Why I'm not going to the opera next year

I’m starting to think that Lyndon Terracini is playing us for fools. “Us”* being his core audience, his loyal cash cows, the rusted-on Operati who faithfully turn up to whatever gets served up at the big white pointy building in the middle of the harbour.

Ever since Mr T became artistic director of Opera Australia, in difficult circumstances, in 2011, he has been making friends and enemies. That’s standard procedure for any leader, and it would be a worry if he didn’t. He’s been accused of narrowing the company’s repertoire, making casting decisions on the basis of looks rather than talent, kow-towing to the elite and, that old chestnut, “dumbing down.” He’s even been accused of making money.

In particular, those at the gritty end of the arts spectrum – composers, performers, visual and performance artists, all those brave souls tussling with difficult ideas and trying to make sense of the world through art — have been feeling, rightly or wrongly, betrayed.

The announcement of Sydney’s 2015 main stage program reveals 11 shows more limited in repertoire, more traditional in style and more narrow in their appeal than I have seen for years. Puccini, Verdi, Mozart. More Puccini. More Verdi. Oops, I forgot, Gounod and Cole Porter. Nothing German. Nothing Russian. Nothing American and, heaven forbid, nothing Australian. Not only that, but the directorial input is about as narrow as it has ever been: Sir David McVicar looks after two of the new shows, Elijah Moshinsky does Don Carlos Redux and all the others are in house retreads. The only truly brave choice, for my money, is getting Dean Bryant to direct Anything Goes.

I don’t know how they’ve been going with sales but I’ve had at least four staunch subscribers of many years tell me they’ve given up on 2015. There simply isn’t enough of interest to get them there. I have no doubt they’ll buy single tickets to Don Carlos and Faust, but seeing La boheme (pictured above) or Madame Butterfly for the umpteenth time is simply not doing it for them.

Hearing this feedback got me thinking. Maybe Lyndon Terracini is being smarter than we think. I mean, let’s take a look at where he’s come from: a performer himself, for many years he was a worshipper at the altar of the avant-garde. Famous for his work with iconoclastic composers such as Louis Andriessen, Hans Werner Henze and Elliot Carter, he has also pulled his weight in the Australian arena, taking leading roles in operas by Brian Howard and Michael Smetanin, plus commissioning and co-creating new works. He’s also spent much of his artistic life in the geographical hinterlands, winning awards for his work promoting the arts in regional Australia while living and working in Lismore. His festivals in Darwin and Brisbane were always heavily slewed towards community involvement – real, man-on-the-street community involvement, with sausage sizzles and school kids.

So what’s this goat-loving, bum-baring, hippy type doing running one of the bastions of High Art?

I’m starting to wonder whether our Mr T has decided to start the Revolution from within. He’s larding on the gold, stockpiling the fireworks, appealing to the high snob end of Sydney culture – it was his initiative to reintroduce evening dress as the preferred dress code for opening nights — and, at the same time, transporting A Night at the Opera back in time, back to the good old days, when young men were polite and young women were fragrant and it was all just lovely. Of course, the good old days never existed, as Terracini well knows, but why let reality spoil a good night out.

Those who can afford the tickets flock to the spectacle. “What’s on?” “Dunno, but everyone’s going…” “Lunch, darling?” “Got to dash, but I’ll see you at the opera, won’t I?” “It’s such a lovely spot, champagne by the harbour, ooh look, there’s Ita Buttrose…”

Meanwhile, in a dusty corner of Surry Hills, the real work is going on. At any given time, there is a full company of Opera Australia employees touring Australia with cut down versions of operas, taking them into schools and regional venues. In the Gold Coast, Western Sydney and inner-city Melbourne people have been getting together to sing in community choirs under the direction of Opera Australia music staff. Terracini has commissioned new operas from Elena Kats-Chernin and Kate Miller-Heidke. And, just quietly, Terracini has been creating new work with Indigenous communities including Barkly Regional Arts in Tennant Creek, the Winanjjikari Music Centre All Stars and Mbantua Festival of Indigenous culture. You probably haven’t heard about it, because it’s not something that makes news in Sydney, but it’s happening.

Is this Revolution by stealth? Is Terracini robbing the rich to give to the poor?

What has upset me most about 2015 programming — and yes, I am upset and frustrated by the insistence on wall-to-wall opulence, extravagance, indulgence and, dammit, tradition over inspiration — is the cynicism. It’s the shameless give-em-what-they-want approach, with the arrogant assumption that what we, the mainstream opera going public want, is aspirational escapism – red velvet, big skirts, men in tights and the odd nipple flashed here and there.

It’s patronising and it’s disingenuous. If Terracini is managing to take money that would otherwise have gone on some worthy ground-breaking new opera which would have got enthusiastic reviews and poor ticket sales in Sydney and send it out to regional communities in Australia that’s arguably not a bad outcome. However, I’d feel much more comfortable if he’d ‘fess up. If he’d just say, “Sorry, I’m going to milk this museum culture for all it’s worth and give it to people who really need the money.”

*I’m saying “us” but, for complete disclosure here, I don’t pay for 100% of my opera going. Indeed, I have even been paid by our national opera company, not to go to operas, but to write words for them, for their brochures. There are words written by me in all the brochures from 2006 onwards, including 2015, although the last time I sent an invoice was in 2013… And last time I paid them was probably for the Melbourne Ring Cycle, for which I happily stumped up $2000.

31 responses to “Why I'm not going to the opera next year

  1. It’s AO’s repertoire, like The Met’s, seemingly designed to appeal to the matrons clutching their husband’s cheque books that agravates me. I want performance that grabs me in the gut; I’m not there to be seen.
    The killer for me was a cringe-worthy AO Boheme in Melbourne in 2011 (Ji-Min Park was appalling) inexplicably (=”cleverly”) relocated to 1930s Europe that compelled me to apologise to an international guest alongside me. Then, having waited impatiently for a new Ring since Adelaide, I was offered a ballot for crumbs left by the Big End of Town. Forget it. Email unsubscribe me. What’s on? Don’t know; don’t care.
    Along the way I discovered Victorian Opera staging Xerxes with just a level and the requisite potted plant, Cosi, Nixon, Kill Your Husband, Coffee, Albert Herring, Magic Pudding, some Sondheim and regular local commissions – all with superb, mostly Australian singers. Enthusiasm, energy, commitment to excellence. And, huge bonus, a Masters program for very carefully selected emerging singers (and a repetiteur) of extraordinary talent who get minor roles in major productions and major roles in minor productions.
    I’ve put my dinner suit in the Brotherhood Bin, I select the seats I need and I come home ecstatic (nearly) every time.
    Who needs Sydney Opera?

  2. I have to agree with Harriet Cunningham. At least during the tenures of Simone Young and Richard Hickox the repertoire was much more varied and balanced. We were even getting occasional contemporary opera on the main stage. Now the repertoire is very narrow and we only get a musical after August. It is regrettable Lyndon Terracini’s contract is extended. I think Opera Australia needs a musical director once again ( rather than just an artistic director). In the mean time I can at least enjoy operas overseas, but not everyone is so fortunate.

    1. Lyndon Terracini’s refusal to issue compimentary tickets to two reviewers who had the audacity to criticise OA should be grounds for terminating his contract. Hopefully the matter will be on the agenda of the next OA Board meeting.
      I also think Opera Australia would be better served with a Musical Director and a Director of Opera working closely together. Casting mostly Australian singers and filling the gaps with a few foreign guests should not be difficult and would be better done within a team ethos.

  3. ‘We should never forget also the arts are about enjoyment, connecting and fun, about extending our lives beyond the purely practical. The value of that can’t be overstated in hard-pressed communities where economic pressures and isolation can wear people down. Art can bring people together in joyful and stimulating ways. A terrific example in Australia is the Queensland Biennial Festival of Music, which has an extraordinary community reach. In a dry river bed in Mount Isa, a major mining centre, the Festival staged an outdoor musical called Bobcat Dancing. Bobcats, those tiny tractors with scoops on the front, play a major role in underground mining, and when they were choreographed to perform modern dance, supported by a live band playing country, pop, rock and gospel music, the entire community could relate to it. 18,000 people come from all round the region to see it. Such an event has less to do with economic revival than with collective joy and a rejuvenation of local identity.

    We know from such examples that the arts can help bring communities back to life. And they can impact positively on public welfare. But we shouldn’t forget that the real strength of the arts is their ability to inspire and transform us as individuals. Only when that happens, and happens to enough people in one place at one time, can the arts have a positive spillover effect on the wider society. That’s when the arts can become a catalyst of change, for people and communities.’
    – Australia Council CEO Jennifer Bott addresses the World Summit on Arts and Culture held in Newcastle, UK on the role of government agencies in regeneration, 15 July 2006.

    As the Producer of that show under Lyndon’s artistic direction, I feel insulted by your sausage sizzle slur. You live in your ivory towers, pouring scorn on real, innovative work. Well there it is… in your dungeon about your precious tixs and your primping status you choose to insult thousands of regional Australians…who shun the A list and do real work…really grow up!

  4. I no longer subscribe, because I’m sick of the repetition. I want to see new operas, and Opera Victoria is a better option.
    I also think that Sydney gets a disproportionate share of the action (number of productions and variety), and why should people in other states subsidise them?

  5. I dunno. I was back in Oz last year and saw the Butterfly on the Harbour and cried with the beauty of it. I saw the premiere of the McVicar Faust at Covent Garden ten years ago and marvelled at it. I was involved in the premiere of the Moshinsky Don Carlos all those years ago and thought there was some amazing music making and I’m sure there will be again. People used to criticise Moffat and then Simone and then Richard Hickox and now it’s Lyndon’s turn, and yet the opera company is still in existence with a full time ensemble, orchestra and chorus whilst many others have gone under. I agree with Harriet that if I had to sit through another mainstage Traviata, Butterfly or Carmen in their present incarnations I would go insane, but what about those opera goers seeing them for the first time? Some more Strauss or Wagner would be great, but they’ve also been highlighted in the past two seasons. And obviously American works and commissions would be great to see also, but at what cost? I’m not sure of the answer, but I am glad and proud that whenever I come back to Sydney OA is still there and, chances are, some fine singing is happening.

  6. We should be careful what we wish for. Academics are rabbiting on about “heritage arts”. Sources of public funding would almost certainly like to reduce public funding to nothing. Crowdfunding anybody? Total public funding for OA comprises 27% of total budget. QED.

  7. The biggest houses in Melbourne this summer season were for Tosca. I don’t get tired of revivals. The key thing is that they are well done. The Falstaff production was 20 years old but none the worse for that. Spend the money on the best local and emerging international singers and not scenery. For me the quality of the singing trumps everything. Good direction then helps but with people like Simon Philips and John Bell, we are in good hands. Fortunately, all 3 Melbourne operas were performed at a high standard.

    1. I totally agree. Tosca and Falstaff are both cracking productions and standards are consistently high, more often than not excellent. It’s the extraordinary lack of variety I’m frustrated with.

    2. Unfortunately you’re not getting ‘the best’ of local singers. They are all heading overseas and bypassing OA, which has made it impossible for talented soloists to earn a living here. And the chorus, already mostly casualised, is seeing decades of experience walk out month after month. Australia’s best singers are retraining in other fields so that – God forbid – they can pay the rent and feed their families. OA can’t find singers to fill full time vacancies in the chorus, once sought after positions. OA is a moribund employer of last resort that treats its artists with disdain, a place only for the desperate. What you’re watching now is third rate even by local standards. Audiences are noticing and they are restive. The company is in a death spiral.

  8. Thank you Harriet, exactly what I was thinking! I will be going to the opera in 2015, but certainly not OA – it’ll be Chamber Made and Victorian Opera’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ that earn my bum on their seats.

  9. If anyone is still wondering about Terracini’s ‘vision’ for OA I refer them to his 2011 Peggy Glanville-Hicks address. (Read it and weep). Particularly offensive to long time subscribers are the references to ‘the club’ and their ‘sense of patrician entitlement’ when daring to comment on repertoire. Needless to say the alarm bells were ringing loud and clear for me so I dropped the subscription I had held for over 2 decades. I rest my case.

  10. As a long-time Opera subscriber in Melbourne, I too am underwhelmed by the offerings by Opera Australia for next year. Instead of 5 operas over the year for my subscription category I am offered three for the price of 5 and mostly ones that have been performed time and time again and very recently. Melbourne gets even less choice than Sydney. I toyed with not subscribing but went ahead and resubscribed but I will have to change my tickets to attend the operas I have not seen a hundred times before.

    I don’t know what they are about but I don’t like it.

  11. I totally agree with the criticisms above, especially those of the program offered for the 2015 season. I’m afraid riding the same old bicycle with a few more bells & whistles & perhaps a near naked ballerina on the back doesn’t do it for me. After 11 years a patron, with the price of my subscription going up by 47%, I won’t be back.

  12. I agree with Vincent Burke. In WA we hardly ever see OA. Access to excellence in the arts should not be determined by post code.

  13. For my part, as an Adelaide resident, Australian Opera is masquerading under a false name. Maybe East Coast Opera would be more appropriate, since we see bugger-all of their productions over here.

  14. Audiences are being taught to like only what they already know, but this seems to apply only to opera, ballet and orchestral music. The big subsidised theatre companies seem to program new works, often, on the main stage. Even Musica Viva and ACO program some new work – not enough to satisfy me, but be grateful for small mercies.
    It’s a cultural problem. Over the past century the practice of ‘classical’ music has become inordinatley backward looking. Imagine if those with the money for architects always demanded ‘classical’ designs! If art collectors had no interest in new forms! Fortunately, money and taste in innovative built form, painting and sculpture seem to go together, at least to some extent. Why not for music? It’s a learned behaviour.

  15. The Melbourne program for 2015 is most un-inspiring not a single Opera in the Melbourne program that interests us . Thakfully we are going to Verona to take in the far more exciting Romeo& Juliet, Barber of Seville, Nabucco and Aida .

  16. I gave up completely on OA with some reluctance, but the headlong rush to mediocrity finally did me in. Programming only the staid, unadventurous favourites of the masses; Die Zauberflote converted to a cheap pantomime; the increasing proportion of musicals; the general lack of adventure in direction and production; the abject failure to even try to balance the vanilla with something of interest – not even Voss for 2012, Patrick White’s centenary. Instead of buying tickets (and a hefty donation on the side) I prefer to go elsewhere. Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing wrong with an art form that does not appeal to everybody – bums on seats is a great metric for the success of the NRL – not so for what purports to be one of the nations’s foremost cultural institutions.

    1. Before you rush to condemn, what makes you think that things are that different overseas? The September issue of Opera condemns more tired old productions than welcomes new and exciting ones. And plenty of overseas companies are performing musicals: Sweeney Todd and Candide are regularly programmed in English-speaking countries. As for the OA, why has nobody mentioned last year’s thrilling Ring cycle? Oh, of course. That didn’t happen in Sydney, did it? But Sydney did get first look at John Bell’s stunning Tosca which is now packing them in in Melbourne, and you had the very funny and well sung production of Don Pasquale which played to a sadly half-empty house the night I saw it. And does nobody remember the brilliant Turco in Italia of last year? That was both experimental in treatment and a very rarely-performed work. So before you knock Terracini, remember how bland things were before his arrival.

  17. Harriet. I have no idea about Mr Terracini’s other worthy activities, but your comments on the Australian Opera are spot on. And imagine if you lived in Melbourne where you just got the leavings. Even le tout Camberwell seems to be getting fed up. I have been for a while. Meanwhile I’ve been loving the Melbourne Opera at the Atheneum, the Victorian Opera all over the place and the Met at the pictures if I really want to see Dionysian blow-outs.

  18. The pointy brackets in the above post must have been mistaken for code markers and culled by the website. The original said: “… when we no longer have a national opera company, a national airline, a national [insert demonised institution of your choice], …”

  19. What a disappointingly distorted argument from a knowledgeable and usually reasonable music writer! Opera Australia is neither merely “kow-towing to the elite” nor playing Robin Hood. It is innovating, experimenting and managing, in order to deliver a product and – sorry, dirty word alert – survive! But no, it’s become too irresistibly fashionable an Aussie tradition to appear cleverly sophisticed by demonising major national institutions. Maybe when we no longer have a national opera company, a national airline, a national , the bashers and cultural cringers will finally be happy. Perhaps they’d rather just download their real-live-opera-experience-in-an-iconic-venue-that-people-worldwide-would-give-their-right-arm-to-experience from iTunes? Because what we have in Australia couldn’t possibly be any good, or worthy of support, could it?

  20. If I weren’t reading carefully enough I would have thought Harriet had said in her disclaimer that she is paid money not to go to opera.

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