A Druid priestess stands before a small audience, her hands clutching a silver branch of mistletoe, the train of her gown draped tens of feet around her as her voice rises and falls in song.
Soprano Marjorie Owens’ 11-second performance isn’t long enough to digest her rendition of the famous opening aria of the 1831 opera “Norma.”
But that’s sort of the point. Courtney Pruitt, the social media influencer who created and posted this video, is offering her nearly 6,000 followers just a taste — a captivating clip, a striking photo — to draw their interest to Utah Opera.
Pruitt was among the influencers who attended an April preview event at the production studio of Utah Opera, which will present “Norma” on May 4 and May 6. Through these web-savvy partners, the opera is able to connect with audiences — millennials, young couples and families, moms — it otherwise might not reach.
(Video clips courtesy of @courtneyincolor) Instagram influencer @courtneyincolor visited Utah Opera for a behind-the-scenes look at its upcoming production, “Norma.”
This strategy is increasingly common, said Crystal Young-Otterstrom, executive director of the Utah Cultural Alliance, a statewide humanities and arts advocate with nearly 12,000 members. She cited Ballet West, Hale Centre Theatre, Plan-B Theatre Company, Sackerson and SB Dance as some local nonprofit art organizations that work with influencers.
“With the significant reduction in media coverage from the news outlets,” Young-Otterstrom said, “arts and humanities groups have had to adapt by creating their own buzz.”
Although Utah Symphony | Utah Opera has worked with social media influencers before, the preview events started in January with the opera “The Little Prince” and currently are exclusive to the opera.
Kathleen Sykes, social media manager for Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, said the organization faces the challenges of social media algorithms and “ad blindness” when it posts and advertises its own content. But the influencers, she said, tend to cultivate a feeling of personal connection, enabling them to reach people in a more authentic manner.
Sykes said she regularly works with about 20 people, many of whom she’s found on Instagram or crowdsourced and had no little or no direct connection to Utah Opera. Some influencers receive compensation or trade for their work, while others volunteer for free.
Pruitt typically populates her feed with photos of Salt Lake City murals and street art, all popping with color. But she said she jumped at the chance to work with Utah Opera when the organization approached her. Until a few years ago, she would often attend the opera with her grandmother, who held season tickets for 30 years.
“I haven’t been able to attend one since she died,” said Pruitt. She added that her familiarity with opera piqued her interest in seeing and sharing the behind-the-scenes preview.
“Norma,” which closes out Utah Opera’s 2018-2019 season, follows the story of a Druid priestess who falls in love during the Roman occupation of Gaul and must decide between seeking revenge for a betrayal or staying true to her heart and people.
“Project Runway” finalist Bradon McDonald designed the couture-inspired costumes for “Norma.” He and Owens, who plays the title character, will be making their Utah Opera debuts.
McDonald, Owens, director Crystal Manich and wig and makeup designer Kate Casalino were on hand during the April 15 sneak peek, a star-studded event that was a social media maven’s dream. Some influencers streamed Owens singing the opening aria, while others snapped photos of the “Project Runway” alum.
Ashley Wilson, who posts about home decor on Instagram as @athomewithashley, said she shared what resonated most with her: McDonald’s inspiration for the costumes.
“He talked about how he pulled from history, thought about how the gowns moved on stage, and that he wanted the vibe of a fashion gala,” Wilson said. “It was so fun to see the sketches he made and how those got interpreted into clothes that are more like art.”
Pruitt, too, homed in on McDonald’s designs. Her audience, she said, is mostly women, and she wanted her story to connect to the colorful content she already posts.
“One of the costumes ... I think they said it was going to take like 120 hours to hand stitch,” Pruitt said. “And so we were looking at that up close to see more of that fashion element. ... I knew that a lot more of the women that follow me would likely be interested in seeing that aspect of it.”
Pruitt knows many of her followers have no idea what to expect from a Utah Opera production. She tries to remedy that with her posts, and that, Sykes said, is one benefit to working with influencers.
“A lot of people ... look at something like opera, the symphony, and they in theory think, ‘Oh, that would be a fun thing to do sometime.’ But they might feel a little uncomfortable going,” Sykes said.
It’s easier to consider trying the experience, she said, when “you have an influencer who’s just casual and relaxed and said, ‘Hey, this was a lot of fun, and I went in my jeans and I didn’t feel judged, and I have a coupon code if you want to come, and it’s really not expensive at all.’”
Kiel Reid, who posts about classical music, ballet and more on Instagram and Twitter as @utahgent, shares a similar interest in educating his followers. Reid is also the social media chairman for Utah Symphony | Utah Opera’s Upbeat young professionals society.
But while other influencers aim for a certain aesthetic, he said, he wants to curate information so people can gain a better understanding of the arts. He also highlights exclusive, behind-the-scenes moments that most people never see.
For example, Reid recorded a video of Manich directing Owens, an interaction he framed as two strong women working to tell the story of another strong woman.
“To be able to sit in a room and to hear them talk about the message that they want to get across is a really powerful thing,” he said, “because then you can go [to the performance] and you can see that specific thing coming across. And you’re able to understand how what they’re doing is bringing that message out.”
From Utah Opera’s perspective, the partnership is working.
Sykes said she can track ticket sales and referrals through the discount codes the influencers include in their posts. But she said she wasn’t able to provide specific numbers, and noted marketing is not an exact science. It’s difficult to determine which point of contact ultimately persuaded someone to purchase tickets, she said.
“A lot of the social influencing is about creating that buzz and getting people to talk about something,” she said.
Reid said that’s his ultimate goal — getting people to participate in Utah Opera.
“I know that I’m being successful,” he said, “when I have somebody who’s reaching out to me and saying, ‘I want to be able to see that. What can I do to get tickets?’”
This coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County. The Salt Lake Tribune makes all editorial decisions.
Utah Opera’s semi-staged production of Vincenzo Bellini’s “Norma” will be directed by Crystal Manich and conducted by Stephen Lord. Greg Emetaz created projections, videos and lighting for the opera’s ancient city.
When • 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 4, and 7 p.m. Monday, May 6.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Tickets • utahopera.org
Correction: 5:15 p.m. May 3: This story has been updated to reflect the correct 7 p.m. start time for the Monday, May 6, performance.