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Australia’s first national opera review reaches for a new pitch

A new discussion paper examines the many challenges faced by Australia’s four flagship opera companies. Opera Australia

Australia’s first national opera review reaches for a new pitch

What to do about opera? It’s a question troubling the many people who love and value this art form.

Opera in Australia is increasingly seen as unsustainable under current funding arrangements, but when money is tight, what are the options? There have been several reviews of the local opera business over the years – most notably the Major Performing Arts Inquiry of 1999 (known as the Nugent Report).

But the current National Opera Review, also conducted by Helen Nugent, is the first devoted solely to opera in Australia.

A discussion paper was released last week, with the final report to emerge before the end of the year. So what has it found so far?

The challenges ahead for opera-lovers

This review comes at what many see as a critical juncture for the opera sector, which has come under increased scrutiny in the aftermath of funding changes proposed by former Minister for the Arts George Brandis and his vision for a National Program for Excellence in the Arts.

Critics argue opera receives a disproportionate amount of funding compared to other arts sectors, and that a fairer model would distribute money more evenly across other disciplines.

Compounded with reports of substantial operating losses, dwindling audience numbers, and ongoing questions about the role, sustainability and relevance of large opera companies, a tide of pessimism has spread across the sector.

Hence a review, which was established to consider “the financial viability, artistic vibrancy and audience access of Australia’s four opera companies”, namely Opera Australia, Opera Queensland, State Opera of South Australia and West Australian Opera.

Opera Australia’s Anything Goes. Opera Australia, Author provided

What has the review found so far?

The review’s brief ranges from examining the contributions these major opera companies make to Australian culture, to the challenges presented by shifting audience expectations, increased competition from festivals, and changes in audience demographics. It examines how companies have responded to these shifts and the impact of these responses on their financial viability and artistic credibility.

While new discussion paper has bright spots - Australia is one of the few countries where attendances at opera performances have increased in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis (11.6% per year) - the overall picture it paints of opera’s future in Australia is bleak.

Despite generous funding – major opera companies received about 16% of all core Government funding, plus a further three-quarters of the project funding given to major performing arts companies in 2014 (A$3.4 million out of A$4.3 million) – the sector has experienced a 27.5% decline in attendances for mainstage performances.

Annual subscriptions, the lifeblood of opera companies, are also dwindling. Opera Australia has lost 32.7% of its Sydney subscribers since 2009.

The outlook for young Australian singers, not to mention other allied opera creatives, is grim. The discussion paper states:

The reduced number of productions and performances has had significant implications for artists, particularly for singers, more so because they require a long period of study and stamina building apprenticeship. The opportunity to undertake this long period of artistic growth and development has potentially been diminished.

Opera Austraia’s Elixir of Love. Opera Australia., Author provided

So what are the recommendations so far?

The discussion paper posits a range of options, particularly addressing long-term financial arrangements.

It also proposes setting guidelines and benchmarks according to which funds would be allocated, as well revitalising the somewhat languishing Opera Conference (joint productions staged in most of the major centres), and regularly commissioning new operas that must find a stage if the art form is to survive.

The discussion paper puts forward eleven options to address these issues. For young singers, two are extremely attractive:

Selectively enlarge Opera Australia’s ensemble to increase the number of principal artists on longer-term contracts and increase employment certainty; selectively enlarge the size of Opera Australia’s chorus.

This would warm the hearts of the many young singers in various tertiary courses in Australia at present.

Possibilities of employment upon graduation have decreased markedly in recent years. Even the option of going overseas - a traditional route for many Australian singers who have enjoyed considerable success - has become problematic.

In the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, European opera companies have been hit hard by budget cuts and amalgamations and as a result the number of available positions has shrunk considerably.

Do Australians really want to see new opera?

One of the crucial issues addressed is the danger of a decrease in “artistic vibrancy” due to the falling off in the range and type of productions. Here, of course, is a major dilemma. Opera Australia’s chief executive Lyndon Terracini has angered many with his comments regarding the lack of interest of audiences in new opera.

However, the lack of virtually any second productions of new operas lends support to his views. Australian opera audiences are relatively conservative and the potential audience for new opera is small.

Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini with opera singers Emma Matthews (left) and Cheryl Barker in 2012. AAP ONE, Author provided

It must be said that a lot of recent new operas have not been attractive to loyal opera followers. New opera frequently has the (sometimes unfair) reputation of having music that is “difficult” and inaccessible, lacking in melody and “big tunes”, and thus not to the taste of most audiences.

Many of the new works that appear to have been critical successes were staged in small venues, so the actual attendance numbers in reality are small. The most recent new opera on a main stage was Opera Australia’s Bliss in 2010, a critical success but apparently not a box office one.

This, of course, is not the situation with musicals, which have been a cash cow for Opera Australia in the last few years (think South Pacific and The King and I). Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour has also been a success, if not a river of gold. However, Opera Australia’s recent co-production with The Barking Gecko Company of The Rabbits in Perth has been both a critical and financial success, and this is possibly one way forward for the flagship company.

This fact, of course, opens up the whole debate about what should be government funded; many feel that shows like the very successful productions of South Pacific and The King and I should be the exclusive province of commercial theatre managements.

The next step

Whether you’re a performer or a passionate opera-goer, interested parties have until October 26 to respond to the discussion paper.

Of course what this paper does not do, and perhaps cannot do, is offer a blueprint for the future success of opera in Australia. This, one feels, is in the hands of the many creative and visionary people involved with the art form.

Ultimately, this review is only an interim stage. What finally emerges in the next few months as government policy will have lasting implications for the future of opera in this country for many years.