This response was published as two articles in succeeding months in the Music Council’s ezine, Loudmouth.

Article 1

The National Opera Review has reported. George Brandis established this review in 2014 when he was still Arts Minister. It was supposed to report in June of 2015 but by then, Brandis’s plan to recast the arts in his own image had created turmoil and Malcolm Turnbull, newly appointed as PM, made one of the few clear and laudable decisions of his incumbency and sacked the Arts Minister. The Review disappeared and was generally supposed to have gone down with HMAS Brandis – but suddenly reappeared and in October, published its report, 16 months late.

The Terms of Reference are pure Brandis. The name is National Opera Review, the game is a review of the four larger companies funded by the Commonwealth. The Terms do not allow consideration of the totality of opera in Australia; they exclude the Victorian Opera and the numerous small companies that are much of its growing edge.

Although there are strong references to the need for evolution and innovation, the weight of the Review is on strengthening traditional practice of the mainstream repertoire; when it comes to action on innovation, the Review runs out of puff.


The actions proposed by the Review come with a price tag of $23 million over four years.

The funds available to the Australia Council grants program, other than those reserved for the major performing arts companies, have fallen 35% from $43 million to $28 million under the current government. It is true that $12 million of these funds were transferred to what is now knows as the Catalyst Fund, administered by the Department of Communications and the Arts. There are limitations on the use of Catalyst funds which mean that they do not support some important categories of applicants previously served by the Australia Council – for instance, individual artists. For those in government who have not noticed, art is made by artists.

The writer believes that no more money should be added to that supporting opera until the cuts to funding of individual artists and small arts organisations are restored, and then only if they receive an increase in funding at least as great as any increase to opera.

That said, this article deals with the Opera Review on its merits. The arguments that follow deal mainly with one aspect of the Review.

The Review focuses very much on the decline in the audiences of the four opera companies following the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). It says that in response to the fall in audiences, the companies and especially Opera Australia (OA) adopted strategies that seemed reasonable but in the event, have proven counter-productive. OA cut back on the number of productions and the number of performances and in pursuit of a popular audience, programmed extended seasons of a small number of the most popular operas. It also devoted a lot of resources and theatre time to popular musicals. (In fact, if there is a crisis, it lies more with OA than the other companies – OA is larger than the three of them combined.)

Aida on the Harbour. Opera Australia

The consequence has been a loss of ticket sales for mainstage opera, the main responsibility of these large companies, because there were fewer seats for sale and because a substantial percentage of subscribers, the most committed audience, apparently did not want to sign up for a series of operas they had already seen multiple times.

The Review proposes an array of strategies to restore box office revenue based upon the belief that the loss of attendees resulted from the GFC and the companies’ counterproductive response. At core, it proposes reversing the actions taken: increase the number of productions and performances, restore the diversity of programming, and support this with improved marketing and management.

But what if there is another reason for the decline in audience?

Here are some interesting opera attendance figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, from its surveys of 1995, 1999, and 2006. (1)

YEAR              ATTENDANCES           % OF POPULATION

1995                     634,000                             4.5%

1999                     510,500                              3.4%

2006                     405,600                             2.6%

From 1995 to 2006, there was a 36.1% drop.

These numbers make a more or less orderly series and suggest that there indeed was already a serious decline over these years, prior to the GFC.

Live Performance Australia has published data on opera attendances annually from 2004. (2)

YEAR               ATTENDANCES                  % CHANGE

2004                     630,000

2005                     532,000                              -15.6%

2006                     516,000                              -2.9

2007                     592,000                              14.7

2008                     403,000                             -32.0

2009                     448,000                             11.3

2010                      410,000                              -8.6

2011                       439,000                             7.2

2012                      431,000                              -1.9

2013                      345,000                             -20.0

2014                      387,000                             12.2%

2015                      323,000                              -16.5 (3)

Attendances are rounded to the nearest ‘000. (4) Note that LPA reports musical theatre attendances as a separate category.

2015  This is not an LPA figure. The Review has different (lower) numbers for these years, presumably excluding data from all but its four major companies. However, they show a 28% decline in attendances from 2009 to 2015.

Applying this to the LPA figures: 72% of 448,000 is 323,000. We take this number to be indicative.

Please note that ABS and LPA figures differ because their methods of collecting them differ. The main issue we are pursuing here is the trend in attendances, not the actual numbers attending.

Presumably the GFC intervened in 2008 and accounted for the 32% drop in ticket sales. OA responded with the new programming policy which, according to the Review, further damaged attendances. See especially the 2013 – 2015 figures.

The Fairy Queen. Pinchgut Opera is a small but fine company that specialises in early opera.

The point is that the available data suggest that opera attendances had been falling for some time before 2008, and going back at least to 1995. What accounts for that fall? Presumably not a general financial crisis, nor actions of the type taken by the companies in response to the GFC.

The solutions proposed by the review, if effective, will mean the companies more efficiently promote the policies prevailing before the GFC but which themselves were consistent with a declining audience.

In other words, if there is a larger problem, they do not solve it.

So what is the larger problem?

Imagine if Australian live theatre companies performed virtually nothing written after 1910. If the only novels available to us were written in the 18th and 19th centuries. If commercial radio broadcast no music more recent than music hall songs from World War 1. If nearly all television drama comprised adaptations of 19C plays and these, serialised, were also the source of TV soap operas.

Opera as presented in Australia is for the most part, not an art of our time. We can speculate that dramatic situations depicted in 18th and 19th century European operas are increasingly foreign to Australian audiences. The singing style is alien to the musical experience of most Australians as is, perhaps to a lesser extent, the music as a whole. There is evidence that young people are uncomfortable with the setting, rituals and protocols of opera performances, which may also seem to come from another time.

Bliss. Opera Australia, 2010. Its most recent adult mainstage commission.

While we want to see the survival of the heritage, we can speculate that the heritage is not an attractive entry point for many prospective new audience members. For years now, articles in the print media have provoked with headlines asserting that “Classical Music Is Dead”. Dead because it died of old age.

In opera as mostly presented in Australia, with its static repertoire from past centuries, there are attempts to give life support through the restaging of old operas in present times – a tacit acknowledgement of, but evident non-solution to the problem.

Surely, whatever the strengths and weaknesses of Australian opera companies in presenting this repertoire, the underlying reason for the difficulties in the sector is that opera, as mostly presented in Australia, is an anachronism. In what it depicts and how it depicts it, the opera heritage does not speak to an audience that, escapism aside, wants the life it lives reflected and explicated on the stage in a language that it finds moving.

Some of our opera companies are responding to this issue through occasionally commissioning new works with a contemporary feel that may attract good audiences. They include a children’s opera, The Rabbits (WAO and OA) which sold out seasons in Perth and Melbourne. State Opera of South Australia commissioned and presented the opera Cloudstreet based upon the popular Tim Winton novel. The Victorian Opera presented an opera based upon another Winton novel, The Riders. Such works may begin informally to create some momentum.

In recent issues of Loudmouth, we have reported on the situation in the USA. New York City Opera has disappeared as a year-round occupant of the Lincoln Centre. The Metropolitan Opera attendances last season filled its house to only 66% capacity, down from a norm of around 90%. General Manager Peter Gelb asserts that the problem is ‘a cultural and social rejection of opera as an art form’.

But meanwhile, there is a burgeoning of new operas produced by small companies in a great variety of venues conventional and unconventional.

What could happen in Australia if there were a formal strategy to carry us faster in that new direction?

The Review (page 4) gives high status to operatic evolution and innovation: ‘Opera is evolving rapidly.  While the operatic repertoire of earlier days retains its capacity to entertain and excite—especially because of the excellence and virtuosity of today’s performers—opera in the 21st century is flexibly adapting to the use of increasingly sophisticated technology as well as responding to and leveraging an ever-changing array of competitive arts entertainment options.  Such innovation is impacting not just the way opera is staged, but also on how, globally, it is disseminated to audiences.  The regular development of new works is also critical to the continuing artistic vibrancy of the artform. “also” is a powerful word in that last sentence. Read on.

Laughter and Tears. Victorian Opera

The Review sets forth five ‘guiding principles’. Numbers 2, 4 and 5 explicitly call for innovation and number 5 implicitly.

4.1.2 Australia should nurture the ability of the Major Opera Companies to flexibly evolve the artform in response to changing consumer behaviour, demographics and technology as well as a more competitive environment;

Flexibility will increase the ability of the Major Opera Companies to interact with and support the important work of other innovative but smaller companies.

4.1.4 Australia should commit to increasing innovation in opera as an artform; and

4.1.5 Australia’s Major Opera Companies should be leading exponents of Australia’s cultural distinctiveness within opera’s artistic traditions.

Distinctively Australian works support the evolution of the artform, the development of Australian artists, and the process of engagement with audiences and smaller opera companies as part of the vibrancy of a broader classical musical and dramatic environment.

One would expect that with such emphasis on evolution and innovation, there would be strong action to follow.

Improving Artistic Vibrancy is the title of Section 7 of the report.

The first two recommendations in this section are 1) to increase the number of mainstage productions and 2) the diversity of productions. Then come the recommendations concerning innovation.

7.3 Support the development of new Australian works;

‘New work that reflects Australia’s national character and is emblematic of its own time and place is essential to the ongoing artistic vibrancy of the artform.

Recommendation 7.5: Governments should support the development of new work, particularly through experimentation, workshops and smaller scale activities.

‘This recommendation is supported because:

  • Artform innovation is the lifeblood of the artform going forward;
  • The cost and risk of staging new mainstage works that have not been adequately workshopped is high; and
  • Workshops and experimentation offer a lower risk and cost environment in which to support and develop new Australian works.’

Good recommendation, inadequate explanation.

Cloudstreet. State Opera of South Australia, 2016.

Recommendation 7.6: Governments should create an Innovation Fund which will include discrete competitive funding to encourage the development of new works to which the Major Opera Companies can apply either on their own or in conjunction with smaller companies.

‘The Review supports this Recommendation because:

  • Innovation is critical to the ongoing vibrancy of the artform;
  • The Major Opera Companies have a responsibility to take a leadership role in the artform, particularly in relation to the development of new Australian works. This initiative may encourage the discharge of this responsibility at a time when the companies are under financial pressures;
  • Many of the smaller opera and other artform companies are developing innovative and creative new works, which this initiative—in conjunction with a Major Opera Company—may further encourage; and
  • By encouraging co-operation with smaller opera and other artform companies, the potential to incubate new works may occur more expeditiously. For instance, this has recently been seen with The Rabbits, which is an Opera Australia and Barking Gecko Theatre Company co-production in association with WAO.  It was commissioned by Perth International Arts Festival and Melbourne Festival and was in part supported through the Federal Government’s Major Festivals Initiative.  It was hailed as a critical success, enjoying capacity audiences, leading to invitations to be performed in the Sydney Festival and in Brisbane.’

7.4 Support the presentation of innovative works in collaboration with festivals;

Recommendation 7.7: Governments should create an Opera Festival Fund within the broader Innovation Fund.

‘More specifically, the Major Opera Companies should compete for an annual grant from the Opera Festival Fund in collaboration with a specific festival or festivals.  Other arts companies may or may not be involved in conjunction with the Opera Festival Fund.’ good list of reasons follows.

7.5 Increase the use of digital technology for innovation;

Recommendation 7.8: To promote a vibrant and innovative future for opera, Governments should establish, within the Innovation Fund, a specific competitive initiative based on using digital technology to enhance the artform, connect with audiences, enhance production design values and/or lower production costs.

‘Artform experimentation and engagement through digital technology is likely to be essential to the evolution of the artform. list of good justifications follows.

A test of these recommendations comes in the allocation of funding.

11.3 Provide funding to support innovation and artistic vitality;

Recommendation 11.11:  An Innovation Funding package of $1.2 million is recommended to promote innovation and artistic vitality.’this is an annual allocation.

It is divided into three components:

  • Co-operation with festivals $500,000
  • Digital innovation $500,000
  • Development of new works $200,000

‘This should be funded and administered by the Australia Council for the Federal Government.’

Given the status assigned to innovation in both the general and specific statements by the Review, how can it seriously propose an annual budget of $200,000 for the development of new works? This budget might suffice to produce only one work per year. How is that sufficient to fulfil the high-flown statements about the importance of innovation and new repertoire?

Why would it give an allocation 2.5 times greater to digital innovation when the economic and artistic advantages could be sufficient to induce companies into that area – and already have done so?

That is what The Music Trust proposed to the National Opera Review.

You can read the detail at Go to section A. 1. a).

  1. a) i. The presentation of operas of our time that have the prospect of attracting a large audience

Here are some excerpts from the submission.

The task is to evolve an opera of our time that appeals to a large audience. Our proposal is, initially, to present existing operas with this potential. We have seen some here already: Moby Dick, Of Mice and Men, Dead Man Walking, Nixon in China, the Glass trilogy (most under auspices other than those of Opera Australia). As noted, Australian companies are beginning to commission operas of this sort.

File:the-rabbits-opera-australia.jpgThe Rabbits. Opera Australia, West Australian Opera

The Rabbits. Opera Australia, West Australian Opera, others

Probably such operas do not yet have a substantial audience in Australia. They are unfamiliar territory for an audience that is strongly given to familiarity.

However, Australia has the advantage that a good number of these operas have been tested elsewhere. Companies can choose works a) of quality and integrity that b) have already been relatively successful with audiences. Over time, companies can give audiences a consistent experience that says new operas will not be unpleasant, in some cases will be moving or invigorating or even fun, and have connections to our world.

We proposed a fund of $4.4 million, assembled from existing resources reallocated under our plan but not the Review’s plan, used ‘to support 1) production and presentation of contemporary operas, both those appealing to larger audiences and more difficult works appealing to more specialist audiences (the “Production Fund”, $3.2 million), and 2) the commissioning and workshopping and possibly public presentation of new works by Australian composers (the “Australian Opera Development Scheme”, $1.2 million). Heritage operas would be supported from core funding, not from the Production Fund. Some priority would be given to operas created by Australians.

In its first draft, the Review proposed that Australia should build a distinctive Australian operatic repertoire by producing a new mainstage opera every two or three years. The Music Trust submission gives reasons that this is a proposition without credibility. It is not repeated explicitly in the final report but the actual proposals would have a similar outcome.

We argue that ‘If we want Australian composers to produce fine operatic works, they have to be given the opportunity to write them and to test them on stage and then rewrite them, even several times, to learn not only about operatic composition and voices but drama and the stage.’

Therefore we propose Australia should embark on a long-term, structured program for the creation of new Australian operas. The key to this is to enable the creative teams of, usually, composer and librettist, opportunities to create, workshop, revise, workshop (repeat until ready) – and ultimately be involved in the production and presentation of public performances of new operas, and for the most promising teams to have multiple opportunities to go through this process. We can assume that the composers bring advanced compositional skills to bear but will not have had the opportunities to learn about the stage. The librettists may have a similar deficiency. Commonly, a dramaturg could be a part of the team as a consultant. There may be other members of the creative team as demanded by the concept for the work.

These works would be written for small forces. To bring them to the stage would not be phenomenally expensive. From those chosen for staging, some works – or their teams – could eventually be scaled up for large theatre production. So there would be a culling process that multiplies the prospects for public success at that level.

The small scale operas emerging from this process and given public performances would themselves develop opera in Australia and begin to build an audience at the level that realistically, new music can command. That in itself is a worthwhile outcome.

I Have Had Enough. Sydney Chamber Opera

This work could be carried out under the auspices of the Major Opera Companies. The State Opera of South Australia already has its commissioning and workshopping process. The Victorian Opera regularly commissions and stages new Australian work.

Small companies such as Sydney Chamber Opera could also participate, selected on merit. Or an organisation could be created to conduct the scheme. A process is needed to investigate alternatives and decide on the most cost-effective.

We argue that opera’s future depends upon strengthening the process of creation and production of new work of artistic integrity and audience appeal and persevering with and testing it for at least ten years.

We propose a formal, structured program to carry this objective forward. Details can be found beginning on page 13 under the title Australian Opera Development Scheme.

A budget was developed after consultation with companies that already commission operas.

Expenditures per project

Commission fee, including fee to dramaturg and possibly others                         100,000

Workshops 3 @ $25,000, cover performer fees and other costs                            75,000

Company costs, overheads                                                                                     50,000

TOTAL                                                                                    $225,000

Let us say that five new commissions are issued each year. That entails a total budget of up to $1.125m. Add a contingency fund of $75,000 for a total of $1.2m. It may be decided that the scheme should also have funds available to support productions or that productions are funded from the Production Fund (see previous section of paper)…

Is this scale of activity appropriate and sustainable? It seems to us that in a country of 24 million people, it is modest. It may supplement the existing activity by the state companies, which already produces say two works per year. Perhaps the key question is: will this project, at this scale, have the possibility of producing a body of Australian operatic works that is artistically successful, attracts a growing audience, possibly develops an Australian character (NOT a requirement) and can be financially sustained through government subsidies and earnings?

We do not claim that this is the perfect scheme, but it is an investigation of the issue that can be seen to engage with it seriously.

The budget proposed by the Review would suffice to commission and develop one new opera per year. How for $200,000 per year does the Review’s program hope to fulfil the purpose of these Guiding Principles?

‘4.1.2  Australia should nurture the ability of the Major Opera Companies to flexibly evolve the artform in response to changing consumer behaviour, demographics and technology as well as a more competitive environment;

4.1.4 Australia should commit to increasing innovation in opera as an artform; and

4.1.5 Australia’s Major Opera Companies should be leading exponents of Australia’s cultural distinctiveness within opera’s artistic traditions.’

The Principles are fine. They need a serious strategy to achieve their objectives.


(1) based on ABS data here:


(3) LPA figures are not available on its website for 2015. The Review has different (lower) numbers for these years, presumably excluding data from all but its four major companies. However, they show a 28% decline in attendances from 2009 to 2015.

Applying this to the LPA figures: 72% of 448,000 is 323,000, which can be taken as an approximation of the real number.

This, incidentally and recalling the inconsistencies in the methods of data collection, is the lowest attendance in all of the data going back to 1995.

(4) Readers will notice a difference between ABS and LPA numbers. The ABS data are collected via broad surveys and the LPA data from actual ticket sales. The issue here is the trend, not the actual numbers. We need primarily to know that in both cases, the basis for collection was consistent throughout the series.

(5) Attendances at The Australian Opera (previous name of Opera Australia). Source: AO Annual Reports, cited in Hans Hoegh-Guldberg: The Australian Music Industry. An Economic Evaluation. Sydney, Australia Council, 1987.


1972                      266

1973                      221

1974                     323

1975                      248

1976                     327

1977                      290

1978                     274

1979                     310

1980                     294

1981                      289

1982                      219

1983                     255

1984                     NA

1985                     349

While the numbers vary a lot (219 to 349) we do not know, without further research, whether this is accounted for by occasional special projects or whether only mainstage productions are included. But in any case, if sequences of say four years are averaged, there seems to be no major trend. This can be compared with the numbers previously given, where there is a clear decline.

Article 2

Breaking from the Opera Review – breaking from history

The National Opera Review concentrated its recommendations on attempting to restore financial viability to the rather limited world comprised of Opera Australia and the state opera companies from Perth, Adelaide and Queensland. George Brandis’s Terms of Reference included only these companies, which receive Commonwealth funding as Major Performing Arts Companies.

The Review has made over 100 recommendations. Among them were proposals to encourage more effort in bringing opera into the present day and we assessed those in the November Loudmouth. We will not attempt an evaluation of most of the remainder; generally they concern business and marketing issues in which the Review panel is more expert than are we.

So we will complete our commentary by looking at a few issues upon which artistic matters depend.


In the November Loudmouth, The Music Trust proposed that opera is in crisis because it is presented so much as an artform of past centuries and this no longer attracts new audiences. While the heritage must be valued and kept alive, there must be a concerted effort to haul opera into the present, to be seen as an artform of our time. Strategies and a budget were proposed.

The Review also asserted in strong terms the importance of new opera but the actual strategies were inadequate and poorly supported. They would require additional government funds, an obstacle. The Music Trust’s proposals skirted that problem by reallocating existing funds, though our methods also would arouse resistance.

The Music Trust’s rescue plan would be funded by declaring that Opera Australia should no longer be classified as the “national” or “flagship” company, and by then terminating OA touring to Melbourne. While we do not know the intricacies of the OA budget, it appears that the touring costs for each company member are about equal to their salary for the same period – and all of those funds go to airlines and hotels instead of artists and opera.

Opera Australia presented The Eighth Wonder, the story of the Sydney Opera House, on its steps.

There apparently were submissions to the Review promoting OA’s responsibility or opportunity to tour to other capital cities. The Review took the view that the additional cost would not be justified by box office revenue or artistic benefit and recommended against such touring. We agree. However, it did not apply the same reasoning to OA’s touring to Melbourne – even while acknowledging that the deficit per production is almost double that in Sydney. Its grounds:

  • A 60-year history of performances in both cities
  • Greater consistency and regularity of employment for artists
  • Victorian Opera presents opera of a different range and character and this is likely to continue into the foreseeable future even if it were admitted as a major company (as proposed by the Review)
  • Negative implications for Orchestra Victoria if not used by OA. (OA has a “service level agreement” with OV; presumably this means that it pays a fee for services.)
  • Change in the variety and range of opera available to Victorian audiences.

One could take a different view. Victorian Opera has possibly the most imaginative program of any of the major opera companies. Why make an assumption that if OA’s subsidy were proportionately transferred to VO, it would not serve the Victorian audience with a diverse, high quality program of at least equivalent merit to that of OA? And if VO had that subsidy, would it not substitute as the hirer of Orchestra Victoria? There is a possibility that the changes in Victoria would be entirely positive rather than shaded in doubt.

Opera Australia is funded as the “national company” with about 75% of the total funding. The concept is historical and we believe was based upon an assumption that it would tour to all capitals. This has long been financially impracticable and with that justification gone, there really has not been a new one. The Music Trust proposed to face the reality that OA is really the Sydney company.  We proposed that:

  • OA no longer tour to Melbourne
  • Its subsidy for touring be used to secure the future of the artform nationally by supporting more operas of our time (see the November Loudmouth)
  • Its subsidy for Melbourne performances be transferred to the Victorian Opera which then expands its activities, probably to include more heritage grand opera among other works
  • While OA would probably offer less employment, VO would offer more; that might all balance out
  • Opera in Australia would no longer be so highly dependent upon one company.

What are the downsides?

  • OA would have to cut back, a painful process. On the other hand, there is a case for the NSW government, which has been able to freeload on the ‘national company’ concept and pay very little for major services, adding to its subsidy and taking a fairer share (50%) of the costs, in which case OA may not need to cut back at all
  • But then it might have to test the possibilities of operating as a full time company in one city
  • On the other hand, its musical theatre program could well assist such an operation – though this would not help it deliver full time employment to opera singers
  • OA is the only company now offering full time employment to opera singers. Reduced subsidy to OA could reduce its ability to do so, although the total amount of employment available might not reduce because the loss in Sydney could be balanced by the gain in Victoria.
  • In any case, OA has reduced the full time employment it gives to Australian singers in favour of greatly increased employment to foreign singers, has reduced the size of its local ensemble of principals and the size and level of employment of its chorus; the justification of its present subsidy as a source of ongoing employment is already much weakened
  • The Music Trust proposal suggested a reconfiguration of subsidies which would actually result in some growth in the other state companies too, with a further increase in the availability of employment (see the Trust’s submission to the Review, link below).
  • It is true that OA would have fewer performances of any production over which to amortise costs – although some productions could be shared with Victorian Opera
West Australian Opera – Lucia di Lamermoor


We agree with the Review that employment of Australian artists should be restored, especially by OA. It will be encouraged by action on the proposals above and by:

Recommendation 7.14: Ongoing employment opportunities for the ensemble, chorus and orchestra should be optimised within available funding, recognising the proposed increase in the number of productions.  While it is highly desirable to provide stability of employment for artists, trade-offs between the needs of artists and financial stability need also to be managed.

  • Increasing the number of productions, and thereby creating increased employment opportunities, is a lever that will alleviate pressure on jobs and the company’s financial position by reactivating a cycle of success.


Recommendation 5.10:  Core funding, on a benchmarked basis, should be provided to support selected non-commercial activities.  In contrast, core funding should not be provided for activities where there are viable commercial competitors.

Core funding support should be provided for mainstage opera, concerts, regional touring, community and education programmes on a benchmarked basis.  This should also include, on a benchmarked basis, a contribution towards infrastructure and overhead costs needed to support such activities.

Recommendation 5.11:  Significant commercial activities should be ringfenced and separately accounted for by any company that derives a large part of its income from such a source.

Costs and revenue for significant commercial endeavours should be separately accounted for, with an appropriate level of overheads ascribed to those activities. 

The Review recommends that opera companies should not be allowed to use subsidies to support long-run musicals. The general principle has a particular target: Opera Australia has built up its audiences for long-run musicals in recent years. It has done so in partnership with a commercial entrepreneur, the Gordon Frost organization. To use subsidies in support of these musicals would therefore give an advantage to Gordon Frost which is not available to his unsubsidized commercial competitors. That is a good enough justification for the recommendation.

Opera Australia’s My Fair Lady

But also, the musical theatre world, though risky, is clearly viable financially because in Australia (or Sydney, anyway), it seems to be limited less by scarcity of audiences than by scarcity of venues. It does not need subsidy.

Even if there is no actual financial subsidy used for Opera Australia’s musical theatre activity, its entry into the field delivers to Gordon Frost a prized venue in Sydney not available to other commercial operators, the Joan Sutherland Theatre of the Sydney Opera House (itself subsidized). Also, this consequently also is not available to non-profit arts during that period.

In the Review’s prior Discussion Paper, section, it is stated that the OA’s musicals have made a positive financial contribution to its P&L. We have the impression that this claim is made on the assumption that no subsidies have been included as income for the musicals.

However, the Review notes that “Opera Australia’s overheads—which include company infrastructure costs as well as the core labour associated with maintaining a repertory company—were $20.310 million in 2014 and $19.693 million in 2015.  This was a major step up from $17.509 million in 2009 or $17.889 million in 2011.” (Overheads for the other opera companies declined or slightly increased from a very low base over those years.)

During this period there was a major reduction in the number of productions and performances of mainstage opera. Less activity, so why increased overheads?

Well there was the inception of the Handa Opera on the Harbour program and especially, an increase in the musical theatre activity, to the level that it accounted for 51% of attendances in 2014 – up from 34% in 2012 and less before that. Is some of the increase in overheads directly attributable to the musical theatre activity?

Also, the musicals utilize the entirely subsidized Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. Does OA assign the orchestral costs to the musical theatre account? We don’t know.

On the face of it, there is a strong possibility that the financial outcomes for the musical theatre activity are enhanced by absorbing its overhead costs into the general account, treated implicitly by the Review as supported by subsidies. The Sydney orchestral costs (the orchestra generates negligible income), may also be absorbed into the accounts for the opera company and paid by subsidy.

The proposition that an opera company should be able to mount profitable musical theatre production as a means of cross-subsidising its mainstage opera is on the face of it, unobjectionable. But only provisionally commendable.

Opera Queensland’s Pearlfishers

It requires a diversion of attention from opera which could play out in various ways. For instance, at Opera Australia, it could be interpreted, whether or not accurately, as a diversion of the availability of the theatre away from opera. If Opera Australia is to follow the recommendation of the Review to restore the number of performances of mainstage opera, will it be willing to reassign the use of the Opera Theatre in order to do so or does musical theatre become a cuckoo in the opera nest?

The Music Trust submission to the Review proposed that opera companies should not be permitted to use subsidies to support their musical theatre activities. The Review has made such a recommendation, but applied it only to long-run productions. That seems appropriate. We also proposed that in order to ensure that the prohibition is implemented, that the opera company should create a separate musical theatre entity with separate accounts. It has not adopted this idea, recommending only that the activity is “ring-fenced” with separate accounts but not a separate company, which in OA’s case, presumably would be a partnership with Gordon Frost.  Would ring-fencing suffice to ensure that music theatre costs such as administrative or marketing activities, or the use of subsidized orchestras, are not simply absorbed into the opera company’s general accounts?


For decades, classical music and opera have been promoted to children through exposure to special professional performances by opera companies and orchestras. Such exposure is intended to produce the next generation of ticket buyers.

But surprisingly, a large Knight Foundation study of orchestras in the USA found that when the evidence is examined, this strategy has been unsuccessful.

On the other hand, 74% of adult ticket buyers had participated in education programs in which children actually played instruments and sang in choruses. (8) And indeed, a considerable body of research shows that it is continuous, disciplined music making that is responsible for deeper involvement and the benefits to IQ, academic results and personal and social development.The lesson is obvious.

Music Trust and other research shows that only a small percentage of primary school children receive a music education. An upside to this deficiency is the enormous scope and opportunity to instigate new music-making programs.

So while it is counter-intuitive and perhaps should be further investigated, it seems that the companies’ investment in performances for children as a strategy for producing ticket buyers later in life is money wasted. It could be better spent by implementing strategies to increase music-making by school students: perhaps through partnerships with school administrations. Would the schools increase opportunities for student music-making if they could share costs with the companies?

There is much more to be said. Think about this. The head of music for a state school system told The Music Trust that once a good music program is well embedded in a school, the parents will not countenance its withdrawal. Opera company support to a school need not be a life sentence.

Victorian Opera’s Four Saints in Three Acts

The Review states:

Build audiences for the future through education programmes

A persistent, strong and recurrent theme through the Review’s public consultation phase was the lack of music appreciation in schools.  The strongly expressed concern was that the significant reduction in music programmes in schools would have long term adverse implications not just on opera, but also on symphonic and chamber music.

The idea that all hangs upon classes in “music appreciation” is about as old as the opera repertoire. The belief that if there were school music programs, they would be based on “opera… symphonic and chamber music” is equally out of touch.

Against this background, the Review makes the following recommendations.

Recommendation 8.9: State Governments should reflect carefully on the need to strengthen and fund music education programmes in schools.

The Review raises this concern in the context of developing future audiences in Australia for opera and music more generally.

The Review supports this recommendation for the following reasons.

  • Music education has been demonstrated to provide long-term educational benefits for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds; and
  • Music education will underpin the appreciation of and development of audiences for classical music, whether it is for opera or other classical music.
State Opera of South Australia’s The Magic Flute

So yes, some forms of music education have been shown to have broad educational benefits. The benefits to students from disadvantaged backgrounds stand out mainly because the only place they might gain a music education is in school.

While the Review certainly can take a view on what State Governments should reflect carefully upon, as participants in advocacy for the improvement of school music programs, we can say that the history of past decades shows that this polite invocation will cause no reflection whatever. Alas. The proposal for a direct partnership as suggested above would at least invite communication and even an answer.

Recommendation  8.10:  Each Major Opera Company should strengthen and develop educational resources for use by educators and students.

The Major Opera Companies should enhance their educational opera activities by developing educational resources for teachers and students in ways that are linked to the companies’ production offerings, with the resources being made available on their websites.  Such a tool can complement the companies’ existing educational activities.  The availability of opera-related teaching materials, linked to the educational curricula, will assist teachers incorporate opera into their teaching plans.  It is another mechanism that can be used to increase students’ engagement with the artform. 

The Review suggests other ways in which the companies could assist schools by providing informational resources and also access to live performances via special ticketing. There is merit in some strategies and creating later ticket buyers is not the only evidence of their success, though it is very tangible and convincing.


Discussion is most interesting where there is disagreement. Our discussion of the Report of the National Opera Review has focused upon important issues in which we take different views.

There is much in the review with which we agree, have no important difference, or lack the knowledge or resources upon which to base an opinion. It is an interesting and detailed report and from its perspective, thorough.

Overall, our view is that there are plenty of signs of a very uncertain future for opera. Believing in the brilliance of the artform, we want to see it survive and evolve. That will require governments and companies to choose between risking business (albeit more efficient) as usual in what appears to be a failing scenario, or risking change. The changes proposed by the Review are directed mostly to restoring the health of those aspects of the artform that on the face of it, are being left behind by the times.

In its approach to “artistic vibrancy”, the Review shouts the message of the need for artistic innovation and evolution. But when it comes to proposing action, it finds only $200,000 in subsidy to support the creation of new operas. $200,000 compared to a total core subsidy to opera in 2015 of $36.7million.

A whisper.


The Final Report of the National Opera Review:

The Music Trust’s submission to the National Opera Review (made, of course, before the Review reported):

Articles in this series

  1. Introduction and Discussion Paper
  2. Submission by The Music Trust
  3. Final Report of the Review Committee
  4. Response to the Final Report
  5. Response to the Final Report by the Government
  6. Response to the Government by The Music Trust


Richard Letts
DATE: These two articles were published first in Loudmouth ezine in November and December, 2016. Uploaded April 6 2018

Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.

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