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Eric Einhorn of ‘On Site Opera’: “Know your event’s true purpose”

Know your event’s true purpose — Determining your event’s goal will help shape every aspect of it, and create a truly authentic experience for your guests. We have held virtual events where music was a secondary goal (shocking at an opera company), the primary goal being to simply provide our community with a chance to gather again […]

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Know your event’s true purpose — Determining your event’s goal will help shape every aspect of it, and create a truly authentic experience for your guests. We have held virtual events where music was a secondary goal (shocking at an opera company), the primary goal being to simply provide our community with a chance to gather again and connect with each other. This goal drove the entire event, from planning to execution. Knowing that, in this case, less emphasis was being placed on a musical element allowed us to apply our usual creativity not to a performance, but on opportunities to connect with our audiences as individuals.


As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Einhorn

Eric Einhorn is the co-founding General & Artistic Director of On Site Opera, the country’s only opera company dedicated to site-specific productions. His immersive, site-specific productions have performed to sold-out houses and critical acclaim since the company’s founding. Mr. Einhorn has created partnerships with venues and institutions throughout New York City that range from community gardens, historic homes, restaurants, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has also forged partnerships with social service and educational organizations to further involve the community in the creation and impact of On Site’s productions. Mr. Einhorn has become an industry-recognized leader in site-specific opera, often speaking at conferences and teaching masterclasses. He has also spearheaded a technology initiative with the company that has led to the world’s first use of Google Glass for supertitles, as well as the implementation of a mobile app for supertitles and digital programs.

As a stage director, Mr. Einhorn has directed at many of the country’s leading opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Ft. Worth Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, Florentine Opera, Austin Opera, Utah Opera, and Michigan Opera Theater.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up in suburban New Jersey, in the shadow of New York City. My parents are avid theater-goers, and were frequently taking me and my sister to any number of Broadway shows. These early theater habits plus some wonderful public school music teachers started me down the musical path I’m on today.

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

If I had to pinpoint the moment that I knew I wanted to pursue a career in theater, it would be at summer camp when I was twelve years old. Unfortunately, my 6’3” height did not equate to any significant athletic ability, so I looked for any other activity to focus on at camp. The one that jumped out at me was the camp musical: a production of The Music Man. I was immediately bitten by the theater bug! Subsequently, years of community theater lead me to a voice teacher who opened my eyes to opera. From there, I attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music with the goal of becoming an opera singer. While at Oberlin, I discovered directing, and by extension, producing. Upon graduation, I was unsure about which path to pursue: singing or directing. Not long after graduation several opportunities opened up to me that pointed me towards directing, the area which ultimately was more fulfilling for me. My freelance stage directing career took me to some fantastic companies all around the country as well as the Metropolitan Opera, where I served on the stage directing staff for fifteen years. Through all of this, I developed a desire to produce some of my own independent projects. What began as one such project turned into the company I now run: On Site Opera.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It wasn’t funny at the time, but when I first started directing in high school, I was prone to yelling at my cast members (who were also my friends). I really had no idea what I was doing as a director, and the insecurity around that manifested itself through my raised voice. In retrospect, I realize how foolish I must have looked and sounded — screaming at my friends from across our high school auditorium. Luckily, several of them called me on it after not too long. I realized, with their help and forgiveness, that yelling and other aggressive behavior is not the way to encourage the best from people. Quite the contrary. Ever since those early days, I have worked to create an environment of collaboration and support in every place I work. Now, my cast members will point out how supportive a production process feels, rather than what my high school friends brough to my attention. I am quite proud of that. Is some of that insecurity still there? Absolutely! But if I’m ever feeling stressed, I will often think about my ridiculous red-faced theatrics in the high school auditorium, laugh, and redouble my energy towards creating a space of collaboration and good humor.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment had significant impact on me as an artist. If you’re not familiar with it, the book mines the deeper, psychological meanings behind the universal tropes found in fairy tales and fables, as well as the critical importance of these stories in our childhood development. For me, the real impact was in the realization that these (seemingly) simple stories, in fact, carried significant weight in terms our psychological development and cultural consciousness. The idea of the complex found buried under the simple, and the ability to enjoy/relate to the story on either level is what resonated with me. This concept is one that I apply to my productions and events quite frequently. Sometimes the best solution is the simplest one, which can then create space for the audience member to have a deeper experience in their own way.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Regarding rehearsal expectations, my college directing teacher once told me that “you should be prepared with ideas for every moment of the piece you are directing. One should go into rehearsal hoping to achieve 70% of those ideas, and be thrilled and satisfied when only 40% are achieved.” Now, this might sound like bad math to some, but it is less about numbers and linear achievement. This quote speaks more to me about the definition of successful collaboration. Total preparation is key, but even before starting, one should be prepared to collaborate and compromise. In the end, if only some of your original ideas make it through then, likely, the new ideas that replaced them will create a far better final product for having multiple voices and ideas represented. I apply this quote to almost every aspect of my work as a director and administrator.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?

Most of the “events” that I have organized in my career have been operatic productions. These productions have ranged from shows in intimate black box spaces, to stagings at The Metropolitan Opera, to site-specific immersive productions with my company, On Site Opera. In recent years, as the General & Artistic Director of On Site Opera, I have been part of the planning of annual fundraising galas, smaller patron cultivation events, and bespoke private musical events. All of these events have been created in a way that still remains true to our organizational mission of producing immersive opera.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?

Opera thrives in front of a live, in-person audience. While there, of course, has been a long history of televised and recorded opera, most audiences and companies saw this as a supplementary avenue to enjoying the artform. When the pandemic began, I (and most of the opera field) found myself struggling to produce in the virtual sphere, as it prevented us for engaging that critical part of the opera puzzle: the live audience. Additionally, many opera companies, including ours, leaned heavily on streaming archival material early on in the pandemic which, therefore, created significant screen fatigue early on. For us at On Site Opera, there was the additional question of “how do we remain true to our site-specific mission (centered on pairing opera with venues) when we can’t gather?”

All of this led me to think about all the ways that a virtual event could be produced that didn’t involve a patron sitting in front of a Zoom window. We began to play with the idea of the patron’s location as the “site” for the opera, which actually took us even farther away from the computer screen to some simpler technology: the phone. We developed an opera production that consisted of a twenty minute live, immersive musical and theatrical performance for an audience of one person at a time. A primary goal of these events was to create a production that allowed live artists to connect with live audiences; nothing pre-recorded, nothing streamed. Over the course of 200 performances (the run was extended twice by popular demand), countless audience members wrote to us expressing just how deeply they had been impacted by the live phone performance.

The success of the phone opera model made us wonder what other “low tech” solutions we leverage to balance against the barrage of digital productions being offered across the internet. Our next solution was a mail-based series that pairs beautifully designed printed materials with pre-recorded audio performances of songs that use diary texts. Audiences receive packages that contain program essays, artist information, replica diaries with the song texts, and a link to a newly-recorded audio performance of the songs — our one use of true digital tech in this project. Audiences have taken to this format as well, as we sold out the first run of printed materials and had produce a second run.

I believe the success of both of these projects lies in their simple, honest connection with audiences, as well as their nontraditional and unexpected delivery methods. They were both interactive in their own ways, which made audiences further feel connected to the program and one another; as if they were sitting in a darkened theater again.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I have seen virtual events flounder a bit when the presenting company doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge the fact that the event is on a digital platform like Zoom or WebEx. You can’t ignore the digital white elephant in the Zoom room! We’re not gathered in a beautiful ballroom or conference room. The attendees are in a very different emotional place for still working remotely than if they were gathered in person. They are likely wearing some form of pajamas to your event, and that’s okay! These platforms, while amazing resources in these isolating times, have extreme limitations. Organizers shouldn’t try to pretend that these platforms are perfect nor think that anyone in attending feels like they are in the room with other people. Video conferencing platforms can be frustrating, challenging, and strangely isolating spaces. Don’t pretend! Just own the imperfections, perhaps with a little humor. It will go a long way with the audience, especially when there are unexpected technical issues.

Another common misstep I’ve seen people make in virtual events is not explaining the basic functionality of their chosen platform nor any of the specific ways they plan to use that functionality in the event. At in-person events, we don’t shy away from telling guests to “please take your seat” or “please hold your applause until the end of the presentation.” Why can’t we tell virtual guests to “please remember to keep yourself muted” or “please add your comments in the chat feed”? A few minutes of basic tutorial at the start of the event can provide an essential moment of group focus and allow guests to become present, quieting their minds from the dozens of other virtual meetings and gatherings they have attended that day.

Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?

At On Site Opera, when not connecting with patrons over the phone or through the mail, we almost exclusively use Zoom for our events. So far, the phone has proven to be the most impactful platform for brining audiences and artists together. Zoom has been successful for us with smaller ancillary events that create a space for our audiences and artists to gather in a more informal way. The basic structure of the Zoom meeting is very effective for our ancillary events, as the principal goal is to provide an opportunity for our community of artists and audiences to simply see each other’s faces again.

Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?

For me, besides a reliable internet connection, the most essential resources are my colleagues. No software can replace human capital and the collaborative process. When the magic happens in the planning and conversations surround virtual events, the software and online tools just become the supporting infrastructure.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Know your event’s true purpose — Determining your event’s goal will help shape every aspect of it, and create a truly authentic experience for your guests. We have held virtual events where music was a secondary goal (shocking at an opera company), the primary goal being to simply provide our community with a chance to gather again and connect with each other. This goal drove the entire event, from planning to execution. Knowing that, in this case, less emphasis was being placed on a musical element allowed us to apply our usual creativity not to a performance, but on opportunities to connect with our audiences as individuals.

Be honest — Once you determine your event’s goal, be honest and open about it with your guests. With all virtual events happening over, essentially, the same two or three platforms, there is very little to differentiate one virtual event from another. There is no ballroom or team outing to give any sort of context for guests. If you are honest about the goal of your event, it will allow guests to join with properly calibrated expectations which will, in turn, put them in a more open mindset to engage with your event.

A second part of “being honest” is being open with your guests (and yourself) about the limitations and imperfections of whatever virtual platform you are using. Sure, you can ask guests to wear their favorite gala attire, but they are still doing so within the confines of a small video screen that might glitch, crash, or otherwise act erratically. As I mention above, just own the imperfections of the platform. I have found that this honesty adds a level of humanity to the event that we all need right now.

Roll with the punches — You might accidentally kick your CEO out of the virtual event. The keynote speaker could be stuck on mute. The slideshow you spent weeks preparing could not be synching with the audio. You’re already running a major virtual gala from your bedroom, which creates a very real sense of vulnerability. The possibility for error seems magnified in a virtual event, but know that everyone is feeling that same vulnerability in their own ways — we’re all just wearing our formalwear at the foot of our bed. Mistakes will happen, just as they do at in-person events. Do your best to address what comes up, being honest with yourself and guests about what can be done. As I mention above, that honesty will create a much-needed level of humanity to the event.

Practice the event choreography — You wouldn’t go into your annual shareholder’s meeting without rehearsing your speech or pouring over the run-of-show document with your team. Virtual events should be no different. You and your team have probably logged hundreds of hours on your digital event platform by now. You know where all the buttons are on your screen and where all of the shortcuts are on your keyboard. Taking time to discuss and practice the choreography of those buttons and shortcuts will be crucial to the success of the event. Know who will share the big slideshow, create the breakout rooms, and manage the chat feed. Take time before the event to not only discuss everyone’s role, but to rehearse all of the tasks and platform functions with real people (likely you and your team). You would be surprised what small, easily-avoidable bumps your come across in these rehearsals that are easy to address, but would have been far less desirable in the actual event.

Keep your sense of humor — No matter what happens, never take yourself too seriously. Whatever your style of humor is (mine hovers around the self-deprecating), bringing laughter to your virtual is so incredibly valuable. Creating virtual events in our current “new normal” can be filled with such exhausting intensity that humor becomes all the more necessary to balance everything out. Some of the best events are those that get temporarily derailed by excessive laughter.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

I would suggest that this person really parse out the goal of the event. At On Site Opera, for example, we ask if the goal is, first, to offer a performance of some kind? Is that performance pre-recorded or live? Or is the goal to create a virtual event where guests can once again “gather” and reengage with the feeling of community felt among our audience? Defining your goals will chart a clear path for your event. That clarity will resonate with guests and create a very successful event.

Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would start of movement of conversation. Nowadays, there are so many people who are very set in their ways and unwilling to open their mind to new or different ideas. This can be political or religious views, but more locally, it can be people who refuse to believe that opera is something they could enjoy. Experience has shown us, in the microcosm of opera, that once you get a “non-believer” in the room to show them or talk with them, then opinions can start to shift. I think the most good can come to the most people if we all just start having open, honest conversations. You never know what you might discover.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would very much like to share a meal with Disney chairman Robert Iger. Disney’s commitment to immersive storytelling, innovation, and incredible customer service have always been inspirational to me. I have tried, in my own ways, to apply these principals at On Site Opera, even citing Disney ideals-as-goals in team meetings. I would love the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the executive-level thinking behind The Walt Disney Company’s multi-faceted approach to engagement and creativity.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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