sessions, talks and backstage tours, film screenings and specially curated exhibitions, all designed to enrich and enhance the experience of the performances presented in the main programme.

Accessible information

The importance of providing accurate and accessible contextual information cannot be over-emphasised both for young people and the adult public. This is especially important when launching new work, such as Datong – The Chinese Utopia, a world premiere. We quickly realised that Kang Youwei and his masterpiece text, Datong, though studied by scholars and influential for important thinkers, was not as widely known as it deserves to be.

We created detailed production notes and background information to support audiences with this new discovery. After all, Kang lived through an important time in the history of China, from the last days of the Qing Dynasty through to the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. If he had succeeded in persuading the Empress Dowager in how this vast country could be governed, the history books would have had a very different story to tell.

We are thrilled to be able to bring this opera to the UK this summer, and to share some of Hong Kong’s finest talents with British audiences – and hope that many might be inspired to pay us a visit over in Hong Kong next year.

Tisa Ho is Executive Director of Hong Kong Arts Festival.

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Photo of Tisa Ho