Music Australia News

Opera: Federal Government Responds to National Review and Gender Imbalance

Kate Miller-Heidke in The Rabbits
Graham Strahle
| September 26, 2017

The Federal Government has finally responded to the National Opera Review, tabled almost a year ago in October 2016. There are no real surprises, and none of its 118 recommendations are rejected outright. The 13-page Response document, which can be viewed here, announces that “The Government is broadly supportive of the Report’s guiding principles”, and declares its position on each of the recommendations.

While it rejects none, in many cases it stops short of committing to action by noting that implementations depends on future Budget scenarios, and on discussion with relevant cultural ministers and state governments.

Waiting for the latter will be NOR’s key recommendation that an additional $24.1 million over four years should be injected into our four major opera companies — Opera Australia, Opera Queensland, State Opera of South Australia and West Australian Opera. So too is its recommendation to disallow Opera Australia, or indeed any of the companies, from applying public monies to staging musicals.

Another key recommendation NOR made was for a higher proportion of Australian singers to be employed in opera productions. Here again the Report had Opera Australia in its sights: its hiring of overseas singers escalated in recent years from 7.2 per cent in 2010 to 39.6 per cent in 2016. The Federal Government has agreed in principle to imposing a penalty of up to $200,00 where an appropriate balance between Australian versus non-Australian artists has not been struck, but it defers implementing this measure until discussion with the States.

On the question of Opera Queensland’s troubled financial performance over the reporting period, which NOR threatened should be reason to drop its status as a Major Performing Arts Company, the Federal Government merely notes that a structural adjustment package has already been implemented: this was announced by Arts Minister Mitch Fifield in March.

Meanwhile, Victorian Opera’s quest to join the ranks of the federally funded Major Performing Arts Group has already been answered, likewise in Fifield’s March announcement.

NOR highlighted in particular the great dilemma that our opera companies face (and those overseas) in trying to create new work in order to keep the artform alive, no less, while simultaneously presenting regular established repertoire, which is what opera audiences mostly want. The Government’s response here is to “agree in principle” to supporting the development of new work, and to set up an Innovation Fund to that end. But following through with these again will be dependent on “a future Budget context”. So be prepared to wait.

In its Response the Government also commits its support to:

  • Requiring that OA presents a minimum of 11 mainstage productions in Sydney per year, and seven in Melbourne.
  • Confining OA’s mainstage activities to NSW and VIC, that is, excluding a presence in QLD, SA and WA.
  • Requiring that Opera Q, SOSA and WAO present a minimum of three mainstage operas per year.
  • Requiring that all the companies undertake more regional touring, including OA which should do more regional and interstate touring.
  • Urging SOSA to concentrate on using the Adelaide Festival Theatre as a venue, to be made possible by the Adelaide Festival Centre shifting musicals to Her Majesty’s Theatre.
  • Urging all the companies to work harder in developing new audiences and boosting education programs with schools.
  • Strengthening Opera Conference’s objectives and powers.

One area that NOR conspicuously did not address, but which has been recently highlighted by Lindy Hume, who exits as Opera Q’s artistic director in November, is the whole question of gender balance in opera. She says that historically entrenched attitudes of sexism continue to pervade opera, in defiance of modern accepted social values.

“I am troubled by opera’s gender imbalance, lack of diversity, the racism and misogyny of many classics,” she writes in The Guardian. On top of that, though, is the under-representation of women in opera as an evolving artform and industry: “Despite a large female audience, opera is controlled largely by middle-aged blokes who commission other blokes to direct, conduct and design operas composed by dead white men. There are countless excellent women composers, conductors, directors, set designers and more. There are no excuses for the industry’s casual bias.”

Hume presents an incontestable argument. Australia’s opera companies should be urged to address this issue also, and to take appropriate corrective action.

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