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Brandis’ National Opera Review finally released, recommending Opera Australia’s musicals not be funded

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Opera Australia’s long-run musicals should no longer receive public funding, Opera Queensland should be put on notice for its status as a major performing arts company, and our opera companies should receive a significant funding boost of $24.1 million. These are amongst the 118 recommendations made in the National Opera Review, established by former Arts Minister, Senator George Brandis back in 2014, looking into the workings of Australia’s four major opera companies, Opera Australia (OA), Opera Queensland (OQ), State Opera of South Australia (SOSA), and West Australian Opera (WAO).

Arts Minister Mitch Fifield today released the report by Dr Helen Nugent AO with Mr Moffatt Oxenbould AM, Mr Andrew McKinnon and Ms Kathryn Fagg. The government hasn’t advised when it will respond to its recommendations, although the opera companies have already been waiting more than two years from the establishment of the Review through to its final recommendations. The Review Panel says its recommendations should be implemented as a package and will “promote a vibrant and dynamic future for opera in Australia”.

In recommending that Opera Australia’s successful musical co-productions with John Frost (My Fair Lady, The King and I, South Pacific and Anything Goes) shouldn’t receive government funding, the Panel said:

“Many musicals offer limited opportunities for operatic artists and, in Sydney, several mainstage opera productions in the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House have been displaced by musicals. This has reduced the number of available opera roles and performance opportunities for classically trained opera singers.”

Opera Australia’s musicals have proven a substantial boost to the company’s bottom line (in 2014, box office from OA’s musicals made up 48 percent of its total performance revenue), but have been the subject of plenty of criticism, particularly when the company changed the nature of its contracts with several opera singers to make way for those productions. The Review notes that there are other viable, independent commercial producers in the market.

“The (opera) companies would not be prevented from undertaking such commercial activities, but would not receive government funding for those activities. This stands in contrast to short runs of musicals or operettas that are included as repertory works in a regular opera season, but are not then staged commercially in other capital cities.”

More broadly, the Panel recommended that the activities funded by government should be more strictly defined, and companies should be penalised if they use funding for activities outside of that scope.

If the full suite of recommendations are adopted, Opera Queensland might loset its spot as one of the 28 companies who are part of the ‘Major Performing Arts Group” while Victorian Opera might be elevated to that group. The Panel notes that Opera Queensland has been in breach of the criteria to retain its major performing arts company status (and relevant funding security). It’s recommended that the company be given assistance and three years to comply with the criteria and repair its finances.

But while Victorian Opera fell outside of the Review’s terms of reference, it’s recommended that the company be supported to achieve major performing arts company status, as it’s able to comply with those standards.

The Review was also to take into account accessibility issues, leading it to ask whether Opera Australia should perform more frequently outside of Melbourne or Sydney. Although there’s been substantial pressure on the company in recent years to extend its main stage geographic reach, the Panel says it wouldn’t be economically feasible to tour in such a fashion.

Perhaps the most significant recommendation is that $24.1 million should be injected into the major opera companies. Most of the companies’ main stage programs have shrunk in recent years, but the Panel says core funding should be provided to ensure that WAO, OQ, and SOSA will perform three main stage operas a year, and that OA increase to its main stage offerings to 11 in Sydney and seven in Melbourne.

The Review also advocates for a new Federal Government Innovation Fund, worth $1.2 million annually, for “the development of new works, co-operation with festivals and digital initiatives”.

[box]Featured image: Opera Australia’s My Fair Lady. Photo by Jeff Busby[/box]

2 responses to “Brandis’ National Opera Review finally released, recommending Opera Australia’s musicals not be funded

  1. So the acceptable lead narrative here, everywhere this review has been noted over the last day or so, is that we aren’t gonna fund musicals..shock horror….k?

    Not…we are gonna bail out these badly run out of date management dinosaurs of major organizations again to the tune of another $23mil or so…and hey, ..yeah…it might have funding impacts on the rest of the performing art sector….but this art form (despite it’s somewhat boring face in Australia and the fact that it’s audiences are dropping, and new audiences aren’t turning up)…is really really important to our sense of colonial self…. we simply must give them more money at the expense of our own actual contemporary Australian culture……which …surprise surprise…also includes some really good opera coming out of the small to medium sector companies ….lol.

  2. I agree. Couldn’t believe OA staged My Fair Lady (again) and ignored the most exciting, quintessentially Australian and wildly popular operatic story of Cloudstreet, which I was fortunate to see in Adelaide by SOSA – a company worth funding. Mary Nixon

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