From chicken shed to opera house: Longborough Festival Opera launches eccentrically English campaign

Despite being around for 30 years and attracting global audiences, the festival struggled to connect with local people to whom their first awareness campaign is targeted.

Cheltenham-based creative agency Ellipsis Studio has created Longborough Festival Opera's first awareness campaign titled 'Small Theatre. Big Drama', amplifying its reputation in its Gloucestershire home.

For two months each year, the festival presents a season of high-quality opera in a pink Palladian-style opera house that used to be a chicken shed. Though the event has been running for over thirty years and has no trouble attracting global audiences, its visibility in the local Cotswolds area was very low before its recent collaboration with Ellipsis Studio.

This new creative agency opened its doors earlier this year, spearheaded by creative director Huw Williams, who has over thirty years of experience in advertising, both as global creative director for American Express and as an agency creative director. The project's lead designer, Katie Bevan, is also a member of the Institute of Typographers.

The Ellipsis team had been aware of the Longborough Opera brand for about a year and had previously approached them with the idea of creating an awareness campaign. "We always thought there was something incredibly appealing about the idea that some of the finest opera in the world could be seen in a converted chicken shed on the outskirts of a sleepy Cotswold village", says Williams.

After the initial outreach, Longborough Opera marketing director Fenner Curtis got back in touch to say the time has come for an awareness campaign. Ellipsis Studio set out to make them as famous in the Cotswolds as they are across the rest of the world. According to Williams, the client loved their pitch and commissioned the studio to create a poster campaign to run on bus shelters in the Cheltenham and Oxford area, as well as a radio campaign on Global Radio.

Longborough Opera's artistic director Polly Graham wanted to ditch the elitist and practically secretive nature of the festival, making it more about "culture, not cult". With this in mind, the awareness campaign is rooted in Longborough Opera's DNA and positions it as the best of English eccentricity, merging world-class opera with a punk-like bohemian aesthetic.

From a small research sample, Ellipsis found that local people were in disbelief that an event like this not only existed but was attracting devoted audiences from as far away as Australia and Canada without them ever having heard of it.

Williams recalls a conversation with a local orchestra conductor when he asked if he had tickets to go this year. "The conductor was totally gobsmacked and embarrassed that he'd never even heard of Longborough Opera, never mind been there, and jokingly said he was going straight home to break his conductor's baton over his knee!"

He adds that the strategy practically wrote itself. "What's more remarkable: that you can find world-class opera in a converted chicken shed in Gloucestershire or that it's taken you thirty years to find it?"

One of the first hurdles was finding a way to "stand out and grab people's attention" on a small budget, says Williams, and so the studio developed headlines to be deliberately provocative or questioning, using them alongside eye-catching, quirky imagery. He adds that it was designed to be "a million miles away from the 'black tie, cucumber sandwiches on the lawn' type of imagery of other Opera festivals".

Leveraging the story of the chicken farmer who built an opera house in a converted chicken shed was particularly important for the campaign. Bevan says it struck the studio as "a peculiarly English type of eccentricity", with the juxtaposition of "sophisticated opera and chickens" leading them to the area of collage in the tradition of Monty Python and Peter Blake.

"As soon as we'd come up with the visual of the chicken with an opera singer's head, we realised we had a great vehicle for illustrating this clash of opposites," says Bevan. "The bizarre image of a pink Palladian-style opera house in the middle of the Cotswolds also seemed to sum up the eccentric bohemian attitude that ran through everything Longborough Opera stood for."

Tropes of English eccentricity also came into play when deciding who should voice over the radio campaign, with the studio, of course, landing on the quintessentially English Stephen Fry. They felt his voice held the perfect balance of authority, warmth and wit.

The typefaces used within the campaign are Martin from Vocal Type and Adobe's Jenson Pro. The two work in harmony and add to the collage effect of the visual poster campaign.

Martin is especially relevant as it was created from protest placards and is described by Bevan as having "a very organic, handmade feel similar to the images used". She says, "We chose to use a typeface that was developed from a text face often featured in printed materials, reminding the viewer of the cutout imagery in newspapers."

Other newspaper codes are littered throughout the campaign, including drop caps, complementing the collage compositions.

Also influenced by newspapers, the colour palette comprises monochrome hues, with a bright magenta pink used to emphasise the headlines. The pink swatch is taken from the CMYK colour model and serves to highlight the concept of printed materials with the magnets used in the registration marks on newspapers. It nods to the punk aesthetic of Jamie Reid's iconic Sex Pistols album covers.

When this colour scheme was initially presented, the client asked if more colour could be added; however, Ellipsis Studio was confident that the monochrome newspaper felt like the right choice and wanted to keep that as much as possible.

"We tried adding colour to the images with a bright duotone effect, but this just felt at odds with the collage idea as the typography and imagery were not harmonious, and then we started to play around with adding colour vector shapes, and backgrounds and then type", Williams explains.

The design team felt that the coloured type worked well with the composition. The emphasis remained on the monochrome, while the pink letters helped to communicate the information alongside powerful imagery.

Getting the right background colour was another challenge, as the studio wanted a minimum dot similar to a newspaper feel. Bevan says: "The problem was deciding how dark to go so it would appear on the posters without looking like a colour, but choosing the right tone that was neither too dark nor too light that it didn't show was tricky.

"It took quite a few proofs to settle on the right tone, and thankfully, it worked well on the finished posters."

Imagery from previous performances at the Longborough Opera Festival was juxtaposed with stock imagery of chickens, cows, and more. Photography from live performances brings "drama, energy, and authenticity" to the posters, with a duotone effect finishing off the collage feel "as if the pictures had been ripped from newspapers or magazines," says Williams.


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