Save Us From Any Further Opera Company Crises

Can you imagine telling internationally renowned theatre director, Peter Sellars, that he is wrong?  Well I am about to.  But read this first:


Forget the out-of-context number reporting.  It’s not salient to the real issue.  Sure, it’s bad that ENO’s income is down £6 million pounds year-on-year and that the previously reported ad nauseum financial fortunes of the opera company have been pretty dire for a long period. But that’s not the point.  This is: it’s not about classification Mr. Sellars, or whether or not you ascribe to the spurious notion that “There’s not one theatre or opera company that can sell out anything anymore.”  Actually lots of things ‘sell out’ but only when you create demand. To understand what drives demand in delivering entertainment, you have to ascribe to the theory of recursion – in this sense: the process of repeating success in a self-similar way. Which is why Mr. Sellars’ observation is so interesting – because his work is so successful on so many levels. If you have ever seen this luminary director’s Mozart opera productions, or his vision for György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, you’ll know what I mean.

So to this news clipping. What is causing the problem with ENO – and any other number of opera companies around the world – whose efforts are desultory at best a lot of the time or, at worst, uninformed (and out of touch) with the changing face of media and entertainment?  It’s the people, of course, making the decisions.  They don’t use any meta-data analytics or other research tools to inform them about what audiences want (and DEMAND), they just make ‘artistic decisions’ based on ‘knowing’ what is right for their company or organisation.  THEY DON’T KNOW!  Ignorance is absolutely not a virtue.  It never was, but now it’s just downright irresponsible.

Apropos, only last week, the artistic director of Opera Australia, Lyndon Terracini, suggested that Australians don’t want to see Australian operas (this from a retired singer who used to espouse the virtues of contemporary Opera).  This justification was based on the conclusion that since only 20% of OA’s income was derived from subsidy provided by the Australian government, that he was ostensibly protecting the company – and the other 80% of their income –  by not producing any Australian work.  Now I could write at length about the preposterousness of this assertion, but I would be wasting my breath.  I know this because Mr. Terracini’s answer to this arresting problem keeping everyone awake at night is to get the very talented young Australian songwriter, Kate Miller-Heidke, to write an opera called The Rabbits.  Really?  In a world where we have tremendous new operas being written (that actually sell-out: think Written on Skin, Silent Night or even The Riders) and, in the clear knowledge that great Australian composers can’t get their own operas produced by OA year-on-year, this is not simply unjustifiable – it’s a bloody disgrace.  Australian composers are a timid lot and fear retribution, and so say nothing.  And yes, I know who the bunny is (sorry Kate, nothing against your little ‘Popera’).

So what should ENO do?  Firstly, stop acting (as Mr. Sellars suggests) like a pack of tossers and children fighting over domain of the sandbox, and use the (assumedly) high-level business acumen of the Board to ask serious questions in respect to the artistic vision of the organisation.  If the answers don’t offer a recursive solution, change the artistic direction and bring in creatives who know how to do this.  They, however, probably won’t come from the Opera world.  But, hey, ENO hire executives without any knowledge of Opera, so it shouldn’t be a problem!



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