Did Opera die with Puccini? – Opera Australia’s New Season

The announcement of Opera Australia’s 2015 season a few weeks back was greeted with more yawning than outrage. The repertoire is obviously conservative, the productions staid (Moffatt Oxenbould’s Madama Butterfly again?), and the inclusion of Anything Goes was viewed as a cynical attempt to boost box-office revenue at the expense of opera performers (and orchestral musicians) who would otherwise be on the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre (1).

I thought it might be fun to compare 2015’s repertoire with Opera America’s list of the most performed operas in the world. Let’s compare this list with, say, the Lyric Opera of Chicago (with a budget twice that of Opera Australia). And let’s look at what the Nuremberg State Opera is offering:

Opera Australia World Ranking Chicago Ranking N.S. Opera Ranking
La Traviata 1 Tosca 5 La Traviata 1
La bohème 3 Don Giovanni 10 Magic Flute 4
Magic Flute 4 Il Trovatore 20 Marriage of Figaro 8
Tosca 5 Tannhäuser 50 Hansel and Gretel 15
Butterfly 6 Capriccio ? Turandot 17
Marriage of Figaro 8 Porgy and Bess ? Masked Ball 24
Aida 12 Anna Bolena ? Tristan 36
Elixir of Love 13 The Passenger ? Sigfried 42
Turandot 17 The Property Premiere Les Huguenots ?
Faust 34 El Pasado Nunca se Termina Premiere King Roger ?
Don Carlos 43 Carousel Musical Damnation of Faust ?
Anthing Goes Musical Quai Ouest Premiere
Singin’ in the Rain Musical
My Fair Lady Musical
Ritter Eisenfrass Operetta

This small sample tells us that while Nuremberg and Chicago have their fair share of standard repertory items in their seasons, there are always some curiosities (like King Roger or Anna Bolena), some premieres and some lighter fare. OA’s season presents neither curiosities nor premieres.

Why is OA’s season so conservative?

The federal public subsidy for opera in Australia is highly lopsided. Here is a summary of funding for the four major Australian companies for financial year 2012-2013 (2):

Company Government(s) ($millions) Other ($millions) Staff Productions
Opera Australia 25.2 (25%) 74.8 (75%)
State Opera of South Australia 2.95 (58%) 2.12 (42%) 4 4
West Australia Opera 2.29 (42%) 3.14 (58%) 14 4
Opera Queensland 3.02 (53%) 2.59 (47%) 17 4

The Federal Government has put all its operatic eggs in a single basket, granting Sydney the greatest access to professional opera in the nation.

Since the merger of the Victorian State Opera with the Australian Opera in 1996, the resultant Opera Australia has played a season in Melbourne each year; however, Melburnians generally only see half of the productions presented in Sydney.

It may seem that OA is merely responding to the wishes of its benefactors, who may demand to see the favourites. Yet the Chicago Lyric Opera has an annual revenue of roughly US$70 million, of which perhaps US$200,000 comes from government support – clearly, philanthropists are happy to fund new and/or interesting works. Instead, I believe the blame lies squarely with the company’s artistic director. Lyndon Terrancini seems to believe opera died in 1926 with Turandot – and the focus on glitzy events like Opera on the Harbour or South Pacific have turned the company into a tourist attraction rather than an opera company for the city. Here are a few quotes:

‘In all our research we find that if people come to a contemporary opera and they don’t like it, we can’t get them back. The biggest complaint they have is, and this is a quote, they “hated the music”.’

‘[New Music] has become so driven by academics and I mean this pompous academic attitude to making music, I mean it’s just mad’ (The Australian, 31 March, 2012).

The logic is simple: new music sounds awful and is difficult for people unfamiliar with opera to hear. But as readers of this blog would be well aware, consonance did not die with Puccini in 1926. Witness the extraordinary success of the meandering post-post-tonal works of Glass and Adams, the most-performed opera composers around today. Or the playful pastiche of Judith Weir, whose four operas received eight performances worldwide in the 2012/13 season. Indeed, one doesn’t have to return to the 19th century to find 20th and 21st century composers who wrote approachable music (it’s odd to see Janaček and Britten unrepresented this year or last). Even so-called ‘difficult’ works can be popular with audiences – Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten sold 5000 tickets at $250 each in 2008 in New York (New York Times, 7 July, 2008).

Since its inception, Opera Australia has presented thirteen premieres of varying quality (3). Commissioning is risky: witness the wide gap that exists between The Eighth Wonder and Bliss. And larger companies are poorly resourced to support the development of new works. Since rehearsal time is inherently more expensive for them, it is difficult to allocate enough time to really iron out new works’ teething problems. The mighty Metropolitan Opera began a commissioning programme in 2006 which was beset with many difficulties, not least being its equally mammoth resources which had difficulty adapting to works with requirements outside the usual repertory. The first fruits of this programme didn’t reach audiences until 2013 with Two Boys, only the fifth premiere at the Met in the previous forty years.

I believe that it is silly to expect OA to perform new Australian works. The risk-averse tenure of Lyndon Terrancini has ensured that only well-established composers will be represented – if at all. This is not necessarily a loss to Australian audiences. Companies such as the Victorian Opera are commissioning and performing new work, and presenting innovative productions of firm favourites (their production this year of La traviata was one the most thought-provoking I have ever seen). What needs to change is the disproportionate public subsidy afforded to OA. If wealthy tourists wish to see a dull production of a repertory staple at the Opera House, perhaps they should pay a greater share of the production costs in their ticket. Public subsidies for the arts should go some way to advancing that form – not just in the production of new work, but in the presentation and access to old works. A fairer distribution of the meager funding may allow some smaller state companies to advance their innovative fare, and respond to a younger opera audience who doesn’t wish to be condescended to.

Note: Kate Miller-Heidke’s The Rabbits, an hour-long children’s opera, will be presented in Melbourne for seven performances. The work was commissioned by the Melbourne Festival and the Perth International Arts Festival, and is not part of the subscription season. While the results may be intriguing, its brevity in both presentation and duration may prevent any serious critical interest.

(1) The inclusion of lighter fare is not unknown to opera companies, allowing a great degree of cross-subsidisation. In 1971, the Nuremberg State Opera bookended Luigi Nono’s noisy and highly-Marxist Intolleranza 1970 with Die Csádásfürstin and Kiss Me, Kate – an operetta and a Broadway musical respectively. But at least these choices were appropriate for an opera house – requiring large orchestras, choruses, larger voices and little dancing in comparison to Anything Goes, which has a relatively small cast yet requires a preponderance of triple-threats.

(2) There are few other major companies, the most prominent being Early Music-focused Pinchgut in Sydney, the omnivorous Victorian Opera and the Melbourne Opera. Finally, there are a great number of smaller companies who either regularly perform chamber or smaller works, or do not present an opera each year (CitiOpera, Chamber Made Opera, Harbour City Opera, etc.).

(3) The Little Mermaid by Anne Boyd (1985); Metamorphosis by Brian Howard (1985); Voss by Richard Meale (1986); Whitsunday by Howard (1988); Mer de glace by Richard Meale (1992); The Golem by Larry Sitsky (1993); The Eighth Wonder by Alan John (1995); Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Richard Mills (1999); Batavia by Richard Mills (2001); Love in the Age of Therapy by Paul Grabowsky (OzOpera 2002); Lindy by Moya Henderson (2003); Madeline Lee by John Haddock (2004); Bliss (2010) by Brett Dean

-Alexander O’Sullivan


Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.

2 thoughts on “Did Opera die with Puccini? – Opera Australia’s New Season

  1. The question of an opera company is a complex matrix: purpose, repertoire, resources, funding, ticket sales, scale. These things rarely have easy or obvious answers.

    You can stage popular repertoire to bring in ticket sales: but to stage even your Bohemes, Carmens, Traviatas at a high standard worthy of international appreciation takes a lot of resources, and expensive resources. Your other big popular operas like Aida and Turandot even more so. Each piece presents different demands on resources. Orchestra size, number of principals and actors and chorus, types of voices, scale of staging, number of costumes, etc. You can’t do things like Aida or Boheme or Carmen half-heartedly, but if you want audiences to see them (and audiences do want to see them), they are going to cost lots of money, the sort of money that will never be recouped by ticket prices alone.

    If you look at past OA annual reports, it strikes me that on the whole they manage their resources fairly well; they rarely post large deficits, they sell a good number of tickets, they are resourced to do things like regional tours (which are money-losers no matter how you look at it but valued by the regions they visit), and they present an extremely high standard, with a stable of excellent local principal singers, a good eye for quality international imports, productions with high quality production values in sets and costumes, an excellent chorus (almost the only full time singing positions in the country), an excellent orchestra, and interesting international directors and conductors – opera is an art that takes place on the national stage as much as the local. Their level of government funding compared to their overall budget is extremely modest compared to European standards (25% or so vs often over 80% in Europe), and the environment and culture of private philanthropy is also simply different to the US.

    OA is clearly being conservative in their programming because they rely so much on box office takings for balancing their budgets. With such a proportionately small level of government funding (notice in your graph that SOSA, WAO and OQ all get around 50% of their costs covered by government, and they still struggle), the margin for error is very slim. So it’s no wonder that risk taking appears absolutely minimal. Those State companies manage to perform something like 20 performance a year on their small budgets; OA does at least 150 performances a year, and so their budget is much larger.

    Then again, if a company like OA is managing to be either in the black by $500,000 one year, or in the red by $1,500,000 another year, as they seem to have been on and off for many many years, then it strikes me that the difference between having to program conservatively or being able to program adventurously is actually only a matter of a few million dollars. An increase in funding of a few million (OA I believe hasn’t had a real-term government funding increase for years) would, it seems, free the company easily from the fear of being so beholden to the box office, and allow it to be a little more adventurous in how it can employ it’s considerable and highly skilled resources. A few million is a drop in the ocean to a government that can drop hundreds of millions in a budget emergency into border control without blinking an eye; and more money still might also enable OA to drop ticket prices and get back to audience building, rather than what appears to be “survival mode” programming. That’s something that National Review of Opera will have to address.

    The risk is that survival mode programming creates a downward spiral: marketing departments can only dare to program Butterfly and Boheme again, new productions are too expensive and risky, commissions unthinkable; but regular opera goers start to get bored; articles such as this one reinforce the problem, complaining that the programming is conservative, ticket sales slump further, and the next year is even more conservative; and cost cutting starts to impact the quality of the productions on offer – a continued spiral.

    Your article states that “What needs to change is the disproportionate public subsidy afforded to OA” with the implication that somehow cutting OA’s subsidy will improve things. It won’t, because there can be no artistic freedom without financial freedom, and clearly current programming suggests there is very little financial freedom. You are right – it is disproportionate: if the state companies receive 50%, how come OA only receives 25%, yet it puts on an order of magnitude more performances, with more staff, and orders of magnitude more tickets sold? You suggest the state companies should receive more funding – whilst that would be lovely, they already struggle to sell tickets on their output of about 4 productions a year.

    Looking at Nurnberg State Opera, over half their output is “popular” repertoire: Traviata, Flute, Figaro, Turandot are all very standard repertoire, Hansel and Gretel is an extremely populist staple of German speaking countries, two popular musicals and one popular operetta (there are all sorts of obscure-to-us-english-speakers operettas that still rake in the cash in German houses.) Yet you neglect to mention that they likely receive around about 75% of their funding from government (I can’t find a figure, but that is the average for German state theatres.) You simply cannot seriously compare OA to a European state-funded theatre and question why the European theatre’s output is less conservative and OA’s more conservative.

    If you look objectively over the past decade or so, Chicago’s opera seasons are also becoming a little more conservative, also reliant on a musical to prop it up, and ticket sales whilst still excellent are declining. The story is much worse across the US – opera companies are folding across the country – it just so happens that you have chosen Chicago as one of the few relative success stories.

    Also, mentioning companies like Harbour City Opera or Sydney Chamber Opera is a little disingenuous – whilst their output is excellent, a lot of it is unpaid, or paid at semi-professional rates, or volunteer, and specialising in small scale chamber works. These things are achievable on small budgets, and they are excellent companies, but they will never be able to stage Aida in the Sydney Opera House, nor should they (and nor would they want to.) Early music companies like Pinchgut are also less resource-intensive; they simply require smaller resources and so their budgets are smaller and more manageable. These different niches are valuable and well served by these excellent companies, but they don’t compare in any meaningful way with OA’s structure.

    Opera has always been patronised, whether by government or private patronage, because it is simply expensive to perform. It is resource intensive in a way that no other art form is, and it can’t be done another way. So there’s simply a question of whether we want opera performed in this country or not.

    The loss of opera at the Opera House, and the loss of the highly skilled core professionals that make up our national company would be a devastating loss.

    1. I don’t disagree with much of what you write, Richard. It wasn’t my intention to show that Nuremberg or Chicago are necessarily good models for Opera Australia to follow, I think I was responding to the line of argument presented in https://theconversation.com/how-australian-opera-lost-the-plot-12289 and similar which seem to suggest that audiences will flock to Lachenmann given the chance. I chose Nuremberg and Chicago because they represent two extremes that OA seems to sit between: Nuremberg would probably have more than 3/4 of its funding coming from city and state sources (The Deutsche Oper Berlin has more than 90%!), and could probably play to empty houses with no problems. Chicago receives less than $250,000 in government grants in total.
      In some ways though their repertoire lists are similar, a number of popular classics supplemented with musicals and operettas, but also things like Capriccio, Les Huguenots, King Roger, etc. which are certainly not unknown to most opera companies, but certainly could not be said to be in the repertory, as well as at least one premiere each. OA’s season has none of these, and is indeed in ‘survival mode’.
      Abbate and Parker note in their recent history that opera has always been “ridiculously expensive and is likely to remain so” and another reviewer (the reference escapes me) said “if you want to live in a society that wants opera, you need to decide who is going to pay for it”. For the majority of Australians, even opera-fanatics like myself, OA provides little bang for its subsidy (which is higher than most other arts organisations).
      Opera across the world is changing. While many companies are winding up (NYCO being the most prominent, but as you say there are many others), it is not as if the demand for opera is decreasing. What is changing is the way people experience and consume it – in the article I suggested that traditional large institutionalised opera is waning, and that the most exciting work is being done by smaller companies. I believe the government funding should be tied to innovation. OA’s programming is canny (even cynical), and they are in a good position to leverage philanthropy (witness their $10million single gift to finance the Ring!). Government funding should be directed to projects that couldn’t exist without it. I don’t believe OA would wither away with less of it.

      Many thanks for your detailed reply.

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