Sponsorship has been the hot topic of the Australian arts world ever since a group of artists withdrew their works from this year’s Sydney Biennale in response to the organisation’s relationship with a company involved in offshore detention centres.
But a sponsorship arrangement between West Australian Opera and some “good guys” is proving to be particularly bizarre. While the Biennale artists objected to their sponsor’s activities, this time the sponsor looks like it’s objecting to the arts organisation’s activities.
A WA Government agency called Healthway, aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles and discouraging smoking, has come on board as a major sponsor for WA Opera in a $400,000, two-year arrangement. WA Opera subsequently ditched its upcoming season of Georges Bizet’s Carmen because it contains onstage smoking, the West Australian reports. The opera, which is consistently in the top five most-performed in the world, will be replaced by another yet-to-be announced piece.
WA Opera says the decision is voluntary, to keep in line with Healthway’s position on cigarette smoking, while a Healthway spokesperson told the West Australian that smoking on stage, TV and film normalises smoking, and presents it as being attractive. Healthway also has a sponsorship policy that requires all sponsored organisations to remain “smoke-free”, but doesn’t explain if it extends to the non-harmful herbal cigarettes that are usually smoked on stages in Australia.
It’s clear why the conflict of interest might have occurred here — the first act of Carmen is set just outside the cigarette factory where Carmen works. The workers emerge in a waft of cigarette smoke and sing alluringly to the soldiers and townsfolk.
But is WA Opera right to change major artistic decisions because of their relationship with a sponsor? Carmen is one of the most important works in the operatic canon, but do these concerns outweigh the work’s artistic merit?
As arts funding is being cut by the Federal Government, it seems inevitable that arts companies will have to rely more heavily on sponsors. WA Opera has the added pressures of being under Arts Minister George Brandis’ National Opera Review and Brandis’ threats that organisations which refuse sponsorship “on political grounds” should also lose their government funding. It’s no wonder they’d be keen to keep their sponsors onside.
The situation is slightly more complex as Healthway is not just a sponsor, but a government agency. Earlier this year, Daily Review spoke to the director of Creative Partnerships Australia Fiona Menzies about the blurred lines surrounding arts sponsorship. Menzies said it was essential that there was absolute clarity between organisations and sponsors as to what the expectations are, and that their objectives were aligned. But how far does that extend?
This isn’t the first time this year an Australian arts company has seen controversy over onstage smoking, after protesters tried to derail a production at Sydney’s Griffin Theatre. When it comes to smoking, the issues are quite specific and the concerns are genuine, extending beyond the nasty smell that herbal cigarettes can leave lingering in a theatre. There’s a long history of film, TV and theatre glamourising smoking, since long before Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were making it look chic and sophisticated (although Bogart died from cancer of the esophagus when he was just 57).
And Carmen might just do that. But can’t you trust an opera audience to understand that it’s a piece from 1875 and therefore reflects its time’s attitudes towards smoking? Given the average age of audience members attending operas in 2014, is there really a substantial risk? Are we worried that 60-year-olds are going to see Carmen looking all “come hither” with a cigarette in hand and want to take up smoking?
The objections to Carmen here seem to come from the mere representation of smoking — not from the way any directorial choices might endorse it — which brings the discussion back to a very simple point: that representation of a certain behaviour is not, in and of itself, an endorsement of that behaviour. People did, and still do, smoke. If theatre is meant to hold a mirror up to nature and society, we can’t obscure the potentially ugly, objectionable things in the reflection.
It might all seem rather trivial — Carmen gets more than enough stage time all around the world — but allowing a sponsor’s interests, as noble as they might be, to dictate artistic content sets a rather dangerous precedent. Banning a masterwork because it features characters adhering to the norms of their time is patently absurd. What’s next? No “drinking song” in La Traviata because it promotes alcohol abuse? No Romeo and Juliet because it promotes teen suicide? Where would opera be without mental health issues and suicidal tendencies?