National Opera Review – Melbourne session

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Published: 2nd February, 2015

What price opera in Australia? After sessions with interested parties in Brisbane and Perth, it was time for Melbourne to have its say, with Sydney and Adelaide to follow. The Review Panel, comprising Dr Helen Nugent (Chairman), Moffatt Oxenbould, Andrew McKinnon and Kathryn Fagg, has been charged with the task of “examining the artistic vibrancy, engagement with audiences and financial positions of Opera Australia, State Opera of South Australia, West Australian Opera and Opera Queensland.”

Those gathered at the Arts Centre Melbourne may not have been representative of the general public but there was a wide diversity of experience present and a range of opinion expressed regarding the direction opera should take in Australia. One matter that was pointed out by several participants was the ordering of the Terms of Reference: Financial, Artistic and Access. As Dr Nugent pointed out, it is understandable that the financial dimension comes first since the Australian Government is funding these four companies. Their ongoing financial viability is a crucial bottom line.

Again and again, participants pointed out that risk aversion was placing too much emphasis on a bottom line that should be viewed in terms broader than dollars and cents, or certainly not only those connected with box office takings. Apart from job creation for performers and backstage employees and the financial spillover benefitting the broader community, which comes as a result of mounting performances, the importance of investing in artistic capital is a no-brainer.

Participants sometimes had to be coaxed and encouraged by a warm and welcoming Helen Nugent to air their views. Among other things, she asked specifically about opera attendance behaviour and attitudes of those present as well as for opinions regarding opportunities for marketing and the role of festivals in accessing audiences outside the usual run of patrons.

Many other aspects of opera performance were also raised by various participants, including the size of venues. At what point does size not matter? If it costs a certain amount to stage an opera, would putting it in a smaller, less expensive venue not necessarily offset the major costs anyway and also preclude the possibility of a larger audience?

Bill Gillies, Chair of Gertrude Opera, made a number of pertinent points regarding the necessity of targeting funding towards specific outcomes such as attaching funding to the creation of one new opera annually, as practised by Santa Fe Opera, and ensuring that Young Artists have an opportunity to perform, not just cover, roles. There seemed to be a general consensus that greater emphasis should be placed on promoting the virtues of singers.

One of the most eloquent pleas came from the formidable opera singer and composer, Deborah Cheetham. As Director of Short Black Opera, she is under no illusions as to what it takes to embrace the challenge of mounting a new Australian work and touring it around the country successfully. Pecan Summer was a risk that paid off due to her passion, commitment and sheer talent as a singer, teacher, composer and entrepreneur. According to some of the participants at this gathering these are the qualities that appear to be lacking from Opera Australia.

Conductor Patrick Burns provided a most persuasive analogy with sport in his plea for greater leadership from Opera Australia. Just as the success of cricket in Australia should not depend on its promotion by the organisers of the Sheffield Shield, so it should not be all those grass roots opera companies doing the heavy lifting when it comes to the promotion and nurturing of opera in Australia. Our so-called national company should be fulfilling that responsibility in a more vigorous and visionary way. It would seem that Opera Australia needs somebody with the capacity to articulate a vision that will ensure a new “Golden Generation” of opera lovers.

Whether a self-defeating, risk-averse OA Board has stifled Lyndon Terracini’s efforts, or he does not have the capacity of people such as Deborah Cheetham or Richard Gill to articulate his commitment to opera as the pinnacle of musical and cultural expression, remains to be seen.

After an hour and a half of listening carefully to the opinions of those working in the industry and of opera audience members, Helen Nugent gave a fairly comprehensive summary of common themes. As well as a plea to extend risk-taking, the following were all matters of concern: an appropriate mix of old and new repertoire; the importance of developing new singers and giving singers opportunities to perform throughout their careers; the education of new audiences (not just children); the affordability of tickets; and a broader marketing of opera.

The Panel’s recommendations to the Australian Government are due to be tabled by 30 June 2015. Hopefully, the spirit of creative enterprise that drives so many of those consulted will be strongly represented in that report and persuade the Australian Government that opera is a crucial element of Australian culture and that it deserves greater financial support. Perhaps Dr Nugent’s hope for what she sees as a “virtuous circle” of access will be given a chance to flourish.


Heather Leviston attended this session of the National Opera Review at the Arts Centre Melbourne on Thursday January 29, 2015.

 The (file) picture is of opera singer and composer, Deborah Cheetham.

This piece by Richard Watts about the theatre scene echoes many of the same concerns.