When Dick Letts asked me to write this article he said that I was the first manager to be invited to contribute. This came as a shock to me, as despite a number of years as a manager I still think of myself as a musician. I still conduct and play (although the latter is now extremely irregular) and although I’m sure it’s changed considerably over time, I feel that my mindset is identical to that which I had on the first day of my tertiary music studies in 1988.
Nonetheless, my professional life has moved into administration, but I think my attitude to my current and previous management roles is still that of the musician. The musician in me informs every decision that I make, from budgets to HR and from marketing to fundraising.
My current role as Victorian Opera’s Managing Director has me intimately involved with the artistic life of the organisation, at every stage. Victorian Opera is absolutely about the team, and I work particularly closely with Artistic Director Richard Mills and Executive Producer Libby Hill to wring every last artistic drop out of an ever-tightening budget.
We like to think of ourselves as a company that breaks the rules of what it is to be an opera company, and this is what I love most about the company. I’ve never been one to accept the status quo and I loathe the ‘we’ve always done it like that’ attitude you often find when you suggest something a little left-field. However, to enable this kind of artistic process requires support, both from within the company and from external sources.
While it is an undeniable fact that opera in Australia receives the highest proportion of funding from the Australia Council of any art form (and VO has just been awarded ongoing Australia Council funding for the first time in its history), there are two important factors to acknowledge. Firstly, over 85% of Australia Council funding for opera goes to the national company (leaving the four state companies sharing the other 15%) and secondly, opera in Australia is not well funded in global terms.
To illustrate this second point, government funding provided to the three major opera companies in Berlin (Deutsche, Staatsoper and Komische) by the City of Berlin (not including federal government funding) is equivalent to around $208m annually. The annual Australia Council budget (to support all art forms across Australia) is $185.4m. The smallest of the three companies in Berlin, Barry Kosky’s Komische Oper receives $52.75m per year from the Berlin Senate alone. The five full-time professional companies in Australia (Opera Australia, State Opera of South Australia, Opera Queensland, West Australian Opera and VO) received $37.8m between them last year from a combination of state and federal governments.
These stats are quoted to simply indicate the challenges of the operational environment opera companies work within on a daily basis in Australia.
What to do about this art form? There seem to be two schools of thought emerging.
One, which is predominantly (but not exclusively) championed by larger companies around the world is to stick to iconic, familiar repertoire – a ‘top ten’ of guaranteed crowd pleasers. In the instances of an opera company, these ‘top ten’ works typically include The Magic Flute, Madama Butterfly, La Traviata or Carmen. These are unquestionably great works, but even great works lose some of their impact upon repeated exposure.
Victorian Opera falls into the second camp and seeks out unusual gems in the existing repertoire, expands the styles and genres of music offered by an opera company and perhaps most importantly of all, commissions. Without new work, any art form dies and opera is no different.
Kasper Holten, the outgoing Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden recently said “For many years we tried to protect opera by building a wall around it. Now if we want to protect opera we need to break that wall down”. This is what we try to do on a daily basis at Victorian Opera.
VO commissions at least one new work each year (we currently have eight commissions in various stages of development) and regularly stages Australian premieres of other works. This gives our seasons a completely unpredictable nature, one which our audiences seem to enjoy.
With these different approaches to programming, I suspect the correct approach is in fact a sensible balance of both, when offered in a single marketplace by either a single company or a combination of companies. For now though, Victorian Opera is thriving. Our audiences this year have grown again, our box office for 2016 will be the largest it has ever been and our advance sales for 2017 are currently tracking significantly higher than at this time last year.
Opera is absolutely not dying, but it is evolving. With the National Opera Review expected any day now, who knows what the future may bring for the company. We will, however, carry on making the best work we can for stages across Victoria and, from 2017, Tasmania too…and I’ll always continue to be a musician!