- Opera is one of the greatest of all theatrical art forms combining drama, the visual arts and music into a powerful and often deeply emotional theatre experience. Opera is unique in that it has the extraordinary ability to suspend the audience’s disbelief in a way that no other performance art form can.
- Australia has a history of producing outstanding operatic talent, many of whom have established impressive international careers.
- Australia has four major opera companies including the national flagship company Opera Australia and three State companies based in Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane. A new State company, Victorian Opera , based in Melbourne, was established in 2005.
- In addition a number of smaller ‘second tier’ companies have been established in recent years principally in Melbourne and Sydney providing valuable professional development opportunities for younger singers. The smaller Sydney and Melbourne based companies also perform in more intimate venues allowing younger singers to perform roles in conditions that don’t force them vocally. Her Majesty’s and Athenaeum theatres in Melbourne are perfect venues for Melbourne based companies.
- OzOpera, the touring arm of Opera Australia, and CoOpera, based in South Australia, provide extensive regional touring of small scale productions of mainstream repertoire nationally.
- Production values and artistic standards among the four major companies are generally very high, a fact that is acknowledged internationally.
- The establishment of the Opera Conference in 1994 has allowed a collaborative approach to new productions jointly commissioned by the partner companies of the conference, Opera Australia, State Opera of South Australia, Opera Queensland and West Australian Opera.
- All the major companies manage younger artist programs providing specialist training and performance opportunities for young generation singers. Tertiary training facilities also exist is all major music conservatoriums nationally. The establishment of privately funded Australian Opera Studio in Perth has proved a very successful venture producing some outstanding young professional singers.
- Each of the major companies has the advantage of engaging the services of first class orchestras to add value and quality to performance quality. This is particularly so for State Opera of SA, Opera Queensland and WA Opera which have access to the full resources of their respective symphony orchestras. The Opera and Ballet Orchestra and Orchestra Victoria service Opera Australia’s seasons in Sydney and Melbourne respectively.
- The Sydney Opera House does much to promote opera in Australia through its iconic status internationally. This has great advantages for Opera Australia whose principal performance venue it is.
- With many of Australia’s finest singers based in Europe and engaged regularly by leading companies overseas, the availability of Australian and New Zealand singers to perform in Australia is occasionally limited. This is a ‘Catch-22’ situation since, by and large, many of our best artists (singers, designers, directors etc) are obliged to go abroad to look for work and acquire the credibility that comes from interaction with overseas artists, teachers and production companies.
- Import quotas imposed on all professional opera companies in Australia restrict the number of foreign artists permitted to perform in Australia. The quotas vary according to the scale and number of performances given annually which means that Opera Australia has a much higher quota than the State companies. This can often result in Australian companies having to engage artists for particular roles who do not meet the required artistic standards. A more equitable solution to address this issue would be to operate on a reciprocal basis – ie. the number of ex-patriate Australian singers resident and performing overseas should be matched by a similar number of imported singers. It should be noted, however, that all Australian companies engage Australian singers of the necessary artistic standard whenever possible.
Most of Australia’s major operatic performances venues are not without problems.
- The Sydney Opera House (Opera Theatre) challenges both Opera Australia and its audiences. Backstage facilities are famously inadequate and the orchestra pit is both cramped, covered and incapable of producing a quality orchestral sound. The acoustics in the auditorium are also dry and inconsistent depending on seating location.
- The Lyric Theatre at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre enjoys excellent backstage facilities and an orchestra pit capable of holding substantial numbers of players when required from larger repertory. However, it has a dry and very poor acoustic. The same can be said for the State Theatre at the Victorian Arts Centre.
- Until 1998 the Festival Theatre in Adelaide also challenged both singers and audiences in an acoustically challenging auditorium. This problem was solved with the installation of the LARES acoustic enhancement system which has done much to improve the acoustic quality of the theatre. The replacement of carpeting with wooden parquet flooring also did much to improve the theatre general acoustic.
- The acoustic qualities, comfort and services of venues can significantly enhance audience attendances for opera. Venues with poor acoustics, sightlines and poor service do not attract serious operagoers.
- For centuries, the main attraction of a live performance has been the unique quality of its sound. Today, recording technology is such that the characteristics of live performances can be matched, if not surpassed on CO (notably SACO), OVO and large-screen projections of the kind recently presented by the Metropolitan Opera and other companies in the United States and Europe. Audiences for live performances will dwindle if this sound experience cannot be matched in theatres but, equally, there will be no raw material for recordings if singers cannot learn their craft in a live environment and before a live audience.
- It is ironic that as acoustic sciences have become more sophisticated, acoustic standards of opera venues have become more problematical. In the 18 and 19th centuries, when the manipulation of acoustics was more an art than a science, some of the world’s finest opera houses were built, and these remain unequalled. Modern theatres, which tend to be all-purpose venues, run the risk of becoming no-purpose venues, and the need to resort to electronic tinkering and other remedies is an acknowledgment of failure. Halls with poor acoustics are ruinous for voices that must also deal with large orchestral forces. Australians would not tolerate such a situation with venues for our sportsmen and women, so why do we permit it for our singers?
- The major State companies lack the financial resources to regularly and independently build new productions. With the exception of productions jointly produced by the Opera Conference, most new productions produced for mainstage presentation originate at Opera Australia which has accumulated a large stock of productions over many decades. As the major State companies rely almost entirely on hiring existing productions from Opera Australia there has to be an acceptance of the artistic quality of those productions. This is not a desirable situation as almost all artistic decisions in regard to the choice of repertory, directors, designers and choreographers being made by the artistic leadership of one company.
- Australia lacks quality training facilities for young singers and conductors when compared to training facilities available overseas, particularly in the US and UK. We badly need the operatic equivalent of the Australian Institute of Sport, whose benefits would extend far beyond the technical training of singers.
- There is a tendency for major companies to be steered towards conservatism in programming driven by the requirement to meet the requirements of government tripartite funding agreements, budget outcomes and prescribed key performance indicators.
- A lack of commissioning funds for development of new works and art form development is apparent as these present unrealistic risks for funding bodies and commissioning companies.
- Companies in other parts of the world receive high levels of investment from both private and public funding sources with the result that many new and often highly successful new operas are created annually.
- There is a danger that constant recycling throughout Australian cities of a limited number of operas and productions will be deleterious for opera in the long-term. It must certainly discourage audience growth beyond the ‘home patch’.
Lack of performance opportunities for Australian artists within Australia
- Opera Australia, being the largest employer of singers in this country, engages a core of ensemble singers supplemented by guest artists. This structure is clearly adopted for reasons of economy, but unfortunately has the effect of excluding many high quality performers resident in Australia. The available resources of the State and second tier companies also limits the number performances annually and therefore limits the number of artists engaged.
- Opera Australia fails to meet its status as the national opera company by performing only in Sydney and Melbourne. Small scale OzOpera productions tour only regionally, and are supported financially by the State opera companies.
Lack of broadcasting both radio and TV and other new media
- There has been little in the way of national television broadcasts of Australian opera performances in recent years. This is largely due to the lack of funding available to the ABC for such activities. Commercial broadcasters have no interest in arts broadcasting at all.
- There is a lack of performance opportunity for young singers during the critical period between completing tertiary training and reaching vocal maturity.
- Arts education in schools is generally poor providing lillie opportunity for students to learn about music, opera and the arts generally and to experience live performances. Opera companies are not necessarily the best organisations to manage education programs. A persuasive case can be made for opera education to be managed by a specialized body working closely with opera companies and drawing on (and paying for) their resources as appropriate.
Lack of funding
- Generally all opera companies suffer from insufficient core funding from public and private sources. This prevents many companies from increasing output, improving production values, pushing boundaries artistically and supporting the creation of new works.
Corporate support is declining
- In recent years there has been a significant drop in sponsorship of opera from the corporate sector. This has been particularly apparent in the capital cities outside Sydney and Melbourne, although recently the arts community in WA has experienced a surge in arts sponsorship resulting from the resources boom in that State.
- Audience development is a major issue facing all Australian opera companies. With most companies presenting mainly standard repertoire in traditional productions, there is little to attract younger generation audiences. Development of the art form through the creation of new works and reinterpretations of existing classics may provide opportunities to build audiences.
- A recent repertoire analysis undertaken in the USA by Opera America has produced some interesting results that demonstrate that a balancing of risks is vital in sustaining audience attendances.
A brief summary of the Opera America analysis follows:
- Data drawn from recent Opera America research covering the last 20 years indicates that the 10 most produced operas are drawn from just 26 operas and operettas:
- A Masked Ball
- La Boheme
- La Cenerentola
- Cosi Fan Tutte
- The Elixir of Love
- Don Pasquale
- Die Fledermaus
- Hansel and Gretel
- Lucia di Lammermoor
- Madama Butterfly
- The Magic Flute
- The Marriage of Figaro
- The Barber of Seville
- The Merry Widow
- The Mikado
- Romeo et Juliette
- The Tales of Hoffmann
- Porgy and Bess
- La Traviata
- The data also indicates that companies presenting American works and modern works had the highest percentage of Top 10 standard repertory works – suggesting a balancing of risks.
- In the last 50 years research in the US indicates that there has been a shift in repertoire choices according to the year in which works were written. In 1956 the majority of operas staged in the US were from the 1850’s and the turn of the century period, 1890-1910. Both periods represent high points in the history of operatic composition.
- By 1986 there has been an increase in productions of early opera, reflecting a rising interest and popularity in the neglected works of the Baroque period. In 2006 there is evidence of an increase in productions from all periods, especially the periods 1790-1840 and 1860 -1890. Staging of contemporary works has also increased, but is generally backed by solid Top 10 works, as noted above.
- The research also looked at opera’s first languages – Italian is still well ahead followed by French and German. Regarding composers there are very few discernable patterns, but over the last 50 years there’s been a slight increase in the productions of works by Mozart and (surprisingly) a decline in production of works by Verdi and Puccini.
- Responding to surveys, many member companies of Opera America have reported that audiences are behaving in increasingly unpredictable ways with box office failures of Top 10 operas and successes of relatively unknown contemporary works, and not just world premieres. (There is plenty of evidence of this in Australia in the past twelve months). The survey results have also confirmed that there are no ‘givens’ in today’s operatic marketplace.
- The Opera America research has concluded is “that box office successes require a significant investment by the company, not only in putting together a quality production, but in engaging their local audiences around a piece, a particular area of repertoire, particular artists, or particular issues.”
Opera as Entertainment: Verdi,Verdi, Puccini,Bizet,Rossini,Mozart,Donizetti,Donizetti,Gounod,J Strauss, Humperdinck,Donizetti,Puccini,Mozart,Mozart,Rossini,Lehar,Gilbert & Sullivan,Leoncavallo,Verdi,Gounod, Offenbach,Gershwin,Puccini,Verdi,Puccini
- Increasingly, opera is being categorized by governments, corporate sponsors, newspaper editors and, indeed, opera companies as ‘entertainment’. Competition for the public dollar, political nervousness about appearing ‘highbrow’, and a desire to make opera ‘non-threatening’ risk emasculating the art form and making it so bland that serious opera-lovers (on whom its long-term health depends) will stay away in droves and retreat into their CD collections. The challenge is to cater adequately for both the popular and serious constituencies.
- More collaborations between opera companies and other subsidised performing arts companies where financial and artistic economies can be achieved as well as developing new ways of presenting opera as an art form. SOSA has successfully co-produced new productions in the last ten years with The Australian Ballet (Faure Requiem and Carmina Burana) and the Philip Glass ‘Portrait Trilogy’ (Satyagraha, Einstein on the Beach and Akhnaten) in collaboration with Leigh Warren and Dancers and the Adelaide Vocal Project. A further collaboration with the State Theatre Company of SA in 2007 allowed a new production of Mark Adamo’s contemporary opera Little Women to have its Australian premiere.
- Further collaborations with major performing venues where sharing of risks and venue costs would provide exciting opportunities for more adventurous and innovative programming.
- There have been little or no collaborations between any of the major opera companies and major venues other than the occasional collaboration between OA and the Victoria Arts Centre and Adelaide Festival Centre Trust for joint presentation of Gilbert & Sullivan which can hardly be seen as innovative or ground breaking artistically.
- Opera Australia to present annually in all State capitals, not just Sydney and Melbourne. The possible closure of the Sydney Opera House for up to two years from around 2010 may necessitate Opera Australia to reduce its activities in Sydney thus providing a unique opportunity to collaborate with the three major State companies in adding one or two productions to each of these companies annually thereby fulfilling its role as the national opera company.
- Public education of the subsidised performing arts funding though the Australia Council. The general public has little understanding of the economic facts surrounding the presentation of opera ad the reasons why the art form requires substantial subvention. If the public were more aware of these facts there would be less adverse opinion of opera as an ‘elitist’ art form.
- Promotion of the arts as a major contribution to economy through cultural tourism. Opera Australia’s annual seasons at the Sydney Opera House attracts thousands of national and international visitors to Sydney annually resulting in a major benefit to the local NSW economy. Similarly the groundbreaking productions of Wagner’s Ring Cycle by the State Opera of South Australia in 1998 and 2004 attracted unprecedented numbers of national and international opera fans to Adelaide. The economic impact of both these events was significant. Australia should look towards further developing and enhancing its reputation overseas as an attractive and exciting destination for cultural tourism activities.
Relays of performances
- In the past ten years there have been no major telecasts of opera performances within Australia, excepting the occasional Gilbert & Sullivan production from Opera Australia. Television broadcasts in the past have done little to promote opera because the treatment of televised production has sought to bring the performance to the viewers lounge rooms, rather than transporting the viewers to the excitement of the live theatre. While opera on TV, DVD or relayed to cinemas can never fully substitute for the excitement of witnessing the art form in a live theatre environment, the recent introduction of high definition relays of performances from the New York Metropolitan has brought the live theatre experience a little closer.
- The possibility that levels of funding will not keep pace with rising costs thereby restricting growth of the opera industry and forcing companies to lower output, reduce production values and a consequent lowering of artistic standards.
- Further regulation of industry practices in terms of meeting funding authority’s prescribed outcomes.
- Reduction in the number of new generation singers due to a lack of training facilities and professional development opportunities.
- Lack of opportunities for new generation directors and designers to work in opera due to the lack of new opera productions being commissioned and artistic control vested with the national company.
- A general lack of music education, including opera, in Australian schools.
- Maintaining audiences at sustainable levels. With an ageing population and fewer younger people being educated or encouraged to attend opera performances, decreases in audiences in the future are possible.
Stephen Phillips. 29 February 2008.