Eric Einhorn and On Site Opera: Championing Immersive, Site-Specific Opera in New York City

For the past ten years, On Site Opera (OSO) has been producing immersive, site-specific operas in various non-traditional venues throughout New York City, bringing audiences right into the center of the music and the story. The locations of OSO’s immersive operatic experiences have included the Bronx Zoo, Harlem’s historic Cotton Club, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and most recently, the Prince George Ballroom. OSO’s General and Artistic Director Eric Einhorn spoke to me about the company’s history and mission, and the success of the immersive, site-specific experience in attracting new audiences to the operatic art form.

What was the spark of inspiration behind On Site Opera?

It happened about 11-12 years ago; I had been freelancing as a director and I was looking for a way to challenge myself artistically, so I decided that maybe I should start a company. I approached that like I would if I were creating a new production, asking: what is my point of view and why would anybody in New York City, where there’s no shortage of opera, want to come to see something new? What’s the purpose of this new company? I really dug deep and looked back through all the theater history courses I took in college. At the time, this phenomenon of immersive and site-specific performance in opera was happening a little bit on the fringes. There were a couple of companies doing it as a second-stage offering, and it got me thinking: is this a viable model for an entire company? I had produced some opera in the city in different theaters, like on CUNY campuses, at Kaye Playhouse, so I had a sense of what those costs were and the logistics of building and loading scenery, all these things I’ve been doing for a long time. I thought, if a space is also my theater and my scenery, maybe that’s going to save me some money. So, it was not only the duality of the artistic challenge but also the business side of it that was really exciting to me. That was the kickstart of everything.

Eric Einhorn and singers in rehearsal – Photo by Bowie Dunwoody

What do you think immersive opera can do for an audience? 

It makes opera this really incredible communal experience. Those of us who work in opera and love opera to our core, we know what it is all about, even if we are in a giant auditorium. The experience of hearing that music live, usually unamplified, is transformative. But what an intimate, immersive, site-specific production does and what I’ve seen over the last ten years from an audience standpoint, it’s like skipping the middleman. It brings you right up close, it brings you in direct line to the reverberations of the singer; you can feel those reverberations in your body.

So, the singers are all around you?

Yes. Some of our productions are staged so that they create what I like to call surround sound. If you don’t spend one of my productions turning your head everywhere, then I’ve done something wrong. There’s something about the reality of the space, so distinct from even the most realistic painted scenery. It’s being in a real honest-to-goodness brick-and-mortar structure where it takes in the sound differently. If you are seated close to a wall, you can touch the wall and you know that wall has been here for maybe 50-100 years. Then, to have the singers in these spaces, it just feels different. Yes, it is ridiculous, this convention of singing everything; you have to accept it, but in this immersive experience, you can accept it that much more because it brings you so close. So many times I heard from audiences that it feels like they’re eavesdropping on something because they’re in the middle of it. From the performers’ standpoint, they are able to connect with the audience in a way that they can’t in the theater. There’s no lighting separation and the audience is not in the dark. Singers often relate to it as if they’re giving a recital. Usually, you can see much more of your recital crowd in a small intimate recital hall, and I stage so that, most of the time, throughout the piece there is direct interaction. We don’t avoid eye contact; more times than I can count—and in this recent production of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi as well—the performers actually take things from audience members; they interact with them. It’s a hoot and it brings people into it in a way that you don’t get in other opera companies.

From the On Site Opera production of Das Barbecü by Jim Luigs/Scott Warrender at Hill Country Barbecue Market – Photo by B.A. Van Sise

That fourth wall definitely comes down…

We can’t afford a fourth wall; it’s not worth building, so come on in!

You are also very aware and acknowledging of the land of indigenous people when you do these productions. Can you tell us more about that: how do you create the synergy between what you’re doing and the awareness of where the performance is taking place, in terms of what was there first?

That’s a less overt action that we take. For us it’s more about this kind of internal audit that we did, and it has happened industry-wide, which is long overdue: this understanding of a sense of place. In our examination of that, we like to take it one step further: being on indigenous land, on unceded land, there’s the added layer of what are the spaces there and what do they represent? A mansion in Manhattan… what is that greater historical story of being in this mansion on unceded land where you’re telling a story in a place built by somebody 80-100 years ago? Take this Prince George Ballroom where we just did Gianni Schicchi.  It is a historic ballroom that Breaking Ground took ownership of at a certain point in time and now Breaking Ground is using the space for communal good, to serve the community through their housing projects. So, I think there’s a closer connection to our work directly to the community versus the acknowledgement of indigenous land if you were just in a performing arts center, let’s say. And so, we keep that in our ethos as we go, and it is constantly on our minds: what are greater ways that we can further connect with the indigenous community with the sense of being site specific? This has been a project on the list for a while now: finding a way to really honor that through an indigenous story. The island of Manhattan where we do most of our work is rich with indigenous history and colonial history. For us it’s really something that we like to make people aware of, generally. 

How do you choose your repertory? Are you going by repertory first and location second or is it the other way around, since securing the location you want must not always be easy? 

True. But I’d say, for most of our history, it’s been the opera first. We’re looking at a programming arc, making sure that we hit on the right period, the languages we want, specific subject matter, the size of the opera. Halfway through our history, as we gained momentum and had more public successes, venues started reaching out to us to say: “Come here and produce something for us.” That was wonderful. Yet also a surprising challenge, because if you want to do an opera and you can’t quite find the right space for it, you can always put it on the list for a later year. But there’s no changing the space. If the Metropolitan Museum of Art wants us to do something there, there’s not a lot of flexibility. Luckily, it’s an amazing institution. What we started to do is a little more of the latter, which is, think about the kind of spaces or the neighborhoods we want to be in. That allows us to create something in a specific community that maybe doesn’t have as much access or isn’t traditionally served by opera companies or maybe opera is not popular in that particular community. Having no home is great because you can do anything anywhere, so it really is dependent on the moment, whether the opera or the space comes first.

Eric Einhorn in rehearsal for Amahl and the Night Visitors – Photo by Julius Ahn

Do you feel that this is a successful way of attracting new audiences? Does the immersive experience make opera appealing for those who don’t know anything about it or are intimidated by it?

Absolutely. First of all, accessibility is key. We try and keep ticket prices as low as we can, given that this is still a business we have to run. We always have general seating; there’s no sort of strata like when you go to the Met. It’s just: buy a ticket, show up, and sit down. Every seat is a good seat. But yeah, I think that offering opera in other spaces does bring people in, in a way that it wouldn’t if they had to go to a theater or an opera house in a very specific part of town. Or they may think, “I don’t want to get dressed up and go to this place or that place.” A lot of the times we attract audiences for the experience of it all. They might not be opera fans, but they may think: “Oh, there’s an opera at a wax museum or there’s an opera at a zoo, great; that sounds really cool and weird, I’m going to check it out!” There has been data that essentially pointed to the way people spend their leisure time and their dollars, and it was far more pointed towards social, culinary, and experiential things rather than more traditional theatrical offerings. So, I think what’s great about On Site Opera is that we straddle this line between having a traditional theatrical experience and also an experiential one. Immersive experiences are now the name of the game; look at the immersive Van Gogh exhibit or the immersive Stranger Things exhibit; across from where we were rehearsing Gianni Schicchi there was an immersive Star Wars memorabilia exhibit. The experiential market was very different ten years ago, but now we are still the only company in the country that devotes itself to site-specific productions, which I think keeps people interested. It sounds cool, it sounds quirky, why not? It’s 40-50 bucks for seeing an opera in a space to which maybe you wouldn’t go to otherwise.

Technology is also assisting you… 

Yes. What are the ways that you can leverage technology to enhance the experience of the audience, to reach new people, to meet them on their terms and yet create, and lean into those so that you’re not spending thousands of dollars? Take supertitles. We always had a problem there, because being immersive in these cool spaces, there’s never one place to project the titles or we won’t rent or buy projectors; that’s so expensive and labor-intensive. So, I wanted to do supertitles on the cell phone. I wanted to do this years ago and people said: “You’re out of your mind; who wants to look at their phone during the show? This is ridiculous!” But we did manage to get a test in with Google Glass before it was taken off the market, which was highly successful and worked perfectly for our needs, because by wearing the titles, the titles followed wherever you looked. It was amazing! The technology didn’t go the way anybody wanted it to, but then at the same time, the same software sent supertitles to phones. I remember people hated it and said: “This is awful; I don’t want to look at my phone.” Fast forward two or three years and people’s minds totally changed because the way we interact with our phones changed. We’ve been using this app that does titles to the phone for several years now, wildly successful, very cost-effective and people love it. We were able to expand it, and we offer titles not only in English, but also in Spanish, Japanese, and more. It’s been fantastic.

Do you now have to ask people specifically to turn the sound off, not the phone?

We do.  Occasionally, we get people who close out of the app and open their cameras to try to take a picture. But because there are no house lights, there’s no glow which is the big problem that most traditional theaters face with wanting to use cell phone titles. The only thing I have to worry about is the person being distracted on their phone, but most people are respectful and for the one or two people who aren’t, we have ushers to remind them. It’s no more distracting than the person in a regular auditorium who’s sleeping next to you. Audience behavior is audience behavior. Immersive opera does something to—I don’t want to say democratize—but to take that edge off so that people don’t get so hung up: “Oh, it’s the capital O, Opera! I don’t know how to behave; I can’t do it right.” They come to On Site Opera, everyone sits in the same kind of chairs, we’re all on our phones, and we’re all just having a good time. 

Do people usually dress up or are they in more casual attire?

Usually very casual. I like to set the tone. I think I’ve worn jeans to my own productions in the past six years.  But if people came dressed up, I would love it. 

Tell us about the choice of “Gianni Schicchi” for your recent production, which was the first in-person event of your 10th anniversary season.

The first couple years of our history, we did preexisting repertoire from composers like Paisiello, Rameau, Gershwin, and then we started commissioning back in 2016-17. We’ve been on a steady commission string. But for a while, Geoffrey McDonald, our music director, and I have really been wanting to get back to some core standard repertoire. I love Puccini! My training is as a singer, so for a baritone Puccini is like butter, incredible! The question we face all the time is: what is that right standard rep piece to do so you don’t program the same thing that the Met is doing? So, it is about market positioning and finding the right time to do the piece. In looking at programming the season that would bring us back to indoor productions, one thing that was paramount for me was comedy. This has been a terrible two years and there are so many operas that deal with hard, terrible, heavy things. We’ve dealt with some of those topics through the pandemic. We did a piece called What Lies Beneath which was about enslavement on a boat at the South Street Seaport. We also did a piece called The Road We Came, which were pre-recorded walking tours of Black music in New York the last 200 years. For this 10th anniversary season, we wanted to focus on lightness, joy, and comedy. For a long time, I actually wanted to do Puccini’s Il trittico [The Triptych—three short operas] in New York in site-specific places. This was the right time to start and Gianni Schicchi… well, there’s no better way to bring audiences back indoors live than with these 45 minutes of incredible masterpiece comedy. We’ll perform tragedy another season.

What is coming up for On Site Opera?

In January we did a world premiere live over Zoom called Lesson Plan, based on a Telemann cantata that Rachel Peters expanded into this beautiful piece for Stephanie Blythe and Laquita Mitchell. This summer at the Caramoor Festival we are doing Lesson Plan live in person for one night only with Stephanie and Laquita, and the second half of the program will be some excerpts from Carmen with Stephanie Blythe singing Don José, as she did in Chicago. In December, we’ll do another revival of our production of Amahl and the Night Visitors which we perform at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen. It’s a modern production and this will be the third time we’ve done it. We team up with Breaking Ground. And we create a community chorus from their housing community, so it’s this incredible tale of community, togetherness, and vulnerability. It’s one of the On Site productions of which I am the most proud, and it seems to be one that resonates with audiences nationwide. So that will be the end of our official 10th anniversary. Beyond that, likely in 2023 we’re looking at continuing the Trittico: we’ll do Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica)

So where would you do “Suor Angelica?” I could picture that at The Met Cloisters, although that’s too far.

It is a little far and also, we have a relationship with the Met Museum because of the previous piece, so I know they have different performing priorities for The Cloisters. We’re looking at some church spaces obviously, some theological seminaries potentially in the city and if those don’t work out for next year, we can easily switch to the first of the Trittico operas, Il tabarro (The Cloak). In 2023, we’ll also have a world premiere that we’re not quite ready to announce yet, but it’s going to be a great piece that will go to probably two or three different venues in the city. And for the close of ‘23 we’re looking potentially at some Mozart.

What would you like to say to your fans and audiences in New York City?

I’m just so grateful for the community that we get to create in. Opera only exists when there’s an audience to see it and a community to support it, and we have such an amazing community of audience members, patrons, volunteers, our board members, not to mention our artists and our staff. I work with the most amazing people in this business.  To have gotten to ten years of doing this and to have grown the way we’ve grown, it’s been a gift every day, and truly an inspiration to work beside all of these people.

Discover more about On Site Opera.

Top photo: Eric Einhorn Courtesy of On Site Opera

About Maria-Cristina Necula (129 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the books "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions" and "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives," and a new collection of poems, "Evanescent." Her articles and interviews have appeared in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically-trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Discover more at www.mariacristinanecula.com.