This paper is a first attempt to apply the theory of complex adaptive systems to a part of the real world. Well-l-l – it’s the world of opera, which here and there, from time to time, brushes up against the real world.

It seems to me that there is much further to go with this exploration. Habits of thinking about and describing the world in terms of linear causality and as compartmentalised are tenacious. Please visit again and check on progress.

For an account of the technical terms used, please refer to Chapter 1 of The Arts on the Edge of Chaos. 1

Evolutionary Agents in the World of Opera

The entities marked with * will be treated in some detail. The others could be addressed but mostly are not.

Opera companies

  • Five relatively large professional opera companies, each in a capital city of the largest states. One has ‘national’ status, the other four are official state companies.*
  • Three smaller fully professional companies: Pinchgut (Sydney), Sydney Chamber, Chamber Made (Melbourne)*
  • Small independent amateur or pro-am companies.
  • Conservatorium/university student companies
  • Orchestras*
  • Singing competitions
  • Societies of amateur enthusiast listeners

Employees and contractors

  • Artists of all relevant categories*
  • Management people, fund-raisers, marketers, logistics, construction etc.

Relevant educational institutions

  • Schools
  • Conservatoria and other sources of education and training for opera professionals


  • Paying adult audience*
  • Young audience, entrance low charge or free
  • Free general audience for some special events


  • Commonwealth in partnership with each state government.* Commonwealth the major funder of the national company, states the major funders of the other state companies. There is agreement about respective shares. Other companies achieve funding where they can.

Private funding sources

  • Corporations*
  • Private donors and foundations*

The major forces within the ecologies of the evolutionary agents and how they must adapt to them

The professional opera companies

The general environment. At a guess, there is wide indifference or antipathy in the wider population on the grounds that opera is thought to be elitist, expensive and unappealing. Many in the arts community have similar attitudes and also resent that it takes so much of the available arts funding. Opera has a small energetic following, and on its boards ensures that there are people of high status with business expertise, connections to corporate and private financial support, and direct access to government when defence is needed, as it has been on numerous occasions. Regarding the general community, opera probably attempts to market itself both as a location of glamour and skill and to some extent as having the common touch.

The companies with each other. Since they are in cities widely separated, their audiences are local and except in Melbourne where two major companies present programs, the companies need not adapt to each other. Major companies do not compete with each other for funding. So there is no national overt ecology in opera performance, standards, style although there would be a generalised consciousness of opera activity. Companies would be aware of commonality in relationships to government because of intergovernmental funding agreements. In Melbourne, there may be a co-evolutionary partnership between Opera Australia (OA) and Victorian Opera (VO), with OA having the weight in heritage opera and VO the commitment and experience in new opera and in community connections of one sort and another. Through the Opera Conference there is some cooperation in the creation of productions, but the state companies resent what they see as obligatory adaptation to top-down actions by OA. We do not know OA’s view.

It would be interesting should OA choose to produce an early opera, whether it would by now be challenged in quality and style by Pinchgut.

The smaller opera companies

They all present specialist repertoire. Sydney Chamber Opera and Pinchgut present new opera and early opera respectively and so occupy different parts of the Sydney ecology and also present repertoire currently avoided by the Sydney-based OA. So within the Sydney opera ecology, they are mainly complementary and probably do not much have to adapt to pressures from the other companies. Pinchgut receives significant and benign support from OA. Chamber Made presents new opera and so does the Victorian Opera but the former is more experimental so perhaps they do not need to adapt to each other.

The major opera companies’ relationship with orchestras

OA owns its Sydney orchestra, Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra (AOBO) and has the services of the Melbourne counterpart, Orchestra Victoria (OV), owned by the Australian Ballet. OA and AB each provide for the other on tour to Melbourne or Sydney. The state companies excepting VO have services of the state symphonies assigned to them for an agreed period each year. For the orchestras in smaller cities, this is a useful adaptation to the situation where there is not a sufficient audience to occupy them in concert work for the whole year and so they can cite pit work services to justify their full time operation and subsidy. All opera companies would face adaptation pressure if there were not a match between the duration of their seasons and the duration of the provided orchestral services – e.g. a company wants to extend its season. Inasmuch as the opera companies dictate repertoire, schedule and so on, they are in a top down relationship with orchestras, but limited by orchestras’ workplace agreements or in the case of the state orchestras, their contracts with the companies.

The small companies have to pay for their orchestral services from their overall budgets.

Employees and contractors

Artists: singers. Singers are subject to a top-down relationship with the opera companies inasmuch as the companies decide whether to hire them and on what terms and then their roles, rehearsal and performance schedules etc. Bottom-up would come the quality of performances by each singer and the weight of and freedom given to the bottom-up aspect would generally be commensurate with their artistic reputations and popularity. Singers adapt to the requirements of the companies and the attitudes of audiences and other artists.

Opera companies and paying audiences

Companies’ decisions about what they will present to audiences are their own to make but they need to adapt to audience preferences in order to sell tickets and remain financially viable. The costs of presenting full scale opera productions are such that they require large audiences and the larger the audience the more likely it is to respond only to a small repertoire of the most popular operas. Company adaptation to the wishes of the inexperienced audiences has been shown, with OA, to be inappropriate to the wishes of experienced audiences who are sated with the popular repertoire and want some novelty. In Australia, most of both these audiences respond to heritage repertoire, but there is a potential audience including the young that does not. So in order to maximise attendances, companies must adapt to the mutually exclusive interests of a number of audiences.

Because of the size of audiences required for financial reasons, professional opera in Australia is found only in large population centres.

Opera companies and governments

Governments are top down in relationship to opera wherever opera is dependent upon subsidy. In Australia, governments exercise this authority primarily by requirements for financial outcomes and management effectiveness. They do not assess artistic outcomes nor dictate artistic programs or practices. All professional companies depend upon subsidy (and/or income other than earnings). Since governments lack procedures for artist evaluation of these companies, presumably the companies do not need to adapt artistically to government requirements. There is a vague requirement from the Australia Council for “vibrancy” but how this is assessed, rewarded or penalised we do not know at this time. However, there is a requirement that major companies achieve a minimum level of earned income so implicitly they must engage in a certain amount of artistic activity fitting their official purpose. At present, Opera Queensland is not so engaged and has not achieved the required income.

Private funders: corporations

Corporations contribute a substantial amount to the professional companies and would have certain requirements of them. We can speculate that since for the corporations, the contributions have the purpose of marketing their products, they usually will be interested in the number of attendees and therefore will want to support the most popular operas. Therefore, companies may adapt to this pressure by allowing it to influence programming. Corporate support rarely would bring pressure for programming innovative or unfamiliar operas. Corporations would be in a top down position vis-à-vis the company inasmuch as they will donate only to an activity which benefits them, but having made that decision, it is unlikely that the company will allow them to be top down in artistic decisions.

Private funders: individuals and foundations

Individuals as a class will be more varied in their interests than corporations. We probably cannot assume any particular character to the demands of individual donors. Foundations each have official guidelines which must be met by applicants for support. Usually, the support goes to specific projects. Companies will not apply for support for ineligible activities.

Punctuated Equilibrium

There may be a punctuated equilibrium situation. The “punctuations” are a series of small changes which may accumulate and eventually destabilise the equilibrium; a reconfiguration may follow – a major change in the ecology which is named a “breakthrough” or “gateway” event.

In the context of opera, the equilibrium lies in the continuing structure of the opera sector with a so-called national company and four state companies. The punctuation lies in the overall decline in opera audience numbers over a decade. The decline is in mainstage attendances and it varies from company to company. Opera Queensland to deal with the financial consequences has cut back to one a year its mainstage productions in the Lyric Theatre and has shifted its activities to other areas including an emphasis on regional touring. Opera Australia has reduced the number of mainstage opera productions and performances and narrowed the repertoire to a small number of the most popular works. Because the repertoire thus becomes static, it is presenting more foreign singers as attractors to those who otherwise may have seen their last production of La Bohéme. This reduces employment for Australians. OA still has lost money. It also has greatly expanded its presentation of comer cial musicals, which it claims make a surplus used for subsidy of opera. The National Opera Review says that OA responses to its situation have been understandable but may have been maladaptive; audience decline may be caused by existing conditions or the responses to them. In any case, for those two companies, there have been major changes. These are noted by the current National Opera Review. Its recommendations may be provoked by these changes to cause a major reconfiguration of the landscape.

Breakthrough/gateway Events. Phase Transition, Emergence

There is the unpredictable “emergence” of new structures or practices, which therefore we cannot foresee here. There are others that are regular, like the caterpillar turning into the butterfly. Could there be such an emergence in the world of opera following the punctuations described above?

Fitness Landscape, Basins of Attraction

What would be the main signs of the evolutionary fitness of an Australian opera company? Possibilities:

  • High quality of its presentations: artists, productions
  • High quality and variety of its repertoire
  • (There could be a particular view of the first two items, e.g. about the nature of the repertoire)
  • Increase in its audiences
  • High quality of its management
  • Financial stability
  • In Australia, good government relations.

We propose a particular view of the evidence of fitness. There will be others2 but this one is of at least equal merit.

An opera company regularly presents repertoire from the heritage and also contemporary and commissioned operas. The quality of its presentations is comparable to the best found in equivalent companies in other countries and attracts an expanding audience, especially for new work. It presents sufficient performances to satisfy fairly fully the available audience. The management is competent, efficient, affordable, and gives excellent support to the artistic staff. Its annual financial outcomes are slightly positive and it has adequate financial reserves. It has steady support from government and the indications are in favour of that continuing.

To give an unsubstantiated impression of the fitness of Opera Australia: it sits in a “basin of attraction” of medium depth, which is to say that compared with the highest potential, it is of medium “fitness”. The repertoire severely lacks variety with at present virtually no mainstage activity in contemporary opera nor early opera, and very little even in less known heritage opera. The quality of presentation is high, lacking mainly the top international voices but on the other hand probably gaining in the quality of ensemble production which is difficult to achieve with “fly-in-fly-out” singers. Its audience has been declining, possibly because the number of mainstage performances has decreased, possibly not; a proportion of its own core audience shows evidence of dissatisfaction with the repertoire by ceasing to subscribe. It is not clear whether it presents enough performances to fully satisfy the available audience. The management is competent, efficient, and overheads are low cf. Australian opera companies. There are mixed messages about its relationship to artists; perhaps that is just opera! Recent financial outcomes have been slightly negative but it has substantial reserves. Support from government is steady.

What pressures might cause OA to move to a deeper basin of attraction?

Some thoughts:

  • Define deeper “basins of attraction”. One construction to put on this is that there is in some way an image of some preferred state in a deep basin, to which the company is attracted. How is it presented with this image? How is it convinced that it should move in that direction? If OA were based in Germany, it could see the work of nearby companies which may be achieving at a higher level. In Australia, it is isolated from that direct experience and so is most of its audience. Do the cinema showings of the NY Met have an impact?
  • Increased use of true international star singers could raise one aspect of quality but mean less work for Australian singers, weaker ensemble production, probably raise ticket prices, risk increasing the deficit.
  • Diversification of repertoire, adding more interesting but less popular works, and new opera, would make a more interesting company, more connected with our time and place, more satisfying to the core audience. It could have a negative financial impact.
  • Finding ways to expose the company to international audiences and even other major companies could encourage adaptation to higher standards. But how? Touring is extremely expensive. Digital productions sold to national broadcasters especially in Europe, and possibly for cinema release? Importing audiences on opera tours?
  • The Australia Council as funding body makes no artistic assessment or demands eg for presenting Australian works. It could do so. Its dilemma is that if as a consequence of meeting the demands, the company loses money, does it become liable for the loss?
  • Funding bodies could provide core funding, plus optional additional funding for particular purposes such as presentation of specified types of repertoire. The company chooses whether to compete for those funds and then is liable for financial outcomes.
  • Are there ways to increase the demands for quality in Australia? Better supported state companies with their work known outside their own states could up the ante. Competition among companies for special funds could be made to count.
  • Continuing financial losses would require adaptation but it would not necessarily be positive.
  • Improved marketing

Edge of chaos

Spontaneous emergence of bottom-up self-organising entities from a complex and diverse environment; neither too turbulent nor too static.

We cannot cause a spontaneous emergence! We can in theory contribute to a complex and diverse environment. But what useful diversity does the OA environment lack? Competition from other opera companies in repertoire, and for funding, audience. An influx of a new repertoire popular with audiences. Something in the digital space.


Richard Letts, 10 January 2016.


  1. For further explanation of concepts such as “evolutionary agents” and “ecology” see Scenario Paper #14, Complex Adaptive Systems and Music which provides a formal model of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) and its application to analysis of possible music sector futures. It was written practically in parallel with this paper and contains some general references to opera but only as one of innumerable examples of a CAS.↩︎
  2. Which is why we promote scenarios of the music sector to focus on the best and plan to avoid the worst futures.↩︎

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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