The Finnish National Opera and Ballet (FNOB) has been at the forefront of audience outreach for decades. They have invested widely in bridging the gap between art and technology in their Opera Beyond project. Together with our HomeOpera project, they tested a novel approach to reach new audiences through virtual reality and gamification.
In this article, we outline the possibilities of audience outreach to incorporate recent technologies and break new boundaries with XR technologies. This will be an inspiration to people working in the arts industry as well as tech companies developing new XR solutions.
Audience outreach is also called audience development or simply audience work. The English Arts Council (2011, p.2) defines audience development as an activity which is undertaken specifically to meet the needs of existing and potential audiences and to help arts organisations to develop ongoing relationships with audiences. Audience development can include aspects of marketing, commissioning, programming, education, customer care, and distribution (The English Arts Council 2011, p.2).
The European Commission’s definition places more emphasis on the social aspects. Audience development is a strategic, dynamic, and interactive process of making the arts widely accessible. It aims at engaging individuals and communities in experiencing, enjoying, participating in, and valuing the arts through various means available today for cultural operators, from digital tools to volunteering, from co-creation to partnerships. (European Commission 2012, p. 1.)
Publicly funded organisations like the FNOB have an essential role in reaching a broad nationwide audience and hard-to-reach special target groups. The FNOB’s audience outreach work celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2023. The projects include hundreds of activities each year in collaboration with various organisations and institutions like arts institutions, universities, museums, municipalities, daycare centres, and residential homes. The aim of the audience outreach is to spread the word about opera and ballet and encourage people of all ages to get involved in artistic expression. In 2022, the work reached approximately 50,000 people all around Finland.
Audience outreach is often targeted at children and teenagers to educate them in arts, such as opera or theatre. One of the biggest culture education programmes in Finland is Art Testers (website in English), which offers all 8th graders and their teachers annual visits to cultural institutions, such as the FNOB. The aim is to learn together with the Finnish cultural institutions about how to meet the needs of young people in planning the content and especially improving the audience work in cultural organisations. Art Testers (2022) analysed more than 150 000 reviews given by 14-year-old art testers to find out what they appreciate in art experiences. The result was art that is fun, skillful and ingenious, and that arouses feelings of joy and surprisingly, confusion.
Opera Beyond and XR Stage tool
While most audience outreach work is done in person and on stage where the real magic happens, more focus is turned on digital tools and channels to reach even wider audiences. Through its Opera Beyond project (visit website), the FNOB has been a pioneer in combining arts and technology and building an ecosystem of different actors that use technology in new and creative ways. However, until now the FNOB has not used a concept created in Opera Beyond in their audience outreach work.
One of Opera Beyond’s main achievements is the XR Stage tool (visit website in English), a digital twin of the opera stage with integrated lighting and technical stage operation systems. By enabling the simulation of artistic designs in a virtual world, the tool enhances the efficiency of production work and improves communication between various stakeholders such as directors, set designers, lighting designers, and producers. The XR Stage tool was first fully utilised in the opera Turandot, which premiered in January 2023. According to Varjo (2023), the tool saved 20 % of labour costs (1,500 hours) due to increased efficiency in the planning stage. The total cost savings brought by the XR Stage tool amounted to approximately 75,000 €.
While developing the production capabilities of the XR Stage tool, the FNOB was also eager to experiment with other uses for the tool. This is where the cooperation with the HomeOpera project began. HomeOpera’s aim is to develop concepts for social XR services that improve elderly peoples’ opportunities for a high-quality and stimulating life at home. The FNOB is HomeOpera’s main development partner with multiple pilot projects. The initial brief for the XR Stage tool was to combine motion capture technology to bring live actors on the virtual stage.
As the intended target audience was teenagers in school surroundings, the concept evolved into other paths. Motion capture suits, which are needed to bring actors on stage, are awkward to put on and take a lot of calibration time. The other possibility would have been three-point body tracking, but this was not feasible given the available VR headsets. Instead, we went back to the main goal, which was to educate and excite teenagers about the world of opera and used gamification to discover a whole new way to use the XR Stage tool. The main target group was specified as 7th graders, a year before they are involved in Art Testing in their 8th grade. We also used a group of University of Applied Sciences service design students and a group of active elderly culture enthusiasts as control groups to assess the wider appeal of our new, gamified concept.
With Haaga-Helia on board as the expert on pedagogy, great emphasis was placed on learning methods of the experiment. We based our pedagogic approach on the Finnish curriculum, which according to the Finnish National Board of Education (2016) promotes an integrative approach to learning. The students learn to understand the relationship and interdependencies between contents, to combine knowledge and skills provided by different subjects to form meaningful wholes, and to adopt and use these in collaborative learning. This can be achieved through phenomenon-based learning, which Silander (2015) defines as a method where learners are active builders of knowledge and new information is constructed from problem-solving. The holistic real-world phenomena are studied in their real context and boundaries between subjects cross freely.
One way to approach phenomenon-based learning is to frame the subject in a game context as we did in our experiment. A game that has a purpose beyond its entertainment value is usually called a serious game. Marsh (2011) defines serious games as digital games, simulations, virtual environments, and mixed reality that provide opportunities to engage in activities through responsive narrative, story or gameplay in order to inform, influence or convey meaning. These two approaches proved to be suitable for introducing opera to 7th graders.
Phenomenon-based learning made it possible to approach opera from different angles: the vocabulary of the opera was somewhat new to students, Turandot has a specific historical and cultural background, the game included several arias and information about the orchestra, students perform math tasks in the game, and the material included new information about making stage dresses and set designs. There were also multiple ways the subject matter could be expanded after the initial game session as essays, music numbers, and further research into the topic.
Testing the concept
In the FNOB’s audience outreach project, we created a game that is a combination of a quiz and an escape room. The backstory is that an absent-minded conductor had lost their partiture around the opera stage and stand, with just half an hour to go until the premiere of Turandot. The players had to save the premiere by finding six partitures hidden in the XR Stage tool and then answer correctly to a set of questions in 30 minutes. For each partiture, there was a short video, hidden inside the XR Stage tool, about a specific part of FNOB’s operations and six multiple-choice questions to answer on paper. If the team got all six questions right, they had cleared that topic and were able to move on to the next one.
The main user test for the game concept was held at Maunula secondary school in May 2023. The game was tested by two different student groups; first by a group of 21 students and then by a group of 10 students. Both groups were in 7th grade and the subject was Finnish class. Both groups were first given a form to fill about their views on opera.
The students formed teams of 3-5 players and played a warm-up quiz game on Kahoot about opera. Then they were introduced to the XR Stage tool and taught how to operate the game. After this, off they went to save the premiere. Finally, when all teams had managed to clear the game, the winning team was announced, and everyone watched the final act of Turandot on a big screen. The last step was to fill in a feedback form and have a quick informal chat about the experience.
To triangulate the findings further, two other tests were held: one with Haaga-Helia UAS’ service design students (n=17), aged 21-39, and another with older adults (n=9), aged 65+, during HomeOpera’s showcase event. The tests followed a similar pattern, with only slight modifications to the facilitation script.
Overall, the developed concept worked extremely well. Participants reported that the game was easy and fun to play: the controls – combination of WASD and mouse – felt intuitive and the overall gameplay was described as smooth. A few of the elderly testers had difficulties with keyboard-mouse coordination, and suggested that perhaps the game could also be optimised for mouse-control only. The gamified story, resembling an escape room, worked well and encouraged active participation and immersion.
Participants also noted that “the difficulty felt just right”, and that the different elements of the game, from Kahoot to XR Stage to the surveys, worked well together. From a technical standpoint, there also were no crashes, and all groups across all three tests were able to clear the game within the time limit. Surprisingly, the same content and gameplay format got compliments but for slightly different reasons: while adult testers enjoyed simply learning new things about opera, teenagers were perhaps more interested in beating other groups.
Even though the core concept was found to work well, multiple ideas for how the game could be developed further also emerged. Some suggestions were about the logic of the game, e.g. the process through which new partitures were “unlocked”, while others had to do with the graphics, e.g. fine-tuning the lighting settings or camera sensitivity. Participants also suggested that perhaps there could be multiple difficulty layers, or perhaps the questions/tasks-to-be-solved could get progressively more difficult.
The further development of the game concept continues within the Finnish National Opera and Ballet, with user feedback analysed in the HomeOpera project providing important validation for the apparent market that exists for new types of technology-enhanced audience outreach.
Arts Council of England. 2011. Grants for the arts –audience development and marketing. Arts Council of England, Manchester.
Art Testers. 2022. Analysis of 150 000 Art Tester reviews reveals what makes art good in the eyes of a 14-year-old. Website accessed 12.6.2023.
European Commission. 2012. European Audiences: 2020 and Beyond. Publications Office of the European Union, Brussels. Pdf-file accessed 12.6.2023.
Finnish National Board of Education. 2016. New national core curriculum for basic education: focus on school culture and integrative approach. Pdf-file accessed 15.6.2023.
Marsh, T. 2011. Serious games continuum: Between games for purpose and experiential environments for purpose. Entertainment Computing 2, pp. 61–68.
Silander, P. 2015. Digital Pedagogy in P. Mattila, & P. Silander (Eds.) How to create the school of the future: Revolutionary thinking and design from Finland (pp. 9-26). University of Oulu, Center for Internet Excellence, Oulu.
Varjo. 2023. Finnish National Opera and Ballet’s Turandot becomes the first production to utilize Varjo’s XR technology. Press-release accessed 14.6.2023.