Australian Content in 2018

Hunting the balance between the Southern Cross tattoo and The Merry Widow.

WARNING: This is long.

For the past few years, I’ve made a tradition of sitting down with all the season launches of the principal Major Performing Arts music companies (and a few broader comparisons) and working out what percentage of their programming for the upcoming year comes from the country which funds their existence. Which is a rather bald way to put it straight out at the bat, but that was the essence of it. With a few notable exceptions, the figures generally weren’t great. Last year, for the first time, this escaped out if its usual closed club and got a bit more traction. This was interesting for two reasons. First, I got a very unintentionally funny email from one of the artistic administrators who took great offence at my counting of women composers as they had performed a woman’s work in 2011. Second, and less funny but more important, it really forced me to interrogate the purpose of such a crude mechanism and what I was hoping to achieve with it (beyond, that is, being struck from multiple Christmas card lists).

The short (TL;DR) version is that there are green shoots for Australian content among the organisations that receive the bulk of financial subsidy, but also some that have only the most fleeting of contact with music of this country. The average for orchestras is 6.1%, but there are extremes at either end. Among the major opera companies, the average sits at 7.1% but the sample is smaller and this is out-performed by one Viennese operetta which is represented by 10.8% of 2018 productions. If you want to just get the hot, raw data, just click here.

BACKGROUND (The How And The Small Why)

So, this year, I’ve abandoned the crude tool of ranking companies. It never really worked to my complete satisfaction- for example, apart from artform, is it really valuable or fair to compare Opera Australia with West Australian Opera? It also incorrectly gave the impression there was in fact a correct percentage of Australian works that should be performed. While I am beginning to inch towards some kind of quota as a measure of last resort- and we have quotas for Australian content in broadcasting so it’s not reinventing the wheel- I’m not fully there yet due to the ramifications for artistic freedom in programming. Although for what it’s worth, my gut feeling is that we should be looking at least into double figures.

The organisations I’m looking at are those which make up the Major Performing Arts (MPA) Group, as funded by the Commonwealth via the Australia Council (where I used to work).

Why am I limiting to the MPA group? Because they receive the highest level of financial support from the Australian taxpayer, so I do believe they should have a correspondingly higher level of scrutiny (which, in many ways, they do). Of the Australia Council’s 16-17 funding 62%, about $109 million, was dedicated to the MPA companies.  This $109 million also includes the Australian Ballet, Bell Shakespeare, Bangarra and all the state theatre and ballet companies. They are also protected from that disastrous piece of bipartisan policy, the annual efficiency dividend, which impacts all other arts funding (and indeed all but 8 other Commonwealth budget line items).

These organisations also position themselves as the elite of the Australian arts world- so how are they serving our national cultural identity through Australian work? It’s much less important, but it also makes this a manageable exercise. It would be very instructive to do a similar process for the small-medium or community music organisations but if that’s something you would like to see, shoot me an email and we can discuss an hourly rate. And to be clear, I would also expect these smaller organisations to be performing Australian music appropriate to their purpose.

From the MPA Group, I’m going to exclude the Brandenburg Orchestra- a period orchestra is unlikely to perform much Australian music (though they have!).

Musica Viva is a tricky one. They occupy a unique position among this merry band of fellow travellers as a nationwide presenter of touring chamber music. So any figure applied to them has nothing to compare it against. Also, their Artistic Director happens to be my DMA Supervisor (and I think we all know which position he finds the most joy in) which is probably some kind of conflict of interest although I stress that it has never caused awkwardness in the past with this exercise.  For what it’s worth, 8.7% of their scheduled works are by Australian composers (and- sidenote- they have gender parity among their composers). So they’re above average, and it’s also worth noting that the nature of Musica Viva means that each work gets performed in every state capital city and a few others- which is a very healthy way to lay foundations for an Australian chamber repertoire.

So where do things stand for 2018? When I use numbers in this section, they come from the company’s season brochure as available online- this is entirely manual. Sometimes things will be missing- for example repertoire is rarely listed for something like ‘Symphony in the Park’ and the entire education/outreach program may be missing from the main brochure (so their exclusion is purely on mechanical grounds and not, as has been previously suggested, due to some kind of snobbery). I’ve also ignored all the ‘Star Wars/Pikachu/Harry Potter’ etc… in concert, although I do harbour vague misgivings about them as part of a vibrant artform. Occasionally I may accidentally count something twice (there are SO MANY Bernstein works, you guys) and if this upsets you, please feel free to ask for your money back.

Nonetheless, as a statement of artistic intent for the year ahead, the brochure is not a bad source.


Starting locally, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 2018 will perform 175 works. Of these 175, 14 are by Australian composers (8.0%). The composers are a pleasing mix of old and new, grand old lions and the next generation, and with a number of women. In 2017, SSO had 10% Australian work, so this is a bit of a backwards slide.

In Melbourne, their symphony orchestra has 120 works listed for 2018. Of these, 15 are by Australian composers (12.5%). Again, there is a pleasing mix of emerging and established- not least because 4 works are part of the Cybec Young Composers concert, and a whopping 6 works are by their 2018 Composer in Residence, Carl Vine, in what is the hopefully the start of a tradition of an annual survey of an established artist. MSO are also up on their previous figures- showing improvement from their 10% Australian work in 2017 (and a hugely exciting leap from their lamentable 4% in 2016). Continue the good work, Melburnians.

To the Australian Chamber Orchestra next and unfortunately the good news isn’t as forthcoming. In their 2018 season, the ACO will perform 42 works. Of these, only 2 are Australian (one of which is a premiere) – a not-great 4.8%. This is about the same proportion of Australian work as in 2017, which in turn was half the amount of Australian work they programmed in 2016. To try and find some silver lining, half of their Australian work is by a woman composer? C’mon guys, the hint is in the name of your band.

Let’s hope my friends in Hobart at the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra can lift the mood. They will perform 69 works this year, of which 4 are Australian, approximately 5.8%. They also have gender parity. In terms of Australian content, this isn’t their best although admittedly last year they played more Australian music than any of their peers (12%).  However, I am slightly biased because TSO also run the vitally important composers’ school (of which I’ve participated and, without hyperbole, it legit changed my life) and now also have the parallel women composers’ development program. I also know that they have a good chunk of Australian work in their education program- because I’m included. However these aren’t in the brochure so haven’t been counted for this exercise. So I still love them but hopefully there is some upward movement for 2019 and I can love them even more.

With some trepidation, proceeding north to my home town of Brisbane for the Queensland Symphony Orchestra who have traditionally lurked in the lowest rungs of the Australian content scale (reaching a new depth of 0% in 2016). It’s not good in 2018. They have announced 87 works, of which only 1 is Australian, 1.1% for what it’s worth. They do have a new music festival, WAVE, which isn’t detailed in the brochure which may pump the numbers up a bit in due course. I’ve also reliably heard that occasionally they sneak an Australian work unannounced into a mainstage program, like a parent hiding the broccoli under the mashed potato. But I have no way of counting these. Please enjoy the wooden spoon, Queensland.

In Adelaide, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra has 69 works on the 2018 roster. Of these, 6 are by Australians (8.7%). So they’re above average but there is certainly room for improvement to try and inch into double figures. However, one of those works is a beast of a commitment with SOSA and the Adelaide Festival- the Brett Dean Hamlet. They’ve also installed a new composer-in-residence style arrangement with Cathy Milliken. So that’s worth a few additional honourable mentions.  Also, it’s encouraging that their trajectory for Australian content is upwards, doubling from 4% in 2017.

Finally, together, let’s go west (I bet they never tire of that joke) to the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. They are doing 120 works in 2018, but unfortunately we’re finishing the orchestras on a slightly bum note (and we’re yet to tackle opera, lol) as only 2 are by Australians. That’s 1.7%, just edging out Queensland for the wooden spoon. There’s not really anything positive to say about this, not least that even of this meagre 1.7% it’s all male (though I’m not sure if 2 out of 2 makes any kind of sweeping statement). This continues their downward trajectory- 5% in 2016 to 4% in 2017 and now just keeping heads above the water. Boo.

Let’s now turn to the other division of the MPA music world, opera. A subject close to my heart, which I’ve written about at length fairly recently so I intend to keep this brief-ish. 2016 was, amazingly, a very good year for Australian opera with all four MPA opera companies presenting Australian work. Unfortunately last year was a more typical return to form, with the Australian opera counter resetting to 0. In 2018, the collective quantity of Australian work is better with Opera Australia presenting a work by Brian Howard in their dilapidated but interesting administrative and workshops building; State Opera of South Australia in association with ASO and the Adelaide Festival are doing the Brett Dean Hamlet. Opera Queensland’s website isn’t the easiest to use for this sort of exercise (AUTO-PLAY VIDEOS? COME ON), but as far as I can tell they’re at 0, as are West Australian Opera. Should, however, you be interested in The Merry Widow you’re in luck as despite the small size of the opera industry in Australia, you will have the choice of seeing it in Brisbane, Adelaide or Sydney . Averaged out across the four MPA companies, the percentage of Australian works for 2018 is 7.1%. The Merry Widow sits at 10.8%.

Though not formally part of the MPA Group yet, for the sake of comparison, Victorian Opera, as usual, lead the way with Australian work with 2 works by Australian composers. So for the fan of Australian opera, or anyone who’d like to see what Australian composers can do with a 400 year old Italian genre, its business as usual.


Compared to previous years, I haven’t collated detailed information on women composers. Of the 27 represented Australian composers in this counting game, 6 are women (22%), none of which are in opera. The overall percentage of works written by Australian women is somewhat lower- of the 46 scheduled works, 9 are by women (20%).  Only one woman composer has more than one work. I haven’t gone back and calculated the total percentage in previous years but on reading, it does look like representation is gradually improving. Is it improving speedily enough? My inclination is ‘probably not’ but let’s hear from more women composers. It is also worth noting that of the imported Australian premieres, a number of very significant women composers are represented including Unsuk Chin, Anna Clyne, Judith Weir and the tremendously exciting Missy Mazzoli. This is encouraging.

Other brief anecdotal observations- the endless rotation of Beethoven continues, so my worries about Peak Beethoven remain.  I was also pleased to see that Adelaide have programmed FS Kelly, even though it’s not an Official War Anniversary Year, which otherwise appears to be the only time anyone is interested in the poor guy. Peter Sculthorpe has only one scheduled performance for the year, which is alarming. It’s also a Bernstein anniversary, so I hope everyone likes the Dances from West Side Story and the Candide overture (in fairness, the librarians have been digging for some real Bernstein rarities as well).  I haven’t counted, but there may be as much Bernstein as all the Australian work put together, if not more.  I also picked one international orchestra which superficially could be comparable in terms of subsidy and level of activity. This happened to be the London Symphony, and they came out at around 9.7% works by UK composers- I know both American and UK composers raise similar concerns about local content so this is not an issue confined to Australia.

Some may quibble that the Australian works programmed for 2018 are primarily in secondary venues, or of a chamber nature, but I’m not diving into that level of detail (unless it comes with a payslip, frankly). Matching repertoire to venue to audience is smart practice. Not everything should be a 45 minute symphony with offstage brass and children’s choir and massed sousaphones at a $125-sight-restricted Maestro concert. I also think that it is important to start expanding the pond of audiences who will actively seek out Australian repertoire- rather than endure it for eight to ten minutes before the Mendelssohn concerto and I’d much rather see a sold-out Carriageworks than a half-empty Concert Hall for new Australian work (hi, SSO). I’ve written previously about how I irritated I get when administrators complain they can’t sell Australian or new work (or anything perceived as ‘difficult’) when they’ve trained their audience to expect music of one type in one type of venue and the resulting self-perpetuating cycle. We can’t change audience culture and expectations overnight so if there are 500 people who will go to a secondary venue but not yet 2000 for the oversized concert hall, I’m okay with that as a developmental step. And, bluntly, 500 paying punters are better than a couple of mates and the violist’s boyfriend.

Overall, I reckon, at least on the orchestral side, there are some green shoots here. The nation’s two largest orchestras are showing a commitment in Australian work with the corresponding increased commitment in resourcing and commissioning, and others are tracking upwards. Hopefully this may lead to some kind of trickle-down effect. However trickle-down economics hasn’t really worked, so I’m not super-optimistic that trickle-down Australian programming will either. Where it may create some kind of leadership is in the heavy lifting of audience and artist development. The opera companies are, mostly, a far more dispiriting affair and I’d rather move on with some light optimism from the orchestras.


So why do I think this is important?

As I write, Australia is emerging from the smouldering ruins of the increasingly virulent cultural war around 26 January and associated issues around national identity. National identity and a national culture have become a vexed issue, with tinges of nationalism that are increasingly the subject of political exploitation. But let’s look at the good bits of Australian national identity, and particularly the Australian national artistic identity.

The broader question of the role of classical or art music in Australian cultural identity is in itself a tricky one. There is no quicker way to signal to an audience that a movie or a tv character is a villain or a sex pervert (or, at best, a brittle snob who needs to be taken down a few notches through a series of hysterical pratfalls) than an interest in classical music. The hold music for Medicare is classical music. Experiments have been successful in playing classical music to deter teenagers from hanging out in public spaces- an experiment which should make you want to scream from several orifices (not least that the idea of teenagers using public spaces should be discouraged, apparently).  All the live performances of the Harry Potter film score in the world won’t change this- which is, for an audience, a predominantly cinematic experience.

So then trying to carve out the Australian part of this for special attention in the cultural dialogue is even trickier.

Presumably all of the organisations I’ve counted like to consider themselves part of a cultural dialogue- if not national, at least state-based. Alternatively, if they are exempting themselves from that dialogue it curiously does not seem accompanied by exempting themselves from tax-funded subsidy. If they are truly part of a national identity is this being represented through the performance of the Australian voice in its music?

It would, for example, be unthinkable for one of these organisations to claim an Australian identity if less than 20% of its rostered players were Australian. Yet this is considered good enough for the composers (I am well aware that others in different fields make similar arguments about the recruitment of soloists, conductors and senior executives and there are some fascinating insights into lingering cultural cringe to be made by someone else). This is a facetious comparison- it’s not as if players are auditioning against a back catalogue of hundreds of years of dead players- but it does lead to a question of what is ‘Australian-ness’ in classical music.

One of the counter-arguments to my fairly crude numbers-based approach has been that an elite orchestra shouldn’t be parochial and perform Australian music just because it’s Australian (this was a totes legit argument). I agree! Orchestras should absolutely be discerning and make artistic judgements on whose music they are interested in, and whose music should be supported. WASO have a shocker of a 2018, but they’ve done this to a high degree previously by choosing an emerging composer- Lachlan Skipworth- and really backing him, which is great and has also paid back in huge artistic  dividends.  And I also very firmly believe that no composer is ‘owed’ a commission by an orchestra or anyone else.

However I fundamentally refuse to accept that the quality of Australian music being written is so low that an orchestra (or an opera company) have to really struggle to find something of quality to program (or commission!) by an Australian. I also refuse to accept that the range of Australian music being written today is so limited that nothing can be found to fit an artistic vision or a particular audience- the galaxy of Australian composers includes voices as stylistically diverse as Liza Lim, Elena Kats-Chernin, Holly Harrison, Cat Hope, Melody Eotvos, Andrée Grenwell, Maria Grenfell, Zulya Kamalova, Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh and Nicole Murphy. The only connecting thread (PROVE ME WRONG MUSICOLOGISTS!) is that they all write quality Australian music which we should be hearing a lot more of.

I’m also a strong believer in the rising tide theory of repertoire. I’ve written about this previously through the lens of opera. Writing an opera or for orchestra is fantastically complex and can’t be done via textbook. It can only be truly learned by doing- and here a perennial hat tip to MSO and TSO for their respective programs to support this at a high level. And in order to develop an Australian repertoire for orchestra (or opera), there needs to be a critical mass of work being written both for artistic development, but also so that the good stuff can float to the top. It’s a brutal expectation for a composer to produce The Great Australian Symphony when they get four orchestral commissions over twenty years (and just as unrealistic to expect an audience or a critic or an artist to recognise it when they get to hear four Australian symphonies over the same period).  Again, this doesn’t mean that a whole bunch of middle of the road composers should be commissioned in the hope that at least one of them will strike gold. But when Australian music is so infrequently commissioned and performed on our main concert hall stages, I question how the artform can continue to develop and evolve when the opportunities are so limited. This is parallel to the overall construction of an Australian repertoire through multiple and repeat performances- a perhaps futile exercise when such a crucial figure as Peter Sculthorpe has only one piece scheduled for performance in this count (‘we did a Sculthorpe last year’ is a justification that is rarely applied to dead Austrians or Germans).  Or are we actually okay with Australian music developing completely independently to orchestral music and opera?

What does a repertoire heavily invested in German symphonists (or, as it turns out, Franz Lehar) have to say to 2018 Australia? Well, every performance will be different and there will be people in the audience hearing these works for the first time (a criterion often used to explain the quantity of Beethoven but curiously not applied to new music). And, part of the reason they’ve managed to stick around is because they do still manage to reach across the historical divide to seemingly tell us something urgent and vital. None of this blunt cudgel of Australian content percentages is to bury the repertoire. Although some of it could use a bit of a holiday to go away and then come back reinvigorated.

I hope this doesn’t read too much like a pile-on for orchestras and opera companies- I’m fully cognisant that they have enough on their plate without me waving an Australian flag right up in their grill (should I get a Southern Cross tattoo Y/N?). Nor should it be interpreted as that they have the sole responsibility for development and performance of Australian work. Composers also share this responsibility and individual victimhood is not part of it; audiences who want Australian music also have a role to play in both asking for it and, importantly, paying for it. But- as stretched as it may feel to those on the inside- they do have the greatest resources to play a role in the development of Australian music.

And when an organisation with this access to resources is only programming a marginal amount of its repertoire from the country that supports it, can it lay claim to any role in the development and evolution of an artform, or should it be moved from the arts portfolio to the heritage portfolio? There is a prominent arts writer in Australia who once liked to call the orchestras and opera companies ‘cover bands’.  This was a deliberate provocation, and not one I entirely sign on to, as I think it ignores the ephemeral nature of live performance. However- if, as Australians, organisations can seem so disconnected from Australian voices in cultural conversation why should they continue to expect Australian support?

And the orchestras and opera companies- both things I love despite what it may sometimes look like!- should claim their place in this cultural conversation. If an artform (be it opera, or vaudeville, or wing-walking or masques) can’t remain part of a cultural dialogue, one questions why it should remain at all. All this, numbers and everything, is really a cry of ‘where is our musical voice?’ Not in some kind of chest-puffery parochialism but instead to develop and celebrate an authentically Australian music as part of an overall cultural identity. Not just because it is Australian, but because it’s good and uniquely ours.

3 thoughts on “Australian Content in 2018

  1. […] absences, the most notable being the major performing arts companies. According to Ian Whitney’s survey of Australian content in 2018 only 20% of the Australian music being performed by the major performing arts companies […]


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