Where there's smoke: Carmen cancelled due to smoking concerns

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?

16 responses to “Where there's smoke: Carmen cancelled due to smoking concerns

  1. Haha “rugged individualists”. Well, kudos for actually saying it Edward. I’m impressed you managed to reach the end of your comment without (quite) using the phrase “nanny state”.

    So the protagonists of your novels all smoke? How individual of them. This is what rugged people actually do: they accept the empirical determinations of science about the health effects of smoking, rather than cossetting themselves with deceptions.

  2. Smoking statistics are skewed and biased because they are compiled by companies and bureaucracies committed a priori against smoking. The anti-smoking campaign worldwide is as bogus as the anti-calorie campaign. It advocates de facto “nationalization” or “socialization” of private property, when government bans smoking for the sake of the “public good” and the demands of anti-smokers that they have a “right” to dine or be in private establishments or so-called “public places.” As for Bogart dying from cancer of the esophagus, he perhaps knew or was indifferent to the risks, if there were any for him. It was his choice, no one else’s. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor, but specifically aired out his trademark image of a cigarette dangling from his lips. Not everyone can die from smoking, either, and the claim that people can contract cancer from second-hand smoke is equally bogus. I had a cousin who neither drank nor smoked but contracted tongue cancer and died from it. I’ve been smoking for decades and I’m in better health than any helmeted bicyclers who are also traffic nuisances. I write detective novels (e.g., The Pickwick Affair, Honors Due, We Three Kings), and all my heroes (and some villains) smoke. I once thought Australia was still and nation of rugged individualists, but given the smoking ban there and all the welfare statism, that isn’t true anymore. Everyone’s been nationalized by the empowered killjoys.

  3. Without making too finer point as it just beggars belief -it’s just a cop out from Phillistines who are just a tad too self righteous
    Uh-oh there goes Salome and her necrophiliac persuasion

  4. I shudder every time I read patronising comments such as “get over it”. And when someone feels the need to tell me that this is the way it is – it’s called business, move on – nothing to see here, I want to throw up. Am I really so naive that I don’t understand the real world? No. I’m not – and I’m fed up with others who assume they get it and I don’t.
    What WA Opera has “voluntarily” done should be a prosecutable offence, punishable by their Board being required to sit through endless re-runs of the most stultifying and boring productions that can be found – something wholesome like Tristan and Isolde or Pasifal springs to mind.

  5. Oh dear, life is about to become terribly dull. Eugene Onegin will be next as it features a duel with pistols.

  6. I heard the Chair of Healthway interviewed and he said that this was a decvision by WA Opera and that the Healthway Board would not have stood in their way if they had done Carmen. Maybe WA Opera should have asked first????

  7. Having dealt with Healthway in a previous guise, where they actively have suggested altering work to remove smoking issues, none of this is particularly surprising.

    One may also question the real health benefit of funding an opera company’s program – given the audience would generally be more responsive to the anti smoking message than the demographic of (say) motorsport, live music or the building industry (this is not to say that there isn’t some crossover in these audiences but lets not pretend that they are the same).
    At worst Healthway is acting no differently to Benson & Hedges (and other tobacco sponsors that they replaced) – supporting the A list arts for notions of prestige and “benefits”, the largese of tobacco revenue going to the top end of town (as it always has) – and we will not talk about the connections of WA Opera and the WA Liberal Party,..

    The observation that is missing in all of this however is that WA Opera could have said no to the money – or indeed moved the sponsorship off that project, as has been done in the past. So rather, the question should be not why did healthway interfere with the artistic program of a company (either directly or indirectly) – but why would WA Opera acquiesce so easily on this matter.

    So, where does that leave smaller companies (that may need the support – the average healthway grant is around $20,000), the “integrity” of the artistic program over the financial imperative at WA Opera,… and why are they doing carmen again?

  8. Hi Ben,

    It’s an interesting topic and one that we will be discussing this weekend as part of the Word Travels festival.

    How deep do we dig when questioning the integrity of funding? What are the alternatives and what constitutes a compromise?

    The panel discussion will be held at 5:30 this afternoon:

    Venue: Festival Hub, Shop 2.05, 140 George Street, The Rocks, Sydney

    http://wordtravels.info/money-thin-air/

  9. Get over it, Ben.

    There has always been outside influences on artists – patrons who want certain styles of music or art or… theatre, of which opera is a tiny slice. And there always will be.

    Companies have chosen or rejected works for ever, with one eye on their customers and their image and deciding to use clapped out fading ex-stars or embellishing or reducing sex scenes, nudity, murders, etc.

    It’s called business.

  10. If smoking is too naughty to be seen on the opera stage, I don’t see much chance for adultery, fratricide, regicide, rape, etc., etc. Bang goes most of the canon. Sound of Music, anyone? Oh, sorry. I forgot those Nazis…

  11. So for 4% of their budget, West Australian Opera is willing to bend over and sacrifice fundamental principles of artistic integrity.

    Healthway, the sponsor, is of course not concerned about other unsavoury aspect of dramatic plots, like animal cruelty, incest, sex with minors, teenage suicide, mutilation and murder, sedition, terrorism – only the great evil of smoking, incl. e-cigarettes. Let’s be grateful for small mercies.

    If Healthway is serious, they will also demand that
    * Healthy food and drink options must be available should catering be provided at activities or events.
    * Free drinking water must be available at activities or events.
    (See http://www.healthway.wa.gov.au/funding-policies/minimum-health-policy-requirements-for-sponsored-organisations) As if that’s going to happen.

  12. On a tangent. Is this the best use of $400,000 of Healthways limited funds? I would have thought that the opera going demographic was more educated and more aware of health issues than many other groups in the community and sponsorship aimed at these groups a greater need.

  13. Just heard about this nonsense here in New Zealand.
    Carmen is set in a cigarette factory.
    History cannot be changed, it happened, fact.
    The Nazis, Soviets and other dictatorships have all presented their warped sense of the past, and importantly THEIR visions of the present, which is fleeting, and the future which is much more enduring, unfortunately in too many instances.
    The other case which comes to mind is our own Peter Jackson’s remake of the Dambusters movie. When the Moehne Dam was breached the codeword transmitted back to England was that dreadful “N-word”. Fact!
    Now should we change that? During WW2 many atrocities occurred! We cannot change history, but we CAN avoid making the same mistakes again. I do believe that changing the way report history means we are making NEW mistakes.
    So cigarettes and N-words DO exist! I don’t support either, but in their historical context leave them alone!
    Regards
    George

  14. I’m heavily anti-smoking, but it seems odd to focus on THAT in an opera that’s all about romanticising the idea of a man stabbing a woman to death for rejecting him. Surely “being stabbed” is worse for your health?

  15. Excellent article. Thank you Ben.

    A victory for the warped views of a minority over freedom of expression.
    For no demonstrable benefit. Pre-modern moralism from health zealots masquerading as sponsors. #spanishinquisition

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