Opera Australia (OA) delivered a remarkable $3.4m surplus in calendar 2016, helped in large part by massive box office takings of $17.6m from its musical My Fair Lady directed by Julie Andrews and co-presented with John Frost. It is a major turnaround for a company that reported a deficit of $2m in 2014 and clawed its way to a modest surplus of $237,000 in 2015.
Over the last five years, musicals have proved a big income earner for Opera Australia. Anything Goes added $14m to its bottom line in 2015 while South Pacific and The King and I together contributed $32m.
But adding to box office last year was healthy performance across the board. Part of this included an unexpectedly good result of $6.6m from the revival of Neil Armfield’s Ring Cycle in Melbourne.
The news was good elsewhere too. OA’s summer Sydney season (Magic Flute, La Bohème, Pearlfishers, The Barber of Seville and Luisa Miller) brought in $10.7m, which was slightly up on the previous year, although its autumn Melbourne season took a dip. Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (Turandot) made $560,000, while The Rabbits in Sydney and Brisbane did even better, bringing in $642,000. Total box office came to $59m compared with $52m in 2015.
OA was able to further improve its bottom line by $9.6m from the sale of its Melbourne premises, and by shedding 20 per cent of it management and administrative staff; in 2016 this stood at 29, down from 36 in 2015.
However, in terms of adding to the coffers, OA’s annual reports show that nothing compares with the profitability of staging musicals. My Fair Lady “smashed box office records for selling more tickets than any other production in the history of the Sydney Opera House,” wrote Chairman David Mortimer in the company’s 2016 annual report just released.
Does it suggest Opera Australia has become addicted to musicals? First, one should note that it no longer mounts more than one musical per year (like it did in 2015); instead it now refers to its “annual musical” as a part of its year-round activities. Secondly, whatever one may think about its incursion into musicals in previous years, this My Fair Lady was less blatantly commercial.
Mortimer comments that it “was not just ‘putting on a show’” but rather an attempt to recreate the original 1956 Broadway production that took “many years of research and collaboration along with overseas trips, trawling over drawings, costume and set designs in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Arts Centre Melbourne Performing Arts Collection to bring a great idea to life.”
Whether this idea of devising ‘retro-musicals’, as we might call them, represents sustainable practice for the national opera company will be interesting to see, but it should not be surprising if OA is considering this as a means of gaining creative kudos in the music theatre market and proving that it does not view musicals merely as a cash cow.
Last year, National Opera Review delivered an emphatic ‘no’ to Opera Australia directing government funds to “significant commercial activities, such as [its] long-run musicals”. But OA disputes ever having done this, insisting it reinvests profits made from musicals into “new operas”.
In 2017, it stands to reap more income from My Fair Lady with performances in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney’s Capitol Theatre. This will be help counter inevitable losses to the company occasioned by the closure of the Sydney Opera House in the second half of this year.
Meanwhile, fellow AMPAG opera companies Opera Queensland, West Australian Opera and State Opera of South Australia are all operating back in the black, if only just.
The strongest of the three, West Australian Opera reported a total equity of $3.8m in 2016 compared with just under $3m in 2015, so it remains the most cashed up of the smaller companies. Singled out by the National Opera Review for its poor financial performance, Opera Q has reported a net surplus of $32,443 in calendar 2016, compared with $420,037 in 2015. State Opera of South Australia recorded a surplus of $66,000 for the year ended 30 June 2016, which compares with a deficit of $737,000 for the year before, so it successfully turned around its previous serious debt position.