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Public Funding of Opera: Let the Debate Continue

Opera Australia Chorus in Carmen. Image Credit: Keith Saunders
Graham Strahle
| October 10, 2017

Just when the dust seems to have settled on the National Opera Review and the government’s response last month, along comes an incisive essay that stirs it all up again. Jo Caust, a researcher in arts and cultural management at the University of Melbourne, argues in The Conversation that opera enjoys special privileges from governments, of both persuasions, that quarantine it from cutbacks.

The points she makes about opera and its funding in this country are vigorous. Not all of them stand up to scrutiny, though. Let’s go through a few of them.

Caust begins with this broadside: “It is argued that opera represents the “highest” of artforms given its combination of music, theatre dance and the visual arts.” Artistic judgements aside, who exactly is arguing this as a basis for the funding levels opera receives? The National Opera Review does not frame any of its 118 recommendations quite in this language. Recommendation 4.1.1 says “Australia’s Major Opera Companies should aspire to the highest artistic and performance standards”; and elsewhere the it draws a distinction between opera and commercial activity such as musicals, arguing that the latter does not deserve public subsidy.

No-one has contested that this is sound thinking. But is it nevertheless the case that opera is a protected, over-subsidised artform?

“Certainly it usually receives the most financial rewards from government,” Caust asserts. On the face of it she is right. In 2015-2016, the Australia Council awarded $56.1m or 32.3 per cent of its funding pool to symphony orchestras, and $23.7m or 13.7 per cent to opera – as Caust mentions. Theatre received $28.0m or 16.1 per cent and dance $19.8m or 11.4 per cent, with visual arts and literature much further down. Put another way, the subsidy per seat at Opera Australia productions, as at 2016, was around $45, and more than four times that for Opera Queensland and West Australia Opera.

Caust’s essay completely ignores the fact though that opera is an intrinsically expensive artform: its high costs are due to the large numbers of personnel who are involved in producing it. Scaled back chamber productions are an option exploited by smaller companies serving niche, especially non-metropolitan audiences, but they are not an option for mainstage opera. The National Opera Review explains this clearly enough: “While it may be possible to reduce the number of instruments or chorus voices performing a particular part…, a minimum level of participants is required to ensure artistic integrity… This does not mean that cost control should not be exercised. But cost control beyond a certain point poses a risk to artistic vibrancy and the quality of performance offered to the public.”

That much anyone familiar with the industry will know. Caust has a point, though, when she questions the establishment of an Innovation Fund worth $1.2 million annually for our major opera companies. Importantly, not all of this would be directed into creating new work: that will only account for $200,000, the remainder going to co-operation with festivals and digital initiatives.

Nevertheless, Caust highlights an important principle. “Unlike the rest of the arts sector, which produces new work as part of its standard remit, the opera companies will receive an incentive for doing this. Overall the review recommends more core funding for the opera companies (in addition to the innovation fund),” she writes. Spread between four major companies however, $200,000 is actually a miserable amount to argue over; and if it is directed to working with smaller companies and co-commissioning new work with festivals as the Review’s recommendation seems to suggest, then this represents a strategically well placed investment: one that serves the wider arts ecosystem, not just the opera companies themselves.

The arguments Caust raises are principally due to the scale of mainstage opera as a viable live artform and the difficulties of altering its trajectory over the long timeframes required to plan productions. Giving Opera Queensland “another three years to get its house together”, following six years of operating “mostly in deficit”, represents preferential treatment of the whole sector in her view. She thinks this company should have received sterner treatment. Yet Opera Queensland has made strenuous efforts to turn its situation around, and in fact recorded a surplus in 2015.

Caust finds it “more shocking” that opera companies could now be subject to a penalty of up to $200,000 if they fail to achieve an appropriate balance between employing Australian versus overseas artists. “It goes without saying that a basic expectation of government funding would be that it goes towards the employment of Australian artists,” she suggests. She is right, and let it be said Opera Australia has been the main offender here, as the National Opera Review made apparent: it observed a 318 per cent increase in leading role performances by non-Australians from 2010 to 2016. That penalty should have been introduced a long time ago.

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