Todd Takes On… MN Opera’s Twitter Meltdown

Image Credit: Minnesota Opera

After a long, glorious night at ARTCRANK last night (more on that later), I got home where a good friend of mine (herself a communications expert for non-profits) alerted me (at 2:30am after a long day including coordinating a wedding at the day job and ARTCRANK shenanigans), I was awoken to news that something was going down on Minnesota Opera‘s Twitter feed.

To help promote the opening of their new production of Madame Butterfly last night, they posted the following on Facebook:

Don’t forget to tune in to our Twitter tonight! We’ve heard rumors that someone is sneaking in to the opening night of Butterfly to tweet her super hip interpretation of what’s really going on! (in hipster nomenclature)

Meanwhile, this is what they shared on Twitter:

Don’t forget to tune in to our Twitter tonight! We’ve heard rumors that someone is sneaking in to the opening night of Butterfly to tweet…

Oh wow, we just had a conversation with our staff hipster, and not gonna lie, didn’t understand much of what she said…so here’s a…

What resulted was a “hipster speak” take on the action of Madame Butterfly. Go read their full feed starting with those two posts onward. (It helps if you know the plot of Madame Butterfly.)

Okay, before I get into it, a few biases and disclaimers 1) I love opera (and I am an operatically-trained singer), so I’m not coming at this from someone who doesn’t know the form. 2) I really respect the hell out of MN Opera. They have a nationally renown reputation for not only exciting productions of the standard repertoire, but have developed and produced more new opera works than any other opera company in the nation (this year, their children’s program is premiering an opera of The Giver they co-commissioned, and next season they will present the world premiere of the opera version of Doubt which they commissioned).  3) I have worked with MN Opera before: this past fall, I helped plan an event with Tempo, which is their young professionals group. Tempo is a great group run by an amazing group of dedicated opera fans who are actively trying to crack that hard question: how to get younger people to go to, and get excited by, a very tricky art form.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s how and why I think this homage to an extremely funny article on The Tangential went a little off the rails.

1) There is no consistency to the Twitter voice: There has been a lot of chatter lately about the face of your brand on Twitter (Kary Delaria talks about it on Kane Co.’s blog). But at the same time, the other issue inherent in that is the “voice” of your Twitter account needs to be consistent. If you were to read MN Opera’s Twitter feed prior to this string of tweets, you’d think it was a slightly dry professional Which leads me to my biggest issue with all of this…

2) There was no way for people to be in on the joke: Imagine if you were following @MNOpera that night and all of the sudden saw a tweet like this –  “twegal advice: yo butterfly Imma let you finish but u married a douschenozzle. Take the other guy.” – and you didn’t know the joke, you’d be shocked, confused as hell, and slightly offended. Doing humor, especially humor on social media, is a tricky business not to be undertaken lightly (unless you have someone who knows how to handle humor effectively, for example the Twitter bio of this guy). At no time during this constant stream was there any in for random followers to jump in and get the joke.

Now were there other ways of doing something like this; getting parody and humor and still have engagement? Of course. They could have pulled a Kenneth Cole (not the scandalous tweets that got him in trouble) but have the “hipster opera goer” initial their tweets at the end (as Mr. Cole initials the tweets that come from him directly).

Or MN Opera could have created a separate account for this person (say @MNOperaIntern), plug the account on their Twitter feed (“We’re letting @MNOperaIntern live-tweet the Mme. Butterfly opening tonight. #godhelpus) and then engage them during the show (“.@MNOperaIntern I don’t think “douchenozzle” is an appropriate term for an opera character.) Another option is having an insider providing backstage access tweets, be it a real person (in the mode of @OscarPRGirl, who actually works for Oscar De La Renta) or a character backstage watching the events unfold and commenting.

The takeaway from this is that there are ways they should have found more ways for their followers and lay people to have gotten in on the joke. That way we’d all be saying things like “Oh, what a witty way to engage the audience” and not “Fire the intern/communications person who did this!”.

3) If you’re going to use the tools, please use them well. That means use your hashtags correctly (and while I love using an ironic hashtag on Twitter, it can get really old, really quick), engage not alienate your audience, talk to not at them, and don’t “act a fool” (as the kids say).

4) The appropriateness of the venue: By this I mean the timing of it. It would be one thing if this was happening on a night geared to 20-30 somethings where people might get the joke and get that MN Opera was making fun of hipster twitter stylings. But this was opening night of the final show of the season; a prestige night where a company wants nothing to go wrong. The timing of this twitter barrage was misguided in my eyes.

Look, as someone who cut his teeth doing communications for the arts, I know that it’s a hard thing to do, especially for opera companies since many people consider opera an elitist art form out of touch with the times. And I applaud the intent behind it; it’s a risky move to use humor to push a brand/event/etc. While I can appreciate the thought behind it, I can’t agree with the very flawed execution.

UPDATE: Those smart cookies at Cake in 15 weigh in with their opinion.



  1. Lani Willis

    Todd, I’m Minnesota Opera’s marketing and communications director. Thanks for your passionate support of opera and of Minnesota Opera as evidenced not only by your glowing profile above (and the incredible Spectacular Spectacular last season at the Varsity), but by your willingness to share your advice.

    As has been supposed, the intent behind our “hipster’s” tweets was to brush the dust off some musty impressions that opera is elitist, stuffy or boring. We fully acknowledge that the execution of this idea was lacking (yep, we made the mistake of hoisting this attempt at satire on an intern), and that when attempts like ours go awry, it is really frustrating to those who do social media really well. We appreciate your very constructive criticism. We don’t like making mistakes, but we love learning from them. This feedback will help us develop better social media programs as we enter more thoughtfully into this realm in the future. It’s our hope that those who engaged in this particular conversation with Minnesota Opera and about opera will continue to do so, and continue to challenge us to put the same thoughtful preparation into our “productions” online as we put into our productions on stage. We’re posting a blog entry to this effect, as well.

    I’d like to invite you to attend Madame Butterfly this week on us, if you’re able, as a gesture of our gratitude.

    • toddodowd

      Hello Lani and thanks for replying.

      As for the tickets to Madame Butterfly, that is very generous of you. I will have to check my schedule and see if I am available. I do love MN Opera’s work (and I’m very excited about next season, with it being Maestro Christie’s debut season as Musical Director and the premiere of Doubt) and I love rooting for them in the face of other opera companies that try and overshadow them. Again, my comments weren’t meant to be a full on screed, but rather a somewhat constructive approach that can be helpful. Having done communications in the arts field, I know how hard it is to get patrons in the door and am simpatico to all of the stresses therein. That said, I would love to keep this conversation going and we can discuss other best practices that I’ve seen that have worked. Shoot me an e-mail (toddodowd *at* gmail *dot* com) and let’s talk.


      • Lani Willis

        Hi Todd, I will absolutely do so! Thanks for the kind note – I didn’t take your post as anything but constructive. Do let me know if you have a free evening to see Butterfly. The Star Tribune and Pioneer Press reviews are online today, and glowing.

  2. Pingback: Todd Takes On… A Questionable Piece of Op-Ed « Todd O'Dowd

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