Spotlight on Social Media: Tweet Seats at the San Francisco Opera

Trending topics on Twitter included the hashtag for SF Opera's Sweeney Todd

In the Bay Area, opinions on opera are more visible than ever, thanks to efforts of the San Francisco Opera. In 2012 they launched their “tweet seat” program by inviting sixteen audience members to live-tweet their dress rehearsal of The Barber of Seville. The program has since grown in popularity as evidenced by the hundreds of people who regularly participate in their live-tweeting programs. This season, tweets about their Sweeney Todd production trended in the San Francisco Area using the hashtag #SweeneySF.

While “tweet seats” have existed for several years, it is worth re-examining their effectiveness in conjunction with a report published in October by the Pew Research Center: Social Media Usage 2005-2015. The popularity of San Francisco Opera’s program is a real life example of the data presented by the Pew Research Center, which shows that the public’s use of Twitter has increased in recent years. Arts managers can develop more effective ways to manage their social media presence and increase audience engagement by aligning their programs with the trends in technology. The program created in San Francisco is a great example of this.

Live-Tweeting in Three Steps

The Call for Tweeters

The San Francisco Opera invites students to attend dress rehearsals of their productions for free, on the basis that they will “live-tweet” the performance. The call for student tweeters reads: “We want your authentic opinions and thoughts, and perhaps even a scene-by-scene recap of the onstage action. In other words, we'll give you an opera ticket in exchange for your stellar social media skills!” Students are invited to sign up through a Google form such as this

The crowds attending these performances have grown drastically since the program’s inception. On dress rehearsal nights there is a full house including students from many local high schools, universities, and conservatories. Students sign up online and are notified the week before the performance if they have been selected for the limited seats.

During the Performance

During the dress rehearsals, the selected students avidly tweet about the performance they are watching. During the open dress rehearsal the San Francisco Opera staff actively monitors their social media account—liking and retweeting posts that tag them or those that use the evening’s designated hashtag. The San Francisco Opera is able to encourage conversation because they monitor the account in real time, engaging with every user who participates. 

Arts managers experimenting with social media should take note of this practice. As mentioned above, these tweets are highly visible and routinely trend in the San Francisco area during the hours of the performance. Often, Twitter users from across the globe are involved in the conversation.

After the Show

The conversation continues for days following the rehearsal. The Opera continues to retweet and interact with users the following day, getting more people involved in the conversation. Most importantly, the dress rehearsal is always followed up with a post on their Opera Blog. This post describes the tweet seat experience and highlights selected tweets, thanking their top “tweeters” for their contribution. See examples from their recent productions of Sweeney ToddLucia di Lammermoor, and The Magic Flute.


Tweet Seats Complement Tech Trends

Because the industry typically caters to the wants and needs of senior citizens, some companies may be skeptical of implementing an outreach program relying on social media at an opera organization. However, reports from the Pew Research Center provide data to support "tweet seat" programs.

According to the Pew Report published in October titled Social Media Usage: 2005-2015, social media usage “among those 65 and older has more than tripled since 2010 when 11% used social media.” It goes further to say, “Today, 35% of all those 65 and older report using social media, compared with just 2% in 2005.” These statistics indicate a shift in thinking among the demographics that populate typical opera audiences.

Another report by the Pew Center, Twitter News Consumers: Young, Mobile and Educated, focused on the demographics of Twitter users. The data proved that Twitter users were considered more educated than the users of other social media platforms, stating that “four-in-ten (40%) Twitter news consumers have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 29% of the total population and 30% of Facebook news consumers.” By focusing on students from almost all of the higher education institutions in the area, San Francisco Opera has identified the correct group to be targeting with their social media efforts.

Arts managers in the 21st century must go further than producing work that engages their audience. They must carefully strategize and monitor the platforms through which their audience is engaging. The San Francisco Opera’s Tweet Seats program is an example of an arts organization not only encouraging discussion, but successfully managing the discussion around their work.