Music Australia CEO Chris Bowen shares a personal view of the Opera Review Report, wonders why he feels he’s staring into the past, and puts some proposals on the table.
When consultant Helen Nugent led the Major Performing Arts Inquiry in 1999, the resulting report Securing the Future delivered exactly as it stated. To the consternation of critics, it stabilised the companies, locked in support from state governments, and to this day not one company has closed its doors.
Yet now, with Helen Nugent called on again, this time for opera, the resulting report appears strangely out of step. This Review ought to be called Securing the Past. For opera, and the world, has moved on. But you’d never know it reading this document.
While the Opera Review Report is thorough, detailed, and has worthwhile recommendations, including to incentivise innovation and collaboration, it seems almost other-worldly, based on a set of assumed values that remain un-examined. It feels fixated on the rear vision mirror, and is mired in prescriptive and punitive managerialism. The Review authors appear to believe that if the companies just do their jobs properly, and are given a decent cash top-up, all will be OK.
Except it’s not OK.
The reason why this Review has been held, why companies are reducing main stage productions, and some are bleeding cash, is because the traditional artform is in trouble. And not just in Australia. One only has to look around the world where Italian opera houses are closing, lauded festivals losing patrons, and companies downsizing, to know there is a problem.
This Report’s only acknowledgement of this is to blame the GFC. To an extent this is true, but the problem started long before that. Globally classical audiences have been declining, ageing and not being replaced for at least twenty years. That they are relatively stable here is a tribute to all involved, and the original Nugent report, and in 2014 opera actually had an encouraging upswing. However the traditional artform is not sustainable, as it simply no longer resonates sufficiently with the public.
And even if it did, the colossal size of main stage opera productions, our relatively small population, declining subscriptions, and inexorably rising costs, mitigate against the financial viability of these companies without substantially increasing their subsidy.
Ought our public programs retain the traditional repertoire for the many opera lovers out there? And for the important contribution these companies make to the cultural economy? Quite likely. But we must accept this audience will largely not be replaced. So at the same time we must reinvent, adapt, transform, and indeed recreate the artform for a modern world.
It is strange the report doesn’t make this recommendation.
There are some dynamic and wonderful examples of our capabilities in this space. Australians can and are doing it, indeed we can lead the world in certain spheres, from imaginative collaborations and reimagined works, to community and regional engagement. And we can do a lot more. We can be more creatively bold and enterprising, and more committed to total engagement with contemporary culture and to audience creation.
And yes this will cost money. All great creation and invention requires investment. Yes, there is a case to support the opera companies being uplifted. But only alongside a comparable increase for the rest of the sector. One that doesn’t further privilege opera over others. By our reckoning a doubling of the Australia Council budget should do it, just as Canada’s PM Justin Trudeau has committed to. Combined with some future focused dynamism in the arts policy sphere, that would be a real investment in securing our cultural future.
Read Chris Bowen’s detailed analysis on the Opera Review report and a set of proposed priorities.