Australia’s first national opera review is long in the coming. The panel chaired by Dr Helen Nugent handed down a Discussion Paper in September 2015 and was due to deliver its findings by the end of that year. But after being delayed until June this year the National Opera Review has still not issued its final report.
These have been turbulent times, with convulsive changes to arts funding at the federal level brought on by George Brandis as former Minister for the Arts still having repercussions through the whole opera sector. Perhaps that’s the reason. However, while the National Opera Review drags on, there can be no certainty for the four companies concerned: Opera Australia, Opera Queensland, State Opera of South Australia and West Australian Opera.
In an environment like this they are put in a holding pattern, wanting to get on with long-term planning but hyper-conscious of the need to produce short-term results that tick all the right boxes and place them in the most advantageous light.
By all accounts, the panel has finished its deliberations but is waiting on the next Meeting of Cultural Ministers for further discussion. Nugent was one of its invited guests as NOR panel chair in previous meetings.
But when the panel makes its final recommendations to government, will they be out of date? Consider what each of the four companies has been doing since the end of last year when its report was due.
This year OA has pulled out all the stops with no less than nine new productions. It restaged The Rabbits in Sydney and follows this with another home-grown work, Sydney Opera House – The Opera (The Eighth Wonder) later this month. New challenges have loomed for the company too. The Joan Sutherland Theatre’s closure for seven months next year for upgrades recently prompted a claim of $3m compensation.
The company under greatest pressure, Opera Queensland, needs time to bring itself into financial stability. But it has been making the right moves. Its co-production of Madama Butterfly in May was an artistic triumph, the company’s cheap $25 ticket drive has successfully lured newcomers to mainstage productions, and has prioritised regional engagement. The company’s Project Puccini doubled their regional audience reach by involving hundreds of community performers in touring productions.
Operating with the smallest staff, State Opera of SA has four productions this year, of which George Palmer’s newly written Cloudstreet in May was a significant achievement. Other new operas currently under development include Anne Cawrse’s Innocence and a work based on local Aboriginal mythology, Ngurunderi – Opera on the Lake.
Meanwhile it is a new era for West Australian Opera, as this year sees the first full season for new artistic director Brad Cohen. Its three mainstage productions include revival of Iain Grandage’s The Riders (originally Victorian Opera), and the year kicked off with a successful outdoor performance of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi as an outdoor free event (Opera in the Park).
This points to a good all-round record of achievement. Let’s wait no longer. Give these companies certainty and let them get on with it.