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|
|Marriage of Figaro||8||Porgy and Bess||?||Masked Ball||24|
|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|
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
Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.