The English National Opera’s line-up for its new 2020/2021 season, announced in mid-May, contains a few surprises. Perhaps the biggest is the casting of TV’s Les Dennis – the comedian, game-show host and Coronation Street regular – who will make his operatic debut in a production of HMS Pinafore.
But as CEO Stuart Murphy points out, the English National Opera (ENO) is all about making opera:
...more accessible, inclusive and representative of the society in which we live. We really want to honour our founding principle of opera being for everyone.
Famously, all ENO productions are performed in English, with the stated goal of enhancing the emotional connection between singers and audiences. But this accessibility ethos can also be seen in the ENO’s provision of free tickets for under-21s for all of its performances, says Murphy, as well as its work during the pandemic to create a drive-in opera at Alexandra Palace and to broadcast concerts on national TV.
Onstage and backstage
Accessibility is also at the heart of the ENO’s recent implementation of Workplace from Facebook. The goal here is to enable the huge and diverse cast of people who bring its work to life on stage to collaborate more closely behind the scenes. This, of course, includes those who work on-stage, backstage, in the orchestra pit and in its administrative offices - around 400 permanent staff in total and some 250 casuals. According to Murphy:
Even before lockdown, we were starting to talk about technology and its role in helping people working in an organization based on emotion and creativity to share their feelings and experiences in a super-egalitarian way. We needed technology that could bring us all together, but which also supported private workspaces for specific areas of skills and interest. And, of course, we needed it to deliver top-quality video and audio, because for someone who works in opera, being asked to tolerate poor sound quality is pretty much like being stabbed in the arm with a fork.
Workplace from Facebook was implemented at ENO in early 2020, about two months before the UK’s first lockdown. So when the restrictions came into force, the ENO workforce was already pretty familiar with it, says Murphy.
The platform immediately replaced all-staff emails as a more engaging way to keep that workforce informed. And many initiatives shared initially between colleagues on the platform soon reached the wider world, via the ENO’s social media channels. These include the creation of huge opera sets in Lego at home by the company’s prop workshop manager Paul Jones, as well as work by the ENO costume team to sew face masks and medical scrubs for the NHS.
The implementation was managed by Nick Crawford of Work Networks, one of UK’s first partners for Workplace from Facebook. His company has worked on around 45 Workplace deployments so far, including those at Danone, AstraZeneca, BUPA and UNICEF. Each deployment is very tailored to the organization in question, he says, and generally takes between four and eight weeks. In the case of ENO, there was perhaps less technical integration with back-end systems needed than in many other, more corporate projects that Work Networks takes on, he says, but a particular need for HR integration:
That was a case of working closely with the HR team at ENO and ensuring that their people data was in the right format and the processes in place for provisioning accounts in Workplace and deactivating those accounts if someone leaves. But really, the bulk of our work at the ENO was largely the same as in all implementations: holding workshops with management and employees to better understand and capture their ideas about what they wanted to share and how they wanted to share it, and getting ‘champions’ from different departments in place and trained up to encourage their colleagues and drive uptake.
Today, Workplace from Facebook provides an important foundation for the new ways in which the ENO will work in future, making these far more accessible for those located outside of the four walls of its fixed, permanent home at the London Coliseum on Saint Martin’s Lane. As Murphy puts it:
There could be future lockdowns, disruption to public transport and so on. Even if there aren’t, many employees will probably choose to split their working lives between the Coliseum and their own homes, so we’ll have a hybrid workplace set-up. It’s going to be super-important during this transitional phase that we can communicate clearly and collaborate closely.
And beyond that, it’s really important for me that we have this better way for the different groups within the Opera, all with their different cultures, to share with each other, in ways that transcend those differences and help us to focus on our common goal of staging world-class opera that’s both accessible and captivating for audiences.