How Australian opera lost the plot

Opera Australia and the Sydney Opera House need to work together to secure opera’s future. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

It was built for the art form but you’d be forgiven for thinking the Sydney Opera House is a little ashamed of opera.

Months go by without any mention of opera performances on the Opera House’s Facebook page. Although tickets to the opera can be bought through the Opera House’s website, the website highlights “music”, which does not include “classical” or “opera”, and its media room’s frequent press releases make no mention of opera.

The Opera House and Opera Australia are separate entities, with different ideas about attracting audiences.

For opera to flourish in Australia, both the building and its company need to commit to the revitalisation of opera itself.

The building is, of course, used for a variety of purposes, and the Opera House itself is focused on promoting the performances that it produces, rather than those by the Australian Opera. Nevertheless, the high profile of the building ought not distract from the performances that take place in its opera theatre (one of its two main halls), and the art form that gives the building its name.

Part of the neglect of opera needs to be attributed to the Opera Australia itself. Opera Australia has a new chief executive, Craig Hassall. When he begins his tenure later this year, he joins a company with difficult artistic decisions to be made.

Its artistic director, Lyndon Terracini, has argued for a decrease in the proportion of state funding in Opera Australia’s budget and has actively sought to perform a greater proportion of the music that sells the most tickets.

The company’s 2012 production of La Traviata, performed on a stage floating in the harbour with views of the Opera House, was a spectacular success, but that success was predicated largely on spectacle, and reinforces the Opera House as a building to be seen rather than a place for performance.

Opera Australia’s production of La Traviata, performed on a stage floating in the harbour with views of the Opera House, was a spectacular success, but that success was predicated largely on spectacle. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Opera Australia’s other headline success for 2012, South Pacific, isn’t an opera, and tickets for their performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Melbourne are significantly more expensive than equivalent performances of the Ring Cycle by other companies internationally. (The best tickets for Opera Australia’s Cycle are 37% more expensive than the best at the Bayreuth Festival.)

One of the problems with Terracini’s approach is stagnation, with the most familiar works performed repeatedly to those who prize familiarity. Opera Australia has rarely performed contemporary opera, and in the current season only two of the operas were composed outside the nineteenth century, one in 1730 and one in 1947.

Pinchgut (another Sydney based opera company) has found favour with its smaller scale, once-a-year productions of early music, which are not fully staged and take place at the City Recital Hall. The early achievements of the Sydney Chamber Opera demonstrate a desire for contemporary opera.

One of a handful of operas that Opera Australia has commissioned, Brett Dean’s Bliss, was a successful part of the 2010 season. It was immediately performed at the Edinburgh Festival, and received its second production at Hamburg in the same year.

Although Terracini argues that in Germany ‘the audiences stay away [from new productions] in droves… and droves… and droves…’, Deutsche Oper Berlin’s most popular opera of 2012 - with 99% of seats sold - was a new production of Helmut Lachenmann’s The Little Match Girl, first performed in Hamburg in 1997.

Helmut Lachenmann’s The Little Match Girl

The conservatism of both the Opera House and Opera Australia makes it more difficult for other high quality musical ventures to be undertaken.

With the Sydney Opera House increasingly prioritising popular music, classical musicians with adventurous musical ideas find it difficult to secure the Opera House as a performance venue at all. The building’s Studio is an excellent venue for classical music, but it has been very rarely used as such in recent years.

Months go by without any mention of opera performances on the Opera House’s Facebook page. AAP/Dean Lewins

New productions are risky and the raft of new productions at the Deutsche Oper (and the other opera houses in Berlin) will result in some productions that aren’t audience friendly but that risk is surely part of what makes art exciting. Not all the operas performed in Opera Australia’s current season were an immediate success, but the choice to perform them again now affirms that the life of an opera can be centuries long. Each new production of an opera claims it as a risk worth taking again. But the risk means more than finding new audiences for old works, in the hope of one day being able to commission new works. Such days never arrive.

The solution is for both Australian Opera and the Opera House to participate in the ongoing revitalisation of opera, performing the best of the new operas composed in recent years, as well as commissioning new works.