- 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 opera companies classified as ‘major companies’ by the Commonwealth funding body, the Australia Council. They are the national flagship company, Opera Australia, and three State companies based in Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane. Another State company, Victorian Opera, based in Melbourne, was established in 2005 and was recently recommended to become the fifth major opera company in 2019.
- In addition, a number of smaller ‘second tier’ companies have been established in recent years principally in Melbourne and Sydney. Some provide valuable professional development opportunities for younger singers. They mostly perform works requiring smaller forces, often in more intimate venues. . A number of these companies present work of high standard (e.g. Pinchgut, Chamber Made, Sydney Chamber Opera) and receive modest State government and/or Australia Council funding.
- Opera Australia also presents an annual ‘Opera on Sydney Harbour’, on a floating stage overlooking the Sydney Opera House. Research has shown that this is predominantly a new audience for opera; one that rarely visits an indoor theatrical opera performance. A similar event is OA’s Opera on the Beach, which will be presented in Queensland for the second time in 2017. Both events receive State government funding, predominantly from tourism / events departments.
- In recent years Opera Australia has also moved into long-run musicals, a move which the company says underwrites some of the costs associated with its opera seasons.
- Opera Australia and CoOpera, based in South Australia, provide regional touring of small scale productions of (generally) mainstream repertoire nationally.
- Production values and artistic standards among the major companies are generally very high, a fact that is acknowledged internationally.
- The establishment of the Opera Conference in 1994 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. The National Opera Review of 2016 made a number of recommendations for reforming the Opera Conference, but to date none of these recommendations have been accepted by government. In recent years Opera Conference productions have included operetta (Merry Widow) and an opera for television (The Divorce) as well as more mainstream operatic repertoire (Pearlfishers).
- Some major companies have young / developing artist programs that provide specialist training and performance opportunities for young generation singers. West Australian Opera has three young artists in 2017 and recently announced a new Masters partnership with the University of Western Australia. Victorian Opera has a young artists’ program with around 8 artists per year, including designers, directors, conductors and repetiteurs alongside singers.
- Tertiary training facilities also exist in all major music conservatoriums nationally.
- A number of privately funded professional development programs not directly attached to companies also exist (e.g. Melba Trust, Opera Scholars Australia).
- 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 for a fixed amount of time each year. The newly renamed Opera Australia Orchestra and Orchestra Victoria service Opera Australia’s seasons in Sydney and Melbourne respectively, alongside their similar role with The Australian Ballet. In 2015 The Australian Ballet took over the management of Orchestra Victoria. Victorian Opera has a small funding allocation to utilise the services of Orchestra Victoria for some of its productions.
- With no coordinated national performance schedule and with Opera Australia significantly reducing its ensemble of both principal and chorus singers, many of Australia’s finest singers are now based overseas and engaged regularly by leading companies overseas. As a result the availability of many Australian and New Zealand singers to perform in Australia can be 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. It is almost impossible for an Australian singer to have a financially rewarding career exclusively from work within Australia.
- Recent research showed that the number of Australian singers in leading roles at Opera Australia fell by 51% from 2011-2016, while the number of performances by international singers more than tripled.
- The reduction in young / developing artist programs must now be seen as a weakness. The individual programs can be seen as a strength, but the lower number of opportunities for young artists risks weakening the pool of high-quality artists available to the Australian companies.
Most of Australia’s major operatic performance venues are not without problems. The acoustic qualities, comfort and services of venues can significantly enhance or detract from audience attendances for opera. Venues with poor acoustics, sightlines or poor service do not offer an audience experience which is likely to encourage regular attendance. Unlike commercial musicals which do not require ‘loyal’ audiences or repeat business, this is a significant issue for opera companies, which rely on repeat business from audiences.
Modern theatres are often designed as all-purpose venues and as a result run the risk of being no-purpose venues, and many require electronic sound enhancement. Halls with poor acoustics are ruinous for unamplified voices that must often deal with large orchestral forces. The construction of the Melbourne Recital Centre and City Recital Hall, Angel Place in Sydney show that there can be an appetite for purpose-built venues, although it must be said that the political will to construct fit-for-purpose opera theatres anywhere in Australia is not currently in evidence.
- Most theatres within Australia, whether publicly or privately owned operate on a commercial basis. Opera, with its requirements for dark nights between performances (for the singers to rest their voices), is not conducive to these commercial arrangements. Dark nights mean no ticket revenue (from which venues normally take fees), no merchandise or food and beverage sales (from which venues make significant income and less work for venue staff and less engagement with the public. Most venues would prefer to offer performances every day of the year. An opera company presenting say five performances of a large, mainstage opera will usually require a minimum of three weeks venue rental. This means 16 dark days and only five where income can be generated. When compared to long-run musicals (which have longer tech and rehearsal times prior to opening but much longer performance seasons) where eight performances per week are normal, week-in week-out, the revenue implications for the theatres is significant. This is an issue for all State companies, with the exception (at the moment) of WAO, which has residency in His Majesty’s Theatre.
- The Sydney Opera House (Joan Sutherland 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 theatre is being closed for the last half of 2017 to replace stage machinery, install sound enhancement technology in the orchestra pit, and other improvements.
- The State Theatre at Arts Centre Melbourne also has acoustic issues. Recent work to extend the orchestra pit to enable the staging of two Ring Cycles has increased the flexibility of the venue, but the theatre’s scale and seating capacity (2,079) also influence the repertoire choices of Opera Australia.
- 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 for larger repertory. However, it has a dry and very poor acoustic for opera. It is also the only suitable venue in Brisbane for long-run commercial musicals, placing additional access pressure on Opera Queensland.
- The Festival Theatre in Adelaide was greatly improved in 1998 with some significant upgrades, including an electronic sound enhancement system, but recently State Opera of South Australia have found accessing the venue increasingly difficult, due to the requirement for the venue to operate on a more commercial basis. As elsewhere, opera is less attractive to the Festival Centre than long-run musicals. It is another theatre with 2,000 seats. The upcoming renovation of Her Majesty’s Theatre may provide a suitable alternative venue for SOSA, with an anticipated capacity of around 1,500 once a complete renovation is complete in 2019, although this theatre will also come under schedule pressure from long-run musicals.
- The major State companies rarely and independently build new productions. With the exception of productions jointly produced by the Opera Conference, most new productions produced for mainstage presentation by the State companies originate at Opera Australia or overseas. In 2017 WAO presents two productions from other companies and one from Opera Conference, State Opera of South Australia has one new production, one from another company and one Opera Conference and Opera Queensland has one new production and one from Opera Conference. The one exception to this rule is Victorian Opera, which in its 12 seasons has only presented two productions from elsewhere (none from Opera Conference) and has yet to remount any of its own productions.
- The Opera Conference model was commented on by the National Opera review and a number of recommendations were made, including broadening its objectives and approach, the use of predominantly Australian creative teams and changes to the governance arrangements. To date, none of these recommendations have been implemented, or even commented on by the Federal Government.
- Australia lacks quality training facilities for young singers and conductors when compared to training facilities available overseas, particularly in the US, the UK and some European countries. We badly need an operatic equivalent of the Australian Institute of Sport, whose benefits would extend far beyond the technical training of singers.
- Individual Conservatoriums offer vocal programs, but these are rarely linked into the professional companies.
- In recent years the major companies have significantly reduced young / developing artist programs that provided specialist training and performance opportunities for young generation singers. Victorian Opera’s Master of Music (Opera Performance) program (with Melbourne Conservatorium of Music) had its State Government funding cut after just four years in spite of its undoubted success and recommendations from an independent review that it should continue.
- West Australian Opera has recently announced a Master of Music (Opera Performance) program with the University of Western Australia, although details are yet to be confirmed.
- There is a tendency for major companies to be steered towards conservatism in programming driven by the need to meet the requirements of government tripartite funding agreements, budget outcomes and prescribed key performance indicators, not least the expectations around audience numbers.
- While this conservatism may seem founded in some kind of common sense, companies are also experiencing less demand for the ‘popular’ operatic repertoire. For example, in 2005/6, State Opera of South Australia programmed La traviata, one of the most popular operas in the repertoire. It achieved attendance of 7,039. In 2013/14 traviata was presented again, with audience numbers falling 19% to 5,717. While one example does not necessarily show a trend, this example does show the potential danger of simply repeating the same ‘top ten’ operas in rotation. Anecdotal evidence is that similar patterns are being seen across the major companies, both at subscriber and single-ticket sales level. The National Opera Review reports a decline in subscriber numbers across all major companies, but is unclear how much of this decline can be attributed to conservative repertoire selection. It should also not be assumed that similar repertoire sells to similar levels in different cities.
- A lack of commissioning by all current major companies is apparent as these new works are seen as presenting unrealistic risks for funding bodies and commissioning companies. While this does not mean that no commissioning is taking place, the last five years has seen just five commissions presented by the major companies:
- OA – Co-commission of The Rabbits (Miller Heidke) with WAO 2015
- WAO – Co-commission of The Rabbits with OA 2015
- SOSA – Cloudstreet (Palmer) 2016 & Ode to Nonsense (Grant) 2013
- OQ – Snow White (Kamalova) 2016
- Opera Conference – The Divorce (Kats-Chernin) 2015
- Companies in other parts of the world receive significantly higher 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.
- Victorian Opera, which is yet to become a Major company presents at least one new work per year. It has commissioned and presented 16 new operas in 12 years, mostly of smaller scale than more traditional operatic repertoire.
- The generally small number of productions offered annually by the State companies also discourages risk; all productions need to ‘work’ financially for the company to survive.
- The paucity of recent operatic works in the programs of Australian major opera companies deprives audiences of the opportunity to become accustomed to contemporary idioms. Inexperienced audiences are less likely to attend or enjoy new opera and so the risk of presenting it is increased.
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 ensemble has been significantly reduced in size in recent years with a reportedly significant increase in the use of overseas singers.
- Opera Australia has also reduced the size of its permanent chorus in recent years, with the permanent chorus being supplemented by short-term contract and casual chorus members. The reduction in permanent positions for Australian singers is having a significant impact on the ability of Australian singers to make a full-time career as a singer.
- In addition, the four State companies are unable to coordinate their production schedules (due mainly to venue issues) and as a result State productions often overlap with either Opera Australia or other State companies, resulting in singers not being available due to schedule clashes. This also has the effect of reducing the amount of available work for Australian singers.
Lack of broadcasting both radio and TV and other new media
- There has been little in the way of national television or radio 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.
- Opera Australia has made some moves into cinema presentation, in particular with the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, but its audience numbers for cinematic presentations are not reported.
- The Opera Conference commissioned a specific opera for television which was broadcast on the ABC in 2016, attracting around 250,000 viewers per episode.
- Opera companies have started to explore online delivery in recent years, but the successful methodology for this is unclear and there is little coordination between companies.
- 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 across Australia, providing little 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, but are increasingly being asked by government to undertake this work.
Lack of funding
- Generally all opera companies suffer from insufficient core funding from public and private sources as compared, for instance, to counterpart companies in Europe, the UK and the US. This prevents many companies from increasing output, improving production values, pushing boundaries artistically and supporting the creation of new works.
- From 2011 to 2016 CPI ran at around 11% (in total). Over that period the core funding available to opera companies changed as follows:
- Opera Australia +11%
- Opera Queensland +10%
- West Australian Opera +8.4%
- State Opera of South Australia +8.2%
- Victorian Opera -1.8%
These figures show that the already low levels of government support for opera (in comparison to many other countries) are gradually decreasing over time.
Corporate support is declining
- In recent years there has been a significant drop in sponsorship of opera from the corporate sector. This is broadly in line with a drop in sponsorship across all art forms in Australia and is not a specific reflection on the attraction of opera to potential corporate sponsors.
- 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.
- Recent research undertaken by the Victorian government specifically in relation to the Victorian culture marketplace showed that 95% of the audience for culture in Victoria are part of the market for live musical performance. However, 63% of that possible market have never been to opera, with 36% not interested in attending. Only 17% of the total Victorian market had attended opera in the last three years.
- A significant weakness in the current operatic landscape in Australia is the perception of competition between the major companies. This perception leads to a lack of communication between companies regarding future plans and can lead to multiple companies presenting the same work in the same year, often in different productions. For example, in 2017 Opera Queensland and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra are presenting concert productions of Carmen (with different casts), Opera Australia are presenting Carmen in both Sydney and Melbourne (plus a separate production of Carmen for Handa on Sydney Harbour) and New Zealand Opera are presenting Carmen in Auckland Wellington and Christchurch. This sees Carmen being presented in seven cities in Australasia in a single year, in five different productions.
- 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.
- Some co-productions have been possible through the Major Festivals Initiative (MFI). MFI provides funding where two or more festivals combine with at least one other partner to create a new work. This has become more problematic over the years as major festivals now occupy a significant tourism role in addition to their artistic role and many festivals want exclusive content. One suggested opportunity is the redefining of Opera Conference along similar lines (i.e. at least 2 opera companies combine with one other partner to commission a new work / production)
- Further collaborations with major performing venues (outside MFI co-productions) where sharing of risks and venue costs would provide exciting opportunities for more adventurous and innovative programming.
- International collaborations offer some significant opportunities. No longer solely the domain of Opera Australia, international collaboration is now a reality at State level and offers a chance to invest in production quality with a reduced financial risk, while opening the companies up to the artistic input of other countries.
- The sharing of repertoire plans between Australian companies could significantly reduce the overlap of certain standard repertoire and lead to opportunities for future co-productions where artistic directors share similar future plans.
- The Opera Conference model was commented on by the National Opera review and a number of recommendations were made, including broadening its objectives and approach, the use of predominantly Australian creative teams and changes to the governance arrangements.
- A persuasive case can be made for all opera companies to offer productions specifically for an education audience, with school-based music education to be delivered by the schools themselves.
- Development of the art form through the creation of new works and reinterpretations of existing classics provides an opportunity to build audiences. New technology can also be used to engage new audiences, alongside co-productions across art form.
- The general public has little understanding of the economic facts surrounding the presentation of opera (or any of the subsidised performing arts) and the reasons why the art form requires substantial support. If the public were more aware of these facts it is likely there would be less adverse opinion of opera as an ‘elitist’ art form.
- Promotion of opera as an accessible art form is vital for the future of the sector in Australia. More people in Australia are disinterested in opera than any other art form and the challenge for the companies is to engage that disinterested audience. Ticket offers, ‘get to know opera’ events, free public performances and coordinated communications across all companies could be used to improve this situation.
- Promotion of the arts as a major contribution to economy through cultural tourism is a relatively new concept. Opera Australia’s seasons at the Sydney Opera House attract tens of thousands of national and international visitors to Sydney annually, resulting in a major benefit to the local NSW economy. Similarly the 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. Australia should look towards further developing and enhancing its reputation overseas as an attractive and exciting destination for cultural tourism activities. However, the focus in recent years has been more towards event tourism rather than genuine cultural tourism. To differentiate, event tourism attracts visitors for a specific event (i.e. Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour), cultural tourism attracts visitors with the overall quality of a city’s cultural offerings (which should include opera, but alongside symphony orchestras, theatre, dance, commercial musicals etc). A global cultural destination requires both event and cultural tourism to maintain its reputation. Recent research in Victoria showed that significantly more interstate and overseas tourists visited Melbourne for cultural reasons than for a sporting event.
Relays of performances
- Cinematic releases of opera and / or live relays have proven popular to a relatively niche audience in recent years, although most of these performances have come from overseas. The Metropolitan Opera has invested heavily in its ‘Live in HD’ program and now turns over around $US60m annually from this program alone, with an annual profit of around $US17m. The opportunity to emulate this within Australia is extremely limited, as no Australian company has the reputation to compete with the Met. Opera Australia is the only company with the resources to offer significant cinematic relays (although West Australian Opera relays its annual ‘Opera in the Park’ to some regional WA cinemas), with its recent Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production of Turandot screening in 740 cinemas worldwide
- The other significant and developing opportunity for relay comes via the internet. While no company anywhere in the world has found a completely cost-effective model for streaming, Opera Europa’s Opera Platform, funded by the European Union, offers free, on-demand streaming of a number of productions from its member companies. Unlike live streaming, on-demand streaming allows the viewer to watch at their convenience, and to dip in and out of performances as they wish. At this stage, internet streaming seems unlikely to provide any significant income opportunities and can only be seen as an audience development / communication / promotional tool.
- In recent years governments across Australia have recognised the benefits of using the arts for diplomatic purposes. While the long lead-times and high costs make opera a less suitable option than other art forms, some collective discussions with government might provide interesting opportunities. In particular, China and the middle-east are experiencing a construction boom of new theatres (many called opera houses) but few of these population centres have resident companies to program their venues.
- Levels of funding are currently not keeping pace with rising costs of presentation, thereby restricting growth of the opera industry and forcing companies to lower output, reduce production values and a consequent lowering of artistic standards. On average the costs of presenting opera are increasing by more than the rate inflation each year, with government subsidy usually running well below inflation.
- Other forms of income for opera companies not keeping pace with the funding shortfall. While some companies generate more non-government income than others, in almost all cases this income does not cover the shortfall.
- The perceived cost of a night at the opera can also been seen as a threat. In reality you can purchase a ticket for any of the major companies for under $60. The cheapest non-concession prices in 2017 are:
- Opera Australia – $55
- State Opera of South Australia – $45
- West Australian Opera – $44
- Victorian Opera – $40
- Opera Queensland – $25
These compare very favourably to prices for commercial music theatre presentations. However, opera companies rely on ‘repeat business’ and need audiences to attend on multiple occasions each year. Some opera companies trade on the ‘glamorous night out’ model, further reinforcing the stereotype.
- Further regulation of industry practices in terms of meeting funding authority’s prescribed outcomes. Governments are increasingly requiring social benefits rather than artistic outcomes from the companies they fund. As a result more money is having to be put into education, community engagement, and other programs, reducing the amount available for the ‘core business’ of opera. In general companies are very supportive of these additional types of work, but they are often not sufficiently resourced (or skilled) to undertake them.
- 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.
- For centuries, the main attraction of a live performance has been the unique quality of its sound. In particular for opera, the quality and power of the unamplified voice remains key to the presentation of the art form. While this is still the case, the advent of regular HD cinema presentations from the large overseas opera companies (most notably the Metropolitan Opera and Royal Opera House Covent Garden now offer a the opportunity to experience opera as part of an audience, with high quality sound and vision featuring some of the finest singers, orchestras and productions in the world. Australian companies are now increasingly judged by this standard by a number of audience members, a problematic situation for all except Opera Australia which at least has a budget to be able to offer similar production values.
- Competition from other forms of ‘entertainment’ are greater than ever. Major cities now have many different, competing entertainment ‘offers’ on any given night of the week and also compete with home-based entertainment which is more varied than ever before. Opera now needs to work harder to grab the attention of its potential audience.
June 26, 2017