Now that the dust has begun to settle on the National Opera Review’s final report, we may reflect on what tangible ideas it offered to Australia’s major opera companies, and to opera’s future as an artform in this country. Did it come up with any useful ideas that the companies themselves didn’t already know?
The review presented them with a conundrum they continually deal with on a daily basis, but no additional means of solving it: how to try to creatively move opera forwards, maximise box office, and attract new audiences all at the same time. In other words be risk taking and risk averse at the same time.
But it also displayed quite deeply conservative ideas about the nature of opera and the place it holds in society. It continually reminds companies how should focus on ‘mainstage opera’ without recognising that opera can also be small scale, flexible about its modes of delivery and where it is performed, and fluid in its relationship with neighbouring artforms.
Instead of that, the report rigidifies opera. Its first recommendations in improving artistic vibrancy are that companies increase “the number of mainstage productions and “the variety of mainstage repertoire choice”. Elsewhere it promotes a divide between opera and musicals, constrains the choice of where it should be performed (“Opera Queensland and SOSA should focus on specific theatres to improve audience engagement and appreciation”, page iii), and tells companies to lock in with festivals rather than think outside the square themselves.
Tim Stitz, artistic director of Chamber Made Opera, made sound points in his essay for ArtsHub. He argues that it is the small-to-medium companies and independent artists in the opera sector who “lead the way in ‘innovation’, in being agile and responsive, and evolving the artforms they concern themselves with”. By contrast he says Opera Australia “is fixed in a traditional, heritage mode”, offering big canonical works while ignoring everything else that opera can do.
He and his own company on the other hand, Stitz says, “believe that the operatic form is still very much a work in progress; an open- ended genre that invites collaboration between new and existing artforms, including music, sound art, theatre, performance, dance, architecture and digital media, to name but a few”.
But the point is that the major companies should be encouraged in a national report to think similarly. State Opera of South Australia in its Studio Series, which has presented contemporary chamber operas in its own rehearsal space in Netley, is a good example of how this can work.
In the absence of such creative thinking, it is no wonder that economists weigh in and ask why opera should be publicly supported at all. Jason Murphy, for instance, argues that opera is already given far too big a slice of the live performance pie for the number of people who attend it. He says “we’re clearly putting too much money into it”, and with taxpayer subsidised tickets ranging from $45 at Opera Australia to $191 for West Australian Opera and $194 for Opera Queensland, he asks what might be a perfectly valid question: “When you go out to see a musical or a band, or a comedian, how much government subsidy do you get? Not much is the likely answer. Why does Opera get special treatment?”
So long as art is seen a commodity that can be bought or sold, economic rationalist thinking like this may well prevail.
It is up to opera companies, and to those who support them, to see the worth of what they are doing in more than dollar terms. Confronted with this challenge and the fear of having to retreat, Stephen Sewell, Head of Writing for Performance, National Institute of Dramatic Art, had this to say: “now is not the time to go back to sleep, but to wake and sit bolt upright, and the only people we can trust to wake us are the artists who have no vested interest in telling us anything but the truth”.