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A Problematic Opera Review Report Leaves Real Questions Unanswered

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Chris Bowen · November 8, 2016

Music Australia’s CEO Chris Bowen has prepared this personal analysis of the Opera Review report and proposed a set of priorities to drive investment in the artform.

This analysis follows an introductory Overview of the Opera Review which you can read here.

A problematic Review

At last the Opera Review is out, which we and many others have called for. And that’s a good thing. However there are problems.

The first, which we’ve had from the start, is that one slice of the performing arts is placed under the microscope. That makes no sense at all in a modern interdependent age, which the Report sensibly acknowledges. This is a legacy of the previous Arts Minister who commissioned this report in isolation. The second is the Review doesn’t ask the right questions. The answers we really want aren’t there, because the questions were never asked. How do we face the reality of an artform moving into crisis, about what the public is really getting, about where the future may actually lie, and the changes need to make this happen? We need policy that fundamentally ensures a dynamic future for opera, not one that holds onto the past.

Facing a key reality

The RabbitsWe must embrace the many challenges opera and classical music find themselves in. For multiple reasons these arts no longer hold the place in public cultural life they used to. To thrive, or merely survive, it is vital we redefine opera and how it engages with contemporary culture. The future may actually be outside the traditional artform as productions such as Opera Australia’s The Rabbits have shown. It may contain more elements of children’s theatre, cabaret, visual art, musical theatre, comedy, circus, night clubs or screen based culture. To achieve this we will have to back new visions, policies, investments and ways of working. The artform may diversify and hybridise, with more collaborations, cross over and contemporary work, and community engagement. There could be a shift to a pro-am model for some, a bigger role in music education, and a genuine embrace of new audiences. And we will have to back the new by investing in it – from studio and black box productions, to cross artform collaborations, to creative labs for new work, to increased engagement, and new streams of activity.

By and large, the Review ignores this reality, and appears to assume the companies and the artform as traditionally conceived as a given. But this could be a real mistake given global trend where major opera houses are closing, audiences diminishing, and digital competitors proliferating.

What do the public get?

It is important we recognise that our investment is actually in the artform and its public engagement. It isn’t about funding the companies in isolation or in competition. While the companies are the vehicles, the investment is in the artform on the public’s behalf.

If we want a thriving operatic culture, what does it look like? Firstly we must view the companies as an interconnected network, delivering the artform to Australians. Secondly, we may need a greater diversity of programming, more involvement of independents, a more functional, networked scene, a more collaborative national approach, and a greater multiplicity of audiences. Finally we could see a shift from repertory or ensemble companies to ones that are more multifaceted, as with some theatre companies. This may recognise that not all companies can present costly, full scale main stage product, which may work best in large population centres and as part of a destination tourism offer.

We need recommendations to redefine roles, empower companies into specialist areas, invest in centres of excellence, and enhance specific distinctive strengths.

To achieve this, we would need recommendations to redefine roles, empower companies into specialist areas, invest in centres of excellence, and enhance specific distinctive strengths. All of this will only happen with dynamic public policy leadership, developed in close collaboration with great Australian artists and practitioners, and the leadership of all the companies.

A decentralised Australian culture is vital

To really give the public value we must maintain diverse cultural production in multiple Australian cities. Centralising the artform is not healthy nor in the national interest. As former Treasury Head Ken Henry has pointed out, Australia’s demographics and capabilities cannot cope with the growth we face. To counter the pressure on our major cities and drain on the rest of the country, it is essential to maintain decentralised creative capacity. In the case of opera, three significant centres of artistic production in our 3rd, 4th and 5th cities offer tremendous advantages. This can also assist the funding imbalance in states such as Queensland which receives less than half the per capita share of Australia Council funding.

An opera company has a huge impact on the arts sector. As the biggest performing arts employer it provides the most jobs and underwrites vital creative and technical skills. This has a bigger proportionate impact in smaller cities, where companies are also less encumbered by custom and practice, and can be granted licenses – almost by necessity – to be inventive and adventurous, with distinctive local identities.

So we absolutely must back our Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth companies. They deliver respected work, and provide important centres of local production. Arguably they are as important as the national company, which could be seen as a state company for NSW. We can lead the world on decentralised opera production, presentation and engagement – we can be the best!

Music education is a priority

The opera companies are active music education contributors, with 91,400 school attendees in 2015 (AMPAG data). This is important work, vital to future audience sustainability, and offering multiple other well documented benefits. The future of classical audiences, and arguably the artform, comes back to music education. So in our view this must be every company’s business in the subsidised arts, including opera companies. And these programs ought to be specifically designed for schools, not just cut down versions of main stage productions.

Audiences are the key

Audiences are the key challenge – and the focus must be on audience creation, rather than simply sustaining current attendees. Data in our reports show Australian classical attendances are static and declining relative to population. This decline is likely to accelerate as baby boomer audiences age and are not replaced. Internationally this trend is more pronounced. Here there are some early warning signs, and opera is one of them. The Review Report, by blaming this decline on the GFC, effectively positions this as an economic factor, rather than a much broader cultural issue.

Australia’s major opera companies total attendances
Activity 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
total performances 471,860 426,571 576,149 496,078 704265 563,043
schools programs 83,067 80,808 90,506 85,540 89,127 91,474
workshops 1,585 1,239 2,308 4,439 6,481 4,386
total 556,512 508,618 668,963 586,057 799,873 658,903

Source: AMPAG

 

While it is encouraging to see overall growth in opera audiences in some years, such as the enormous success of Opera Australia’s outdoor Sydney spectaculars, recent year attendances have been variable, as the table above illustrates, However, over a six year average they are keeping up with population growth which can be seen as a good result.

Australia’s major opera companies total attendances
Activity 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
total performances 471,860 426,571 576,149 496,078 704265 563,043
schools programs 83,067 80,808 90,506 85,540 89,127 91,474
workshops 1,585 1,239 2,308 4,439 6,481 4,386
total 556,512 508,618 668,963 586,057 799,873 658,903

Source: AMPAG

 

However, there is a stark reality to be faced here, and that is the traditional main stage audience is not what it was.

Australia’s major opera companies total attendances
Activity 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
total performances 471,860 426,571 576,149 496,078 704265 563,043
schools programs 83,067 80,808 90,506 85,540 89,127 91,474
workshops 1,585 1,239 2,308 4,439 6,481 4,386
total 556,512 508,618 668,963 586,057 799,873 658,903

Source: AMPAG

 

As the Review report clearly shows, the main stage attendances are where the red flags are found, with substantial declines in 3 of the 4 companies over a six year period, (all credit to West Australian Opera for bucking this trend!). The table below shows an average 28 percent decline.

Australia’s major opera companies main stage attendances
Company 2009 2015 % change
Opera Australia – Syd+Mel 260,481 190,102 -27
Opera Queensland 22,931 10,195 -56
State Opera of South Australia 12,670 9,929 -22
West Australian Opera 15,930 15,337 -4
Total 312,012 225,563 -28

Source: National Opera Review

 

To arrest this downward trend the evidence suggests opera must become more relevant to contemporary culture, more involved in its community, and less focused on maintaining traditional presentations. It must engage, connect and present the artform in ways that are attractive to new and younger audiences. A good example is to foster regional engagement, such as Opera Queensland’s Project Puccini, which doubled the company’s regional audiences by involving hundreds of community performers in touring productions.

Innovation is also the key

The report does note more innovation is needed in opera which lags other artforms, and that this could assist with audience development. Some of their recommendations, such as in the digital space, make absolute sense. However others are too prescriptive – about what not to do (subsidise musicals, or use certain venues) – or what they ought to do (collaborate with festivals). These all are transactional input mechanisms. The Report wants to lock opera into established ways of thinking about presenting the genre. Far better to describe ambitious and strategic outcomes that are sought, encourage use of innovation as an enabling tool, and leave the companies to get on with it.

We also need to adopt best global practice. Australia’s classical scene is less developed in new forms of presentation than the northern hemisphere, and this isn’t opera’s strong point. We need more late night series, Indie classical scenes, informal settings – incentivised by our funders and policy makers. We have covered many of these on our pages such as Vancouver’s Music on Main, Amsterdam’s underground indie scene, San Francisco’s Soundbox, London’s Nightshift, and Classical Noir which has some Australian examples. There is a hunger and demand for this here, as the response to our piece on Sydney’s one off Backstage event showed.

Why review only opera?

While it is important to review opera – it does face real challenges – many cost dynamics are shared across the whole sector. Public policy is not well made when conducted in isolation or at the point of a crisis.

Despite tight terms of reference determined by the Former Minister of the Arts, this Report makes some positive recommendations. These are sensible, if hardly earth shattering, and where applicable can extend to all funded companies, which the Report notes. Prioritising artist development, employment, collaboration, Australian work, audience growth and ending the practice of companies competing for touring funds elsewhere, are all are good policy recommendations. However the opportunity is missed to grapple with some of the real and systemic issues faced by the sector.

Policy Questions

While it is agreed opera’s rich traditions are important, have continued currency, and ought to be part of public programs, essentially the artform and the public have moved on. Broader policy considerations should be examined. These include reimagined work, collaborative and cross disciplinary work, and broader collaborations that redefine and extend the artform and its expression. The days of traditional commissions are largely over, it is now a more dynamic artistic and production exchange. The question is: what do we need to do now to ensure that in 15 years time the companies are vital, relevant and valued contributors to Australia’s artistic and cultural life?

Multiple pressures from rising costs, and changing demographics, to a plethora of competitive forces, means we must re-examine the very nature of these companies, their purpose, role and work.

Interestingly, no mention of the word relevance is made anywhere in the Review. Presumably this is again implicitly assumed. However, given that relevance is one of the five key dimensions in the Australia Council’s Artistic Vibrancy Framework, it ought to have been examined.

What do we need to do now to ensure that in 15 years time opera is a vital, relevant and valued contributor to Australia’s artistic and cultural life?

Some are doing it already

Some of what is proposed here is already happening, and some leaders want it to happen more, but we’re held back by custom and practice. An Opera Review is an opportunity to reinvent and refresh, not simply to stave off a crisis. Let’s be more bold – the artform and public deserve it!

Double the arts budget

Despite all these concerns, a case can be made to support the proposed funding increase for these companies, however this is only defensible if at the same time the government provides a commensurate increase to the overall Australia Council budget, with clear instructions that no one sector or company is to be more privileged as a result.

As we have previously noted, this is not a plea for a handout for the arts, this is part of a powerful case to invest in a successful, modern culture and economy. Others such as Canada are doing it, and we risk being left behind if we don’t follow suit. It is a vital investment if we wish to retain our place on the world stage with a vibrant and original culture and engaged public.

Comments

  1. Ken Nielsen

    Yes and yes. A disappointing review I thought.
    Most of the suggestions of ways costs could be reduced – use of film, coproductions and such – are obvious and must have been considered by the companies.
    Beware trying to centralize innovation, though. In my experience in business, innovation happens most often in small companies and as a result of decentralized experimentation.
    You list some of the companies doing interested stuff around the world. There are many more.
    I am not sure about the need to “retain our place on the worIdstage”. I believe that the purpose of any arts activity is to produce joy and excitement in audiences.
    That is happening in quite a few organisations mostly under the radar of large scale government reviews.

  2. Philip Pogson

    I thought there were some sound recommendations in the review without in any way being revolutionary. But could it be? In the absence of any long term arts policy at Federal level I would not have wished to be on this review panel. In reality, a good part of the future is in the hands of the 4 major opera companies themselves. They are paid in public money and sponsorships to be the vanguards of the artform and they have abdicated this role en masse leaving the innovation space to small, “hand to mouth” start ups and the Victorian Opera. Opera Australia could commit today to doing one “Rabbits” style production a year. The Opera Conference could pool funds to commission a new chamber opera each year and tour it nationally. Our production company, which for 25 years has toured chamber productions of baroque operas to schools as part of Musica Viva in Schools, put in a submission to the review suggesting all of these hardly “out there” points. Any of the funded companies could scrape together enough money to do an innovative late night venue show or team up with some indie production houses. But they don’t…or is it “won’t”?

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