What Is Opera, Anyhow? (Part Two)
By Stephen CrittendenMarch 26, 2012
With La Traviata on Sydney Harbour and plans for an opera in a Blacktown footy stadium, opera-lovers are trying to create more opera lovers. In Part Two of “What is Opera, Anyhow?”, The Global Mail asks — will it work?
In his controversial Peggy Glanville-Hicks lecture in November last year, the artistic director of Opera Australia, Lyndon Terracini, declared that his company's programming was "popular without being populist".
But, was it not brazenly populist to spend $11.2 million on the set of the company's new production of La Traviata on Sydney Harbour, including a 3.5-tonne Swarovski crystal chandelier suspended by crane above the pontoon stage? Maybe, but it was fun. And on opening night on March 24, the weather was perfect, the performances were engaging, the amplified sound better than expected, and there was enough spectacle to please the punters and the politicians.
Speaking at a reception afterwards, federal arts minister Simon Crean said experiences like La Traviata on Sydney Harbour were the reason why the federal and state governments must keep investing in Opera Australia to secure the company's future. NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell was so delirious he said he wanted to swing from the giant chandelier. So, whatever else it is about, this extravaganza has earned at least an important political dividend.
But just what it is all about is a complicated question. Australia's largest performing arts company seems to be going through a kind of identity crisis at present. In 2009, Opera Australia posted a $900,000 operating loss, followed by another $500,000 operating loss a year later. The company has blamed contracting box office on adventurous programming choices, but the global financial crisis and falling tourist numbers are no doubt significant factors, too.
When Lyndon Terracini first joined the company in late 2009 he says a serious discussion was going on - "defeatist talk," he calls it - about turning Opera Australia into a part-time company. Readers with long memories will recall similar talk in the mid-1980s, towards the end of then-general manager Patrick Veitch's incumbency.
But Terracini says he opted instead for growing the business by selling more tickets.
"The problem is that the opera-going public in Australia is miniscule, less than two percent of the population. And what we've got now is a declining market, if you want to speak in those terms, without being able to expand into the wider market that we can all see out there in the streets," Terracini says.
Making opera is an expensive business and these are difficult times for opera companies around the world. In the United States, after posting four successive deficits, the New York City Opera has been forced to leave its home at the Lincoln Centre and reduce its next season to just 16 performances of four operas.
Other US opera companies have closed, and even large companies like the Met are experiencing financial pain. "Probably there will only be about five big opera companies left in the United States when this wash-up is finally over. People don't think it could ever happen here in Australia, but it could," Terracini says.
The situation is also bad in parts of Europe. In Barcelona, following a 1.5 million euro cut in subsidies from the Catalan government, the Gran Teatre del Liceu was facing cancellation of two months worth of performances and the layoff of 90 per cent of its staff, until staff agreed in February to forego their summer salaries and accept reimbursement at a later date. In Copenhagen in January, the new artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera, Keith Warner, announced his resignation following a budget cut of 13.5 million euros that saw 81 staff members lose their jobs. He has described the cuts made by the company's indifferent political masters as "a meaningless act of vandalism - the equivalent of taking a flick-knife to the Mona Lisa. So tiny in any national picture; so devastating to us."
Opera Australia is also paying the price for allowing its subscriber base to age and stagnate. This is why so much of Terracini's focus now is on audience development and diversification. He says the big question the company is facing in 2012 is one of relevance: "The fundamental problem is that the opera-going public is miniscule, less than two per cent of the population. Does Opera Australia have the will to be genuinely a part of contemporary Australia, not just making contemporary operas that play to a small audience, but making opera more relevant to the wider society? It's a huge challenge, and the company is 10 to 15 years behind the eight-ball."
Because of the long lead-times involved, Opera Australia's 2012 season is the first Terracini has programmed since taking over as artistic director at the end of 2009. In terms of repertoire, it is safe, perhaps even disappointing.
Two very different productions of popular Mozart operas in the 2012 season's opening weeks already have demonstrated Terracini's different priorities. First was a version of The Magic Flute produced by Julie Taymor of The Lion King fame, which was dominated by its ugly set, its gorgeous kabuki-style costumes and its puppets. Mozart's music came off second best - in fact the score was so savagely truncated that it seemed more like a Road Runner cartoon than a Mozart opera. But this was a production clearly intended to appeal to first-time operagoers, with discounted tickets for children and families. The approach that has paid off with packed houses. "In terms of the number of tickets sold, this production of The Magic Flute is just about the most successful Opera Australia production anyone can remember," Terracini says.
Far more interesting was a production of Australian theatre director Benedict Andrews's joyful, funny, accessible and contemporary-looking Marriage of Figaro. This was commissioned before Terracini's time but delayed for financial reasons. Whereas The Magic Flute was set-dominated, this Marriage of Figaro is a genuine piece of theatre, and Andrews has obviously spent a lot of time working on individual characterisation with each of his singers. However, although I have rarely seen a Sydney opera audience so transfixed by the drama, it seems that a younger demographic of theatre-goers who might have come for Andrews stayed away, presumably because of the steep ticket prices, while the traditional opera audience also stayed away because of the young director and the contemporary production.
But it would be a great shame if the new look, "populist" Opera Australia also began to shy away from innovative productions such as this, because Andrews's Marriage of Figaro is the necessary model if opera is ever going to find a younger audience in Australia.
Unfortunately, Terracini makes no secret that because his priority is growing the company he is not interested in supporting productions that play to small audiences. In this respect, Opera Australia at present seems more risk-averse than it was 15 to 20 years ago when then-general manager Donald MacDonald and his artistic director Moffat Oxenbould began inviting in Australia directors such as Jim Sharman, Neil Armfield, Baz Luhrmann, Graeme Murphy and Barrie Kosky.
But Terracini says his programming priorities have a lot to do with the level of subsidy that Opera Australia receives from government.
"Very few opera companies survive on the level of government subsidy that Opera Australia receives. Currently it is 19 per cent, but not so long ago it was more like 30 per cent. Whereas in Germany the figure is more like 80 per cent, and that makes a huge difference to the kinds of repertoire you are able to contemplate. We have to be much more commercially focused. In 2012 we need to make about $56 million worth of tickets just to keep the doors open. That's means selling around 500,000 tickets," Terracini says.
Not that Terracini could ever be described as risk-averse. Next year, 2013, will see the company stage its first ever Wagner Ring Cycle in Melbourne, and with 18 performances and 3,000 seats to fill, La Traviata on Sydney Harbour has been a big financial risk. The company needs to sell 75 per cent of the tickets in order to break even and by opening night about 70 per cent of the tickets had been sold. General manager Adrian Colette is confident that the company has a success on its hands although it is unlikely that Opera Australia will meet performance indicators set by the NSW Government that require 50 per cent of the tickets to be sold overseas or interstate. But the company claims that 50 per cent of tickets have been sold to people who haven't been to the opera before. Will they become new opera subscribers? Who knows, but Adrian Colette says at least a new audience will have been exposed to the company's work.
PERHAPS ONE sign that Opera Australia is undergoing some kind of identity crisis is that its artistic director has had a tendency to criticise the company's stakeholders, including singers, Australian composers and audience members. Lyndon Terracini did a fair bit of that in 2011.
Terracini has been signalling for some time that he wants to change the singer-focused culture of Opera Australia, instead "putting the audience at the forefront of our programming initiatives". In the time he has been artistic director of Opera Australia he has made himself unpopular with some singers. Insiders say the atmosphere behind the scenes in the company was poisonous in 2011, although harmony seems to have been restored in 2012. There were numerous conflicts with singers that did not become public, but one that did involved an interview Terracini gave to the Sydney Morning Herald in which he spoke disparagingly about fat singers: "If you're seeing a couple making out and one of them is obese, who wants to watch that? … It's obscene. You just think, 'Jeez, for Chrissakes, don't let the children see that.'"
In his defence, Terracini's comments reflect the changing reality of the demands being put on opera singers, not just in Australia but internationally, to look good and to be able to move on stage and act. But it is not surprising that his tone caused considerable offence among singers. American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who sang Lennie in the superb 2011 production of Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men, later commented about the incident online: "It was extremely hurtful and cruel. The statement that Terracini made was harsh bullying, and it should be stopped. I've never been to such a company that allows such cruelty."
In his Peggy Glanville-Hicks lecture in November last year, Terracini also lashed out at the "sense of patrician entitlement" of a small section of the audience that wants Opera Australia to do more challenging repertoire.
"The statistics show quite clearly that the audience for that repertoire at the present time is limited to less than 5,000 people - in some cases substantially less. That means popular repertoire must 'subsidise' unpopular repertoire," Terracini said.
"If any arts organisation is receiving $20 million per year in funding from government, then it is not acceptable in a democratic society for that company to only play to a small number of people who are members of an elitist club. In fact, any arts organisation which is in receipt of public funds is obliged to justify that funding by doing its utmost to be inclusive of all members of society."
It seems strange that Terracini would choose to adopt this elites-baiting language from the Howard era. And if it feels like there must be something wrong with a major performing arts company arguing in 2011 that it would be irresponsible to spend taxpayers' money on innovative new work that only plays to small audiences, that's because there is. Just go back and read Securing the Future (1999), the report of the inquiry into the major performing arts chaired by Helen Nugent that established the policy assumptions upon which Australia's major performing arts companies have been administered for more than a decade. There is a clear expectation that our major performing arts companies, including Opera Australia, will support the commissioning of new and distinctively Australian work, and that they will strike a balance in their programs between popular repertoire and more risky repertoire.
It should be added that this line of argument would be regarded as completely perverse if it came from the artistic director of one of the state theatre companies. Our mainstream theatre audiences expect a steady diet of challenging new work. Only with Opera Australia, where there has been so little support for new work for so long, is such an argument treated seriously.
What makes Terracini's argument stranger still is that during his own international singing career he specialised in performing contemporary repertoire. Asked by The Global Mail to name five operas he would like to program "in his dreams" if there were no other practical considerations, he doesn't skip a beat, listing off Lear (1978) by German composer Aribert Reimann, St Francis of Assisi (1983) by Olivier Messiaen, The Tempest (2004) by Thomas Adès, Satyagraha (1979) by Philip Glass, and Doktor Faust (1924) by Busoni.
Terracini says that if the audience for opera in Australia is tiny, the audience for contemporary opera is tinier still: "Only one to two per cent of our audience is interested in new work. [Australian composer Richard Mills's opera] Love of the Nightingale sold only around 3,000 tickets, compared with 51,000 for La Bohème. Love of the Nightingale lost a fortune every day it was on. Our production of Bliss cost $2 million, but it only played to an audience of 6,000 people."
Last year in his Peggy Glanville-Hicks lecture he blamed Australian composers for not knowing how to write opera: "There have been too many instances when new operas have been exercises in indulgence for academic composers, most of whom have no experience or understanding of the theatre or operatic form." He said a more rigorous approach is needed to commissioning works that connect with the lives of ordinary Australians and to the development phase of new works. To that end, a new comic opera for television, Divorce, by composer Elena Kats-Chernin, is in the pipeline. Terracini says he hopes this way it will be seen by an audience of 80,000 rather than an audience of 5,000.
But it's all very well to blame Australian composers when new works fail to gain a permanent place in the repertoire. Perhaps it's closer to the truth to say that Opera Australia isn't a notable supporter of Australian composers, nor has it done much to promote an appreciation for contemporary music, so it's hardly surprising that audiences are turned off on the rare occasions when they are presented with something new and challenging.
Composer Moya Henderson, whose opera Lindy, based on the Azaria Chamberlain case, was performed by Opera Australia in 2002, says: "Both sides - company and composer - suffer from shock when dealing with a new work by a still-living composer. No one is used to it in this country. We just have to do it far more often than we do. In Lyndon's defence, we need to remind ourselves that Opera Australia got going at a time when Western art music was in the grip of atonality. All those European composers 'atoning' for the horrors of World War II, as well as trying to escape from the cataclysmic impact of the phenomenon of Wagner. Each composer has to find their own voice and in the past half-century that has been a real challenge," Henderson says.
Opera Australia is in a bind in relation to contemporary work. If the company seeks to address opera's elitist image by concentrating on accessible productions of crowd-pleasing repertoire but fails to present much that is new or challenging, it still leaves itself open to attack from those who regard opera as an irrelevant 'heritage' artform that seeks only to preserve a centuries-old repertoire from Old Europe. That is a narrow and parochial view of course, but it is deeply entrenched in Australia and only Opera Australia can do anything about it.
In his 2011 lecture Terracini signalled that he was making a choice for accessible rather than innovative work. But in the future Opera Australia is going to have to be increasingly prepared to satisfy multiple audiences.
If Terracini is successful in building a new audience for opera it will be interesting to see whether he also begins to challenge and stretch it. Failure to do so risks repeating the cycle of audience stagnation with the next generation. Terracini says we will soon begin to see signs he does intend to stretch audiences but warns that the process will be gradual. "You can't have Mao's great leap forward. This is something that I expect to happen literally inch-by-inch. And first, we need to put in place the building blocks that will sustain that gradual process over the next 10 years."
Terracini is well aware that opera in Australia is increasingly coming under attack from culture warriors who claim that opera is culturally irrelevant, expensive and a waste of taxpayers' money. "Western classical forms are under threat in this society at the moment," he says, adding that this isn't just a problem in Australia.
He admits that his controversial Peggy Glanville-Hicks lecture was partly pitched at an invisible audience of policy makers in Canberra. He says he has been concerned about the terms of the policy debate leading up to the release of the forthcoming National Cultural Policy.
"It's an enormously complex argument at a difficult moment, because governments are confused," Terracini says. "There are people challenging the whole idea of so-called 'heritage' arts such as opera, ballet and orchestral music, and they have been getting a significant amount of traction in Canberra."
What those who put the argument about the cost of opera tend to ignore is that opera is a collaborative enterprise that employs lots of artists: singers, orchestra members, set and costume designers, wig makers, etc. "Opera Australia currently employs 1,600 people, only 70 of whom are in administration," Terracini says.
It is also a fact that Australia's performing arts companies are generally very efficiently run, so that funding for artists employed by such institutions is money that is efficiently spent with real outcomes.
But Terracini says that opera and classical music in Australia are confronting demographic change. The Australian population is increasingly made up of people from ethnic backgrounds with no connection with Western classical music. This has been compounded by decades of neglect of music education in our schools, to produce a younger generation with no interest in opera.
This is why he is focussed on questions of audience development and diversity, particularly in the outer western suburbs of Sydney. "We need to engage with an Asian demographic because Sydney will ultimately be an Asian city, and we also need to engage with a younger demographic," Terracini says.
According to Terracini there are important lessons Australia's performing arts companies can learn from sporting codes including the Australian Football League. At present, the AFL is engaged in developing a whole new culture around Australian Football in the outer western suburbs of Sydney. In recent years, surf live saving clubs have been running programs aimed at reducing migrant drownings by teaching new arrivals to swim and making them feel welcome at the beach. Surely Terracini is right to be arguing that it is high time our performing arts companies looked at playing to more ethnically and socially diverse audiences than the overwhelmingly white, middle-class, middle-aged audiences they mostly attract at present.
Terracini is also convinced that Opera Australia needs to be prepared to perform more regularly outdoors because many migrants and people from the western suburbs see the Sydney Opera House as "a place for toffs where they are not welcome". He says he has spoken to AFL chief Andrew Demetriou, who he describes as "very switched-on and thoughtful about contemporary Australian society and culture". He says Demetriou has offered Opera Australia the AFL's new football stadium at Blacktown in Sydney's western suburbs in 2014-15.
However the biggest barrier to greater audience diversity is the cost of the tickets. People might pay a premium for a one-off outdoor experience such as La Traviata on Sydney Harbour, but that doesn't necessarily build a long-term audience for opera.
Ticket pricing is an issue that Opera Australia has never really managed to address, partly because it is saddled with a small theatre in the Sydney Opera House. According to the artistic director of Sydney Chamber Opera, Louis Garrick, 24, it's the single biggest barrier to greater participation by young people.
"Ticket prices are a huge, huge problem. You can't make your minimum ticket price $90 and offer young people a really crappy experience," Garrick says. "With people my age that I speak to, it's the number one problem. People my age are generally very open to new things, but they're not going to pay for a ticket to something they don't know about if it's expensive. If they're going to pay that amount of money they'll be saving it for Lady Gaga."