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National Opera Review: Companies Need to Tighten Up Their Act

The Rabbits Credit/source: Photography © Jon Green 2015 – All Rights Reserved
Graham Strahle
| November 7, 2016

Well it has finally appeared. The National Opera Review has handed down its Final Report, and it wants to see the four opera companies under scrutiny to increase the number of mainstage productions they put on, widen their repertoire, work more closely with festivals, and make a much more serious effort at staging new Australian work.

These are among 118 recommendations it makes for Opera Australia, Opera Queensland, State Opera of South Australia and West Australian Opera.

In all, the picture being painted of Australia’s major opera companies is one in which they have being doing what they want when it suits them; but the National Opera Review wants to put an end to that and see commitment and rigour. The Report recommends imposing penalties if companies do not meet their obligations.

But they also need to deliver on their commitments too. The central pillar it proposes is a federally funded Innovation Fund that dispenses $1.2 million annually to support new works. This would be a competitive-based funding scheme open to major opera companies to develop works, either in their own capacity or in co-productions with partnering companies – whether these are smaller opera or other arts companies.

The Report criticises the major opera companies for their “sporadic” track record over recent years for staging new work, and reminds them that they have “a responsibility to take a leadership role in the artform, particularly in relation to the development of new Australian works”.

“Indeed, until 2014, the last mainstage new Australian work staged by Opera Australia was Bliss in 2010”, it observes., although it also notes that since then we have seen The Rabbits, The Riders, Snow White, Cloudstreet and The Divorce.

An Innovation Fund, it contends, would help the major opera companies commit more seriously to staging new work because a separate funding stream established for this purpose would help them commit to this responsibility more consistently.

The Divorce, Opera Australia Credit/source: ABC TV

The Divorce, Opera Australia
Credit/source: ABC TV

It singles out The Rabbits, co-produced by OA and Barking Gecko Theatre Company in association with WAO, as the kind of co-operative platform that might yield successful results.

Elsewhere, the Report also blames the opera companies for falling back on an increasingly narrow repertoire of “popular operas” and wants them to be more adventurous in their programming. A narrowing of the repertoire and “over-exposure of more popular operas” in recent years have negatively impacted on both artists and audiences, it suggests.

The Report stands back from making any directives on how repertoire should be chosen, but it does recommend that opera companies should talk with their funding agencies about choice of works rather than deciding this in isolation.

Another area where it wants greater rigour to be applied is in accountability where Federal Government grants are concerned. So Opera Australia’s practice of applying grant funds to staging musicals will be stamped out, if its recommendations are accepted. The Report draws a strict line between musicals, which it believes, belong in the commercial sector, and opera, for which it is federally funded. OA can choose to stage musicals in partnership with commercial producers if it wants, but without the help of government funds, it says.

“Other commercial producers compete for audiences with those productions, creating the potential for a perceived unequal playing field because of Opera Australia’s status and the access it obtains to venues such as the Joan Sutherland Theatre in the Sydney Opera House,” it reasons.

Similarly, it gets tough on Opera Queensland for having breached the criteria needed to retain its designation as a major performing arts company. To retain its place, it would need to make “serious efforts to increase private sector support and to reduce its overheads”, says the Report. It recommends OperaQ explores a service sharing model with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and proposes a three-year funding package that sees both the Federal and Queensland Governments step in and strengthen its balance sheet. All up, this would amount to $500,000 each from the Federal and the Queensland Governments, if OperaQ can find matching private sector funds, plus an additional $1.3 million over three years to transition the company to more sustainable operations.

State Opera of SA is largely let off the hook, with the proviso that it needs to generate more income and stop experimenting with different venues. It should, the Report says, stick to using the Adelaide Festival Theatre instead of using the Masonic Lodge and multiple other venues, which are “showing signs of stressing audience loyalty”.

Meanwhile, West Australian Opera earns plaudits for consistency of its programming and for procuring private sector income. Declining commodity prices may erode the latter, but that’s another story. The Review only covers data current to 2015.

Another central recommendation the Final Report makes is that Victorian Opera should be elevated to the status of a major performing arts company because it meets all the key requirements.

It is important to note that, while the National Opera Review was initiated by the Federal Government, many of its recommendations are also addressed to state governments. So we wait to see how both layers of government respond.

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