Designing a New Future for Opera in Australia
by Lindy Hume. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 3 (May 2013)
In the last couple of years a new direction for Opera Australia has been established, and there have been new appointments at Australia's state opera companies based in Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane. Imagining and repositioning Australia's opera companies for the art form’s potential future is now core work for this current crop of Artistic Directors.
Last year I returned to the heightened, irrational, sensuous world of opera after a decade directing two of Australia's international arts festivals, during which period my field of vision was vastly expanded. I've gained a healthy perspective, a craving for big ideas, adventure, connection with communities, originality, beauty and meaning in the experience of bringing artists and audiences together. I've found a deepened love and respect for the rehearsal studio. I still wear my heart on my sleeve, but I’ve become brutally pragmatic about the commercial realities of showbiz.
Opera Queensland is my fourth Australian opera company, and in one sense I'm back in familiar territory: I literally grew up as part of the Australian opera family. My first job at 16 was as an extra, then a dancer, choreographer and I spent (many) years as an assistant director. 20 years ago, at 31, I was the first Artistic Director at West Australian Opera, then briefly in 1996 became AD of the Victoria State Opera before the notorious AO/VSO merger, a role which morphed into AD of OzOpera from 2007-2011. Throughout this time I've kept up a steady freelance directing career, directing productions for opera companies in Europe, the UK and America.
So while this is a world I know reasonably well, after directing seven big contemporary multi-artform festivals and attending countless performances around the world, inevitably I'm re-exploring Planet Opera with fresh, critical eyes.
Looking around the Australian opera landscape ten years later, I find there have been some changes to celebrate/contemplate, some great leaps forward, some steps backwards. There’s still a lot of superficiality, laziness and bad art, but there have been some bold gestures and moments too: the audacity and exhilaration of (these examples chosen randomly) Adelaide's Ring Cycle, Le Grand Macabre and Moby Dick, WAO/ Perth Festival collaborations bringing audiences the World Premiere (and 3-city tour) of Richard Mills' Love of the Nightingale, and Strauss's Elektra. An inspired collaboration between Victorian Opera and Chunky Move on Assembly. But is opera really any closer to being taken to heart by the average punter or enmeshed in an Australian cultural identity? Has anyone created a new Australian opera with the potential to strike a universal chord and fill theatres? Is a future for opera in its current shape guaranteed, or even possible?
Opera Australia’s Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini sees a bright future for opera, and opera events, in a redesigned industrial environment. The national company’s expanded ambitions under his leadership have been well-covered in the media and widely applauded. OA’s programs in Sydney and Melbourne are bold and comprehensive – the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, the Ring Cycle, musicals, community projects, orchestral and industry reform and adventures in new technologies. Never one to shy away from controversy, Terracini's big statements and bold actions have raised the bar, energised the sector and shaken up a complacent scene. I may not love everything Lyndon does, but I take my hat off to him, admire his sense of the grand gesture, and welcome the far more robust national discourse on opera that we now enjoy.
As Opera Australia gains territory, the state opera companies under their new leaders are regrouping to plan their own future directions. A theme running through the opera narrative in 2013 is diversification and a focus on activity happening beyond the main stage, on areas where creative or business (or both) potential may lie: special events, engaging with festivals, community participation initiatives, tourism initiatives, commercial activities, corporate entertainment.
This diversification is both desirable and necessary. Main stage ticket sales are a matter of global concern for opera companies - ENO recently reported a 9% decline in audience figures, a trend reflected inconsistently throughout Europe and the USA. Closer to home a keen awareness that ‘it's tough out there’ naturally has an impact on repertoire. Some companies are more intrepid than others in venturing out of their audience's repertoire comfort zone when it comes to main stage programming, but Australia's opera companies are not burying our heads in the sand. We're all up for the challenge of finding ways forward for the future of the art form and audiences, by shaping more flexible, responsive, ambitious business models around these new realities. In our marketing we're responding in different ways to the opportunities and trends around us - digital and social media, active consumer participation and feedback, and the dissolving of genre ‘silos’. Our new talks program The Space Between, in which expert panels discuss broad cultural themes inspired by our program, reflects the fact that our portfolios reach into a broader society than they used to. Creating a rewarding journey for the audience, from designing the website to writing blogs to leading media discussion and making sure the foyer is buzzing – it’s all part of the job now.
But opera is a 400 year old artform that requires certain hardware - properly trained singers, a strong chorus culture, orchestras, access to suitable theatres. A flyover of the country reveals the strengths and vulnerabilities of the state opera scene. In Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane, annual programming and future planning is affected by limited access to the venues for opera in each city. Companies can no longer plan on regular access to the major arts centres, whose increasingly competitive programming means that time in those venues is at a premium. State opera companies are now quite often ‘bumped’ for a more lucrative hirer, or to make way for a longer booking, usually for a big musical.
The only company that has its own ‘home’ theatre is West Australian Opera. Richard Mills and I (both ex-ADs of WAO) agree that we’d kill to have a theatre as gorgeous and ideal for opera performance as Perth’s His Majesty’s Theatre, in Melbourne or Brisbane.
These venue vicissitudes have created a shift in thinking relating to the national circuit of federally-funded productions created for the Opera Conference, a program established in 1994 as a Creative Nation initiative. While this program has served the opera landscape very well, two decades later it can no longer be assumed that the national and state companies are equally able to, or want to, program the same repertoire in the same size venues across Australia. This presents an opportunity to consider how a redesigned OC can respond to the changed national opera landscape. Future directions might include a movement from large to medium scale productions of chamber repertoire, collaborations on new Australian work, something big in regional Australia or some other game-changing idea of national significance.
For artistic and business reasons, collaborations with other companies within and beyond our borders are increasingly important to all of Australia's major performing arts companies. For Opera Queensland, it is the future. We’re based in Brisbane but we are global in our thinking, in our discussion about future projects with Asia-Pacific, European and American partners. This year we begin a multi-year partnership with New Zealand Opera with our new Cinderella, and will collaborate with the Brisbane chamber orchestra Camerata of St John’s, Queensland Music Festival, Brisbane Festival, Dancenorth and Australian Festival of Chamber Music. We’ll present the first Australian performances of a new production of Otello that opens in Cape Town, South Africa and will go on to Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Auckland.
We’re all fully alert to role that major festivals can play in increasing opera’s chances of connecting with an audience for new Australian work, challenging or unknown repertoire or a provocative production treatment. It drives me crazy that many of the very same people who in the festival environment demonstrate a lusty appetite for bold artistic risk-taking seem, for the rest of the year, to abandon their sense of adventure. One of my particular quests at OperaQ is to find ways to seduce our audiences into unleashing their more adventurous selves, trying new experiences, journeying with us into new territories.
In terms of sustainability, one of the biggest risks we can take is to serve up an endless diet of ‘safe’ top-ten repertoire year after year. We respect that our audiences have their favourite Verdis, Puccinis and Bizets, and this repertoire is popular for good reason. But my festival experiences - witnessing the most unlikely, left-field shows become box-office hits - have convinced me that what people want, above all, is for us to seize their imaginations - with classic and unfamiliar repertoire alike. We must aspire to excellence in interpreting these much loved works, but we must also hold our nerve and broaden the repertoire mix or we’re doomed. Sure, our plans for the future include a glamorous new Traviata and an audience-friendly Boheme (hey, we're in showbiz and we love selling tickets) but that's not all we'll do. We'll seize the imaginations of OperaQ audiences with brand new works by contemporary greats, delicious baroque repertoire, popular musical theatre, quirky hybrid projects, shameless commercial ventures, mad experimental cabaret...
And of course the question of where the next generation of new Australian operas comes from is on all our minds. Having commissioned and presented many successful new works across a range of genres in my time as AD of opera companies and festivals, I feel I've earned the right to take a ‘tough love’ approach that's not entirely encouraging for would-be opera composers submitting unsolicited material or angling for a big commission. Generally experienced composers and creative teams accept the realpolitik of making a new work, the trickiest, most expensive thing any company can do.
Basically, the message is this: Every new work we program sits in a very particular context relating to a company's audiences, artistic vision, budget and surrounding activity. We must therefore exercise complete control over all decisions from choice of composers and creative teams to subject matter, length of the work, orchestration size etc. As AD I am hands-on throughout the development period, a supportive but very frank dialogue on the progress, dramaturgy and editing of each work. The calibre and involvement from the outset of the producing collaborators and creative team is vital - creating a successful music theatre work is a team effort that can not be left to a composer alone. We take into consideration potential producing partners who can deliver future seasons of the work - sharing the risk and subsequent seasons a desirable. But our primary consideration is the likely audience for each piece. Who are they? Why will they buy a ticket? What do we want their experience to be from the beginning to the end of the work? What will it mean to them? The great opera populists - Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini - could all answer those questions about their audiences at the point of commission, and so should we.
I know that Richard Mills and Tim Sexton at Victorian Opera and State Opera of South Australia have more expansive annual programs for the development of new Australian work, and I admire them for it. But Opera Queensland will focus on a very limited number of hand-selected new works (we only have one on the drawing board right now), each driven primarily by the audience we can reach.
But creating new works isn't just about commissioning new composers - one of the aims of our new innovation hub, the OperaQ Studio, is to invite artists to mine new potential in this 400 year-old art form by exploring different ways of using the creative resources of the contemporary opera company, plundering, deconstructing and re-imagining existing works, mashing opera with other art forms, environments, technologies and performance styles that unashamedly emphasise theatre-making over musical purity.
At the end of last year I revived my 11-year old production of La Boheme for the Staatsoper in Berlin, a city where three opera companies co-exist. On those three stages last November I saw some extraordinary work but also some complete garbage, and was astonished at the number of barely semi-filled theatres. Yet the German opera carousel sails on, totally reliant on government funding, while across Europe, budget cuts are biting. Within the context of sustainability questions, the most exciting new dynamic in the Berlin opera scene is undoubtedly Barrie Kosky's energised leadership of the Komische Oper, where his inspired programming is underpinned by the resources of German government funding. But here Barrie's showbiz sensibilities also come to the fore - theatres for his dazzling and adorable animated Magic Flute were packed, the foyers were buzzing with excitement. While delivering artistically and intellectually, whether it's a Monteverdi cycle or a new Lulu or a spiderwoman Queen of the Night, there is an imaginative scope, ingenuity and sense of playful irreverence, and a connection to the zeitgeist in Barrie's leadership that sets him apart from other German Intendants and colourfully cuts through the monotone earnestness. His detractors see him as frivolous and arrogant, but there is a brilliance and charisma about the Komische Oper right now that is lacking elsewhere.
I won't offend Barrie by suggesting that his Australian-ness has anything to do with his impact, but the example is clear for Australian artistic directors of opera companies. As the discussion swirls about opera's future, the artistic directors of Australia's five major opera companies have an opportunity to lead by example, transcending the vanilla of the global scene. Untethered to European tradition or American conservatism, the changing opera landscape in Australia is our chance to design our own destiny by animating a unique national network of boldly distinctive creative hubs across Australia for the production and presentation of this most complex, centuries-old genre; at the same time celebrating our unique constituencies, our very different artistic personas, regional identities, exceptional initiatives and signature strengths.
Lindy Hume is the Artistic Director of Opera Queensland.