Recently, Lyndon Terracini, the artistic director of Opera Australia – our highest subsidised arts organisation – told the Sydney Morning Herald that the costs associated with producing new operas are too expensive. ‘Fundamentally, it’s because of a lack of support from the public and a lack of support from sponsors to be involved,’ he said.
This followed his comments in the Australian Book Review last year, claiming that no contemporary operas have entered the repertoire, and stating that Bliss, the 2010 Australian opera based on Peter Carey’s novel, failed to reach even 6000 viewers during its broadcast on the ABC.
Kate Miller-Heidke’s The Rabbits
OA can’t responsibly produce contemporary international and Australian operas on a regular basis, he argues, because there isn’t sufficient audience demand. The exception, he says, is the only new work they have programmed this year, The Rabbits, co-produced with Barking Gecko Theatre. Composer Kate Miller-Heidke attracts an ‘audience who really wants to hear’ what she has to say, Terracini told the SMH.
According to Terracini, if a production does not have an audience ready and waiting, its possible lack of success is out of his hands.
Terracini, with his penchant for canonical operas and mid-20th century American musicals, has been very good at finding an audience for the company. But it is fair to ask: is this enough? Or should we be asking artistic organisations to deliver more than bums-on-seats, to deliver more than exactly what the audience is asking for?
Increasingly, Terracini’s programming has people asking what our national opera company should be. Is it, asked Harriet Cunningham in the Daily Review, ‘aspirational escapism – red velvet, big skirts, men in tights and the odd nipple flashed here and there’, or do subsidised companies have a responsibility to consider the possibilities of the art form, and to help develop its future legacy through providing creative and financial support for new work? The critics aren’t the only ones asking these questions: OA, along with the state opera companies, is currently being looked at in the government’s National Opera Review. Amongst other goals, the review aims to examine the ‘artistic vibrancy’ of these companies.
The opera world is not the only creative community considering the future of their art form in Australia. While many people are considering OA’s responsibilities, the latest Platform Paper has John Senczuk decreeing it is time to develop the ‘Great Australian Musical’.
Although opera has been traditionally well-subsidised in Australia, the same is not true of musicals. This is also apparent in the traditions they sprung from: opera from the government-supported opera houses of Europe, musicals from the commercially funded lights of Broadway. In Australia, the two art forms most visibly appear as imitations – or direct imports – from these international traditions. When Terracini argues he can’t produce new Australian work, he is basing his claim on a model of operas that play large venues. When Senczuk argues we need to develop a funding model that supports the development of Australian musicals, he recommends artists create work for 850+ seat theatres.
There are already Australian artists making exciting musicals and operas, re-examining the classical and contemporary canons, and premiering new texts. This work, however, is happening in drastically different shapes than the traditions Terracini and Senczuk are looking to. In opera, it is with companies like the Sydney Chamber Opera, in the theatres of Carriageworks and Chamber Made Opera in the bowels of Melbourne’s Arts Centre. It’s the Victorian Opera, producing new works like The Riders with Malthouse and selling out 500-seat theatres. In musicals, exciting new work is being produced in the revitalised independent musical theatre scene in Sydney, centering on the 110-seat Hayes Theatre. Keating! was one of the most successful Australian musicals of this century, but began as a small show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and was given the time and space to grow into the 1000-seat theatres it eventually played to.
Unlike Europe, Australia does not have well-subsidised opera houses continually showing work in repertory. Our small population has neither the audience numbers, nor the financial investors, to support a commercial industry like Broadway. This could be seen as to the detriment of new Australian operas and musicals, but only if we hinge our expectations of what an opera is on the European standard, and of musicals on the American standard.
If we want to see new work and innovation grow in these art forms, we need to consider how they might develop within our culture. Australian theatre makers consistently create exciting, rule-breaking, innovative works. If we require all new works of musical theatre to fill a theatre of 850+ seats, if we expect all new operas to play in the same theatres as Verdi, we are only going to curtail the creators’ imaginations and dull the possibilities of the forms.
We need new models for opera and musical theatre. They should be flexible, creative and collaborative, and big companies like OA should have the room – and the will – to scale down for new and innovative work. To my mind, the most interesting piece of opera in Australia this year could well be Ash Flanders and Declan Greene’s La Traviata. Performed in Belvoir’s 80-seat Downstairs Theatre by Melbourne queer theatre company Sisters Grimm, it’s described as ‘part opera, part protest, part drag show’.
It is time for everyone – for OA, for audiences, for artists, for funding bodies – to think outside of the standard paradigms of how opera and musicals should be. It is time to imagine how operas and musicals could look if we claimed them for ourselves, and to create something truly Australian and multifaceted.