Carmen sense: when corporate sponsors go to the opera

Debate over WA Opera’s production of Carmen reveals some faultlines in corporate arts sponsorship. Photo: Opera Australia dress rehearsal. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

One of the loopier actions of the eccentric Roman Emperor Elagabalus (inventor of the whoopee cushion) was an edict calling for all sex scenes in imperial theatres to be performed live and not simulated.

His reign – between 222 and 218 BCE – was a short one, terminated in orthodox fashion by the swords of the Praetorian guard. But his ruling points up the uneasy relationship between art and power. Whether it’s backing things, banning things or branding things, those who support the arts in an institutional way – governments, corporate sponsors and philanthropic bodies – must be mindful lest their interventions distort creative values and from which society as a whole derives benefit.

The recent decision by the Western Australian Opera to scotch Bizet’s opera Carmen from its program because its story is set against the background of a cigarette factory is not on a par with the craziness of Severan Ceasar’s.

The decision was later reversed, but still raises issues about the influence of external organisations – in this case, health promotion foundation Healthway. Although Premier Colin Barnett has over-trumped the decision because banning the popular opera “makes us look foolish” and Bizet is back on the menu, it is a conspicuous example of the power of the corporate sponsorship of culture. So it is worth unpacking further.

Why was dropping Carmen a bad decision?

The answer is not immediately obvious. Artistic freedom is not an absolute right.

Culture exists within the common law not outside it. But it is extended a discretionary liberty by the one court that matters in the end – the court of public opinion. What art gets to be seen, by which audiences, under what circumstances, is a matter of continual social negotiation. Anyone who expects art to be pure and autonomous should heed this advice: don’t become an artist.

This is especially true of the performing arts where the expense and effort involved make it impossible to stage a show without entraining an alliance of forces.

Anyone who has been around a major cultural organisation at programming time will know the issues that get raised in relation to potential seasons. Some of these are high-minded, some practical, some almost venal. When I was on staff at the Melbourne Theatre Company I used to say programming a season was like writing poetry with one hand while unblocking a drain with the other.

So it is not true that any influence on a company’s repertoire is ipso facto bad. What made the dumping of Carmen blockheaded was the thinking behind it and the lack of awareness by the WA Opera’s General Manager, Caroyln Chard, that it was blockheaded.

The first set of problems lies with the artform itself.

For Healthway , banning Carmen had to do with “not portraying any activities that could be seen to promote unhealthy behaviour” – aka cigarette smoking. It’s a rare day that opera singers smoke on stage. They have something better to do with their lungs. So it is only the setting of Carmen that conflicts with Healthway’s message. And, as commentators have pointed out, an opera’s setting is often incidental to its impact. Verdi’s Aida does not promote entombing people nor Wagner’s Parsifal cruelty to bird life.

Thomassin Mickaël/Flickr, CC BY-SA

In fact, opera, and drama generally, spin, subvert and ironise their stories and characters to the point that it is often difficult to detect any clear message at all. Certainly where lasting works of art are concerned there is a transcendence of detail – which is why they can be adopted and adapted by so many different cultures in so many different ways.

Then there is the context of performing arts productions, the fact that educated audiences sit for long periods watching intently an art work unfold. This promotes a critical understanding of what is put before them on stage. If there are views and values that infect people unconsciously then, again, it is unlikely to be on a surface level.

Actually, we often go to art for liminal or threshold experiences, to be confronted, have our thinking shaken up or see characters have their thinking shaken up. We do not go, and should not go, to have our opinions tamely reinforced, to agree to agree. Art is not advertising, and the difference between the two is that the former is willing to ruffle our feathers and challenge our beliefs, even ones we are sure are right – like the importance of not smoking.

So far, so evident. But there is a deeper set of issues at stake, ones that have less to do with a particular production of Carmen than any production of Carmen.

An opera season is a more than an _ad hoc _collection of musical works. It is a set of choices determining which operas will be seen and which will be confined to the box room. Since operas rely on being staged to have life at all, their programming is a serious matter. CDs and simulcasts aside, the experience of an opera depends on someone deciding to do it.

Over time repertoires develop into the social equivalent of the library shelf. It is the repertoire that determines the range, type and quality of our common engagement with the artform, our sense of its overall value. I can see a poor production of La Boheme but still have a good relationship with opera. That’s because the benefit I derive from my experience is only partly reliant on what I see on the night. Another part derives from my ongoing relationship with the medium.

Another way of saying this is that the public value of opera lies in the collectively-held repertoire while the private value lies in individually experienced productions. But that public value can only be realised if there are enough individual productions to keep it vibrant. When an opera drops out of the program it drops out of consciousness.

If the skills needed to stage it go, the audience to appreciate it disappears. “Bequest value” is dealt a serious blow. We all lose out in a general depreciation of the artform.

So it is absolutely not OK for Carolyn Chard to call the decision to allow a sponsor’s interests to direct artistic content “not difficult”. It is one thing for sponsors to be in the mix, another for them to rule the roost. Money talks but shouldn’t determine who else gets to speak.

Such rank instrumentalism raises doubts about the whole philosophy of corporate support of the performing arts that has been thrust down the sector’s throat for more than 20 years now. It’s exactly the kind of meddling public subsidy was designed to insure against.

It also presents an important problem for cultural economics. How can our understanding of art’s public value better conceive of its organisational expression? Repertoires are intangible social assets.

The WA Opera blow-up suggests our thinking around cultural value still has a way to go.