Australian Opera: New Directions?

Lyndon_TerraciniThe following article taken from is interesting on many levels.  At a very simple level, it is an incisive commentary on the general malaise besetting world opera, although the beleaguered Opera Australia is far behind the strategic advancements of some companies in Europe, UK and the USA.  The late Mexican composer, Daniel Catán, has previously and eruditely commented on many of the same issues through the auspice of Opera America, so none of Lyndon Terracini’s commentary really comes as much of a surprise. Notwithstanding, if it reflects a coming change in wind direction for Australian Opera in general, then its timing is welcomed?

On other levels, Lyndon’s address regrettably doesn’t go far enough in developing a discourse around why no Australian opera has ever entered the repertoire?  I have a suspicion, however, that the forthcoming new version of Brenton Broadstock’s Fahrenheit 451 might change this.

Notwithstanding being given opportunities to have work presented, where does one go in Australia to learn how to write for the operatic stage or musical theatre stage (a topic I have, equally, to my own chagrin ‘danced-around’ in previous posts on this site).  Here’s the answer: You can’t, because not one single Conservatorium in this fair land has approbated, let alone identified, that this is sorely needed.  All these issues are, as one might suspect, interconnected and interrelated.  Or more colloquially: It ain’t simple!

And one more thing, before you read on to Lyndon’s well constructed thoughts, I would still like to see someone tackle the issue of training opera conductors in Australia.  I was lucky.  I got to do my training in and internship overseas with some of the great opera conductors, but I’d hate to be starting out now – and living in Australia.

The works of opera themselves are not the problem – although the travesties inured to the repertoire through unconscionable acts of stage terrorism by ignorant Directors, is another issue altogether (perhaps another time for this, if I am brave enough?).  The problem is: that to have opera reach enough people to develop a following for either a specific work, or, to a lesser extent, the artform itself, you need to have mechanisms in place to achieve this end; including co-producing  and venue agreements to support multiple productions.  In Australia, this remains highly problematic due to a lack of cohesion between competing opera companies.

But wait there’s more: There are quite a range of options for dissemination and education of opera through transmedia outlets, but we don’t do that either!

And whilst I am on this little soapbox: given that there are quite brilliant, contemporary, operas awaiting discovery by Australian audiences why then; with the exception of the longitudinally insightful programming of State Opera South Australia, do we practically never see any of them produced in Australia?  Really, why is that?

Here’s a short list of operas you should pursue: Florencia en el Amazonas and Il Postino (Catán), Brief Encounter (Previn), The End of the Affair (Heggie), Wuthering Heights (Herrmann), The Crucible (Ward), A View From the Bridge (Bolcom), anything from Aulis Sallinen……the list goes on.

Anyway, Lyndon’s article is good.  Read on.

Take care,



This is an edited text of Opera Australia’s Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini’s Peggy Glanville-Hicks address given on Wednesday 2 November at The Mint in Sydney. He will give the speech in Melbourne on 11 November at the BMW Edge.

…Everything I will say this evening comes from that love of the form, of singers, musicians and in fact everyone who works to make art and embrace audiences in this greatest of all art forms.

And it’s because of that love and passion for music and the theatre that some of what I have to say this evening will be difficult and possibly provocative and controversial. However, we are living in a very volatile cultural environment and my love for the importance of the making of art and its connection with a broader community has given me the courage to say what I believe must be said tonight.

What I would like to say this evening can be applied to classical music in general, but I will try to confine my comments to the form to which I am most closely connected … opera.

It’s now two years since I took up my position as Artistic Director of Opera Australia and I’ve had time to understand the company, the culture in which it works and its position as a leader in the cultural life of Australia.

As the largest performing arts organisation in the country there is a great deal of responsibility associated with the position that I hold which needs to not only deliver the operatic art form to the widest possible audience, but it also needs to contextualise what the operatic form means to contemporary Australians.

Opera companies and orchestras of significance worldwide are closing at an alarming rate and while there are many reasons for this (including a global financial crisis) the fact that very little has changed in the fundamental structure of opera companies in two centuries is an extremely important contributing factor … we live in a very different time and the expectations which were real in the past, can be assumed no longer. We can blithely ignore that fact, and many practicing artists in classical music are continuing to do so, or we can change … and frankly I don’t believe we have a choice … we must change.

There is a very passionate small group of people who can sometimes appear to be members of a club who feel that their views are the only opinions of real importance and that presenting what they want to see is the role of “their” opera company. “All of Sydney is talking about it” one of them said to me recently, referring to a particular production that, while being successful artistically, had experienced very poor attendances. I pointed out that only slightly more than 4,000 people had bought tickets for the production that this particular person was referring to and on last count there were a lot more than 4,000 people living in Sydney … “well all of my friends have seen it” was the response…and here you have the fundamental problem … everyone at my “club” has seen it and bugger those who aren’t members of my club.

That sense of patrician entitlement is not only at odds with what we regard as the Australian way of life, but it is also completely at odds with contemporary Australia.

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.

Now I’m not suggesting that a large audience necessarily equates with quality or for that matter vice versa, but from a purely equitable standpoint it is unacceptable.

Consequently at Opera Australia we have taken this very seriously and we will do our utmost to play to as many people as we possibly can. In fact Opera Australia will play to an estimated 500,000 people in 2012 and present 354 performances across Australia while employing more than 1,600 people. Of those 1,600 employees, fewer than 70 are employed in administration and 337 of those performances will be on the main stages in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Our programming is popular but without being populist. It has a reason for being and a narrative which invites more scrutiny within its broader aspirations. Those aspirations include playing to as many people as possible and putting the audience first and foremost right at the forefront of our programming initiatives. Creating a programme which is fascinating enough for many thousands of people to buy a ticket and to crack the code for opera to be regarded once more as a popular art form within the context of a new Australia.

Since 1973, when the Australia Council was founded, more than 160 operas, or as some of them have been called, Music-Theatre pieces, have been commissioned and presented.

Not one of those 160 plus operas has entered the repertoire. Most have had a handful of performances and disappear forever because they have not connected with an audience … So why don’t audiences of any significant number want to see new operatic work? It is my view that we need to reassess who we are playing to and make an active and deliberate connection with contemporary Australia.

We need to be informed by the culture of today that is in our own backyard and create new work that genuinely reflects the culture of our time and place. After all that’s what Mozart did and that’s how Verdi built his success.

Part of Opera Australia’s role as a leader in Australia’s cultural life is to create new work which ideally should tell our stories within the context of the operatic form.

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