On Opera in Australia

One of my ongoing rants for anyone foolish enough to give me a soapbox is the state of opera in Australia. Recently, the American website New Music Box ran a fascinating article by Sasha Metcalf on the state of the American Opera scene, and how its comparative robust health is the result of some very conscious decision making twenty years ago. This, naturally, led me to a ‘what if…’ state of mind about our own country- notwithstanding the very different scales and environments.While opera in 2017 has an actual cavalcade of problems to face, my particular interest is on the state of an Australian opera repertoire.

We have, infamously and recently, had some exploration of Australian repertoire in the Opera Review, a then-Federal Arts Minister Brandis pet project led by Helen Nugent which was far more invested in propping up a creaking Nugent-designed Major Performing Arts (MPA) framework than any kind of innovative thinking about what opera in Australia could and should look like. Naturally, I have many thoughts on the Opera Review for another time, but they can be summarised easily as ‘LOL’. To its credit, however, it did acknowledge that Australian work has largely slid off the stages of the four MPA opera companies (Opera Australia, Opera Queensland, State Opera of South Australia and West Australian Opera). One of the key arguments for the inclusion of Victorian Opera into the MPA framework is, conversely, its commitment to Australian work (of which I have played my own small part).

The numbers at the major level have fluctuated- 2016 was actually a banner year with all the MPA companies presenting new Australian work (Grandage, John, Kamalova, Miller-Heidke, Palmer). 2017 however was a more usual return to form with no Australian works scheduled among the MPA companies.

Of course, any conversation about Australian repertoire has to acknowledge the context the opera in Australia exists in. And that’s not an entirely flattering picture, nor is it unique to Australia- live opera is a fundamentally exclusive activity, and has been for a very long time. It is expensive- tickets, parking, if you want a drink at the bar. It requires a significant time commitment that can make it impractical for anyone with a family or lives in the outer suburbs or who has to start work early in the morning or who needs a bus or train home. It is often not in the language of the audience (surtitles are a great invention, but there aren’t many performing arts experiences that require parallel reading comprehension). I’ve never seen figures, but I would bet that the audiences are a demographic mismatch with Australia at large, which considering the reliance on public subsidy isn’t great.

Beyond the endless, endless chatter about dress codes and knowing when to clap that serve as fig leaves, these are intractable issues that are insanely difficult to deal with. The big opera companies are eventually going to face a reckoning over these problems and perceptions of value (as opposed to mere expense) but that’s a thorny topic for another time. Within this context, it’s also important to acknowledge the, frankly, surprising numbers of small and amateur opera companies doing their thing to varying degrees of professionalism and quality. However they are rarely doing Australian work nor receiving subsidy- with some notable exceptions I will come to shortly- so are not the focus of my attention right now. However, the fact that there are amateur opera companies should be seen as an incredibly healthy vital sign for the artform; and I consider this some evidence that despite the occasional gnashing of teeth, opera isn’t dying but perhaps its forms of presentation are undergoing a healthy restart.

So back to what the can be taken away from the New Music Box article.

The first, and in my mind most important, point is that the comparative vibrancy and, yes, diversity of the American new opera scene didn’t come about by accident. It was a conscious decision made and planned for by the member companies of Opera America, partly due to overarching concerns about the development of the form, and partly in response to vagaries of philanthropic and government support.

I also find it fascinating- and an interesting counterpoint to the ‘give us more taxpayer money thx or the Australians get it’ that came out of the Opera Review (again, LOL)- that this was done with a comparatively smaller pot of taxpayer money than would be expected in Australia. The US system of arts funding is nothing to particularly celebrate, but it does demonstrate that it’s possible to create large scale new work without leaning on an Arts Minister or making life awkward in Senate Estimates Committees. Indeed, the article points out that the illustriously-advised and well-intentioned National Endowment for the Arts funded commissioning program of the early 1980s actually saw mainstage premieres go backwards in numbers.

Opera America also were prepared to take a leadership role with the companies- and convened a symposium of creators and producers to really hash out what the blocks were to getting American repertoire up onstage. One of the main findings out of this- which is now broadly accepted- is that there was no real, meaty development stage for new operas. On further investigation, they identified that the cultural mindset of the opera companies was so focused on the heritage, producing 18th and 19th century works, that production of new work was a completely foreign activity that impacted across the organisation. Amazingly, the report writers at the time even noted that some company chiefs even saw the idea of new work as ‘subversive ’(their word, not mine) in distracting them from their true purpose, which forced Opera America to take on a leadership role in not only supporting the creation of new work; but also beginning the much harder and slower task of influencing cultural and organisational change. I suspect this organisational and cultural change is yet to really occur in Australia, where most companies still see their role as primarily stewardship of an existing repertoire.

The second is the very illuminating quote- At this juncture, the forward-looking members of OPERA America hoped to stimulate the creation of any new works, even if their ultimate desire was for the works to become canonical with repeat performances. In any development of repertoire it is critically important to acknowledge the importance of the ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ concept. In an ecosystem which produces new work rarely, the pressure on that work is immense. Will this be the great Australian opera? Will this be the one to break into the already-small English language repertoire to stand as an Antipodean Adams or Britten? Frankly, that’s a fool’s game and who cares. We simply cannot know what will fade without a trace and what will have life for generations to come.

Artistically, it sucks for creators of new work to labour under that pressure. Not many composers are one hit wonders- opera is such a fantastically complex beast few can successfully get a hold of it at the first pass (notable exceptions: Bartok, Beethoven). If Verdi was an Australian composer, we never would’ve got past Un giorno di regno, Britten would be ‘known’ for Paul Bunyan, Puccini for Edgar. Bizet wrote 14 (!!) operas before Carmen. I don’t think it’s co-incidental that the most-performed opera composers spent most of their time writing operas and little else.

A trickle of new work- or anything outside the Top 20- also imposes long-term difficulties on opera audiences. Of course if you suddenly surprise an audience, fed on a steady diet of the classics, something adventurous it won’t sell as well and you’ll get a few petulant calls and emails about subscriptions. It is shocking that this is sometimes treated as a searing insight-if the ticket sales of Bliss get quoted again as some kind of cautionary tale I will probably scream.

The Opera Review did identify (partly from public hearings, and again, ‘LOL’) that there was drift away from live opera due to repetition of the classic repertoire. Many have had a gut feeling that the audience appetite for yet another Tosca (this one has fascists!) is waning- Nugent and Friends concluded that this was accurate.  Ideally, an opera company should be prepared to lead an audience- to build a relationship that will trust the adventure. Easier said than done, sure, but we can see the dividends with the beloved Victorian Opera, and the sheer difficulty of getting tickets for Sydney Chamber Opera.

Thirdly, Opera America recognised the role of the small/experimental sector in developing an American repertoire, but also that they alone can’t shoulder the task. In this country, we are blessed with, most prominently, Sydney Chamber Opera and Chamber Made Opera who carry the lion’s share of new Australian works. However, I’ve focused mainly on the mainstage because that is where the absence of Australian work is most keenly felt in proportion to power (political, social, financial).

The use of the word ‘ecosystem’ in the arts is starting to make my eyes bleed a little, but its useful here. I don’t buy the patronising argument that the small-medium companies are ‘feeders’ into the bright lights of the major companies. Sure, they may do that, and it may be useful, but it is only the by-product (the Vegemite to the brewing process, if you wish). I see it more as the small-medium companies are important in their own right. Some of their creators and performers may hit the big end of town, but most of them won’t and nor should they. It would be ridiculous (but quite funny) if Opera Australia suddenly bought in a Chamber Made Opera production.  Similarly, new Australian work produced at the HMAS Opera Australia shouldn’t be expected to be as much on the cutting edge of defining what opera is as what Chamber Made does. In my perfect world, the two form complementary halves of an Australian opera scene (much as, in the original article, Jake Heggie and David T. Little exist in the same world). And the two halves are seen as equally important- culturally, politically and financially.

So: whinge, whinge, bitch, moan. What do I think should be done about it?

It’s not my intention to present the American new opera scene as the land of milk and honey. Many of the mainstage premieres in more traditional companies are really late 19th century operas in disguise, with conventional adaptations of well-known films through endless safe arioso. Few works have repeat seasons but this is not unfamiliar though to any new work and, indeed, the vast majority of operas in history disappear after the premiere. So I’m not sure why contemporary work would be any different BUT recall ‘rising tide boats etc…’ from earlier. However, that my favourite music writers in the USA (Anne Midgette, Alex Ross) are even able to have the discussion about comparing different American opera aesthetics indicates that their scene is at a much more advanced stage of maturity than Australia’s, where we celebrate just getting a damn Australian work on to the mainstage.

I see three important threads to grab hold of:

  • Conscious decision making at a sector level leading to cultural change
  • The rising tide theory
  • The importance of maintaining balance between the two halves.

Strangely, the first of these threads strikes as the easiest to implement because the blueprint already exists, thanks to Opera America. When was the last time the opera sector got together- not just the hollowed out Opera Conference among the MPAs- but a jamboree of anyone opera? Ideally, this would also include the creators and producers and performers and educators of opera (the numbers of graduates who will never get onstage is another hot topic), and also the amateur organisations (I foresee the challenge of mixing professionals and amateurs but, frankly, everyone should get over it if they want opera to thrive in this country). And it should absolutely not be organised by the Australia Council. They’d do a decent job of it but this should be something the sector owns as its own thing- and, if needs be, they should be able to talk smack about the Australia Council and government funding. As was shown in sharp relief in 2015, it’s naïve to rely on the Australia Council or government largesse, great as they are, as the answer to all of life’s problems. Throw open a rehearsal room. Buy butcher paper. Have some arguments. Get a bit messy. Some companies would have to drop their tiresome victimhood act, others would have to put their own prejudices about funding aside. Other corners of the arts in Australia- I’m thinking in particular theatre and writing- seem to manage to do this so why not opera?

The first question I’d put on that butcher paper is ‘Should there be Australian opera?’ This is the cards on the table moment. Because if the answer is ‘no’ or ‘meh’ we can instead think of more picturesque settings for La Boheme (this time… Cafe Momus is a Timezone) and everyone will be home by six. Assuming that those gathered at this illustrious event do think that opera should be relevant to the world in which it exists, we can then burrow deeper into questions of repertoire balance, aesthetics, who should be writing it and even whether a form primarily developed in 19th century Italy is best suited for the telling of Australian stories. At some point talk will have to turn to money. How do we pay for this flourishing of opera in Australia? But how can we even make the case to funders, be they cashed up philanthropists, ministers or ticket buyers, when we haven’t articulated it ourselves on our biggest stages?

One of the things I keep coming back to in the original article is the opening quote from Marc Scorca, the CEO of Opera America: Today, we see new operas being performed in our major companies and at new works laboratories, which ten years ago didn’t exist nearly in the numbers that they exist today …We now have an American opera repertoire.

It’s important to remember there is no equivalent to Opera America in Australia- and nor could there be with the much smaller constituency. But how extraordinary it would be for an operatic figurehead in Australia to be able to make a similar claim in this country in twenty years’ time- and how sadly unlikely that is.

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