Exclusive: Opera Australia cashes out of Melbourne

Opera Australia is selling its multi-million Melbourne headquarters. It was quietly put on the market a few weeks before the release of the federal government’s National Opera Review Discussion Paper, which suggested the sale of the OA’s property holdings in Melbourne and Sydney to ease its financial situation.

Helen Nugent, the chair of the Review, told Daily Review that she was aware the building was to be put up for sale when she and her panel prepared their 341-page Discussion Paper into the financial health and artistic vibrancy of the OA and three other federally funded opera companies.

“They (OA) could fix any issues with their balance sheet…(The) Melbourne sale might deliver that in one fell swoop,” Nugent said yesterday.

The “Opera Centre” on City Road, Southbank, owned by OA for over a decade, is in prime city real estate opposite The Eureka, Melbourne’s tallest apartment building. The two-storey Opera Centre building runs through from City Road frontage to a rear lane way and houses OA offices and rehearsal studios.

Agent Josh Rutman from commercial real estate company CBRE said the sale of the building was being bundled with the sale of a neighbour’s property of about the same size. He said the combined worth was in the $25 million range.

It is believed OA is looking for another site to house its Melbourne operations and the sale will not impact on its artistic activities and performance schedule there. The current centre houses staff offices and rehearsal rooms.

Helen Nugent’s review paper released two weeks ago is a warts and all look at the state of opera but especially looks at the OA, Opera Queensland, State Opera of SA and WA Opera.

All of those companies are regarded as in difficult financial situations despite the increase in the number of people attending opera in Australia. In 2014 more than 700,000 people saw opera alone in this country.

“Opera is in the Australian DNA,” Nugent told Daily Review rejecting suggestions that the Discussion Paper indicates opera in Australia is in a “death spiral”. She commended the companies’ management for negotiating the post-GFC environment, but even so said their “cycle of success” had been imperilled by their increased production costs and long lead times of planning their events.

The Paper reported:”The financial issues have also manifested themselves in challenges to the companies’ artistic vitality, including their putting on fewer new and challenging mainstage productions; few new works; and a reduced number of performances. Opportunities for artists to pursue opera careers in Australia have as a consequence reduced. Audiences have also been impacted. While initially the GFC might have reduced attendances, subsequently, the number of productions offered and specific repertoire choices have eroded the subscriber base and reduced single ticket purchases.”

There has been some blowback from the companies — Opera Queensland in particular, whose financial situation is considered the most grave and unsustainable, released its 2016 season this week. A spokesman said that the Discussion Paper looks at 2009 to 2014 and doesn’t take in to account the strong year the company just had. It says it’s set to post its first surplus in eight years.

This is due to “the strong audience response to La traviata, the runaway success of its $25 ticket initiative, which saw thousands of people see an OperaQ show for the first time, the sell-out Cloud Song, where cocktails mixed with immersive opera in a nightclub, and record numbers signing up for workshops,” the spokesman said.

Opera Australia might feel peeved too. As the largest opera company it gets most of the attention in the Discussion Paper. The company now sees commercial shows such as “The King and I” account for 51 percent of its performances and 48 percent of its box office.

The Paper commented that given this increased reliance on commercial shows “the case for government funding is not clear cut”.

However, Nugent told Daily Review the the Paper does not explicitly acknowledge that OA does not use any of its government subsidy for its commercial ventures.

She also admitted that some of the figures detailing the decline in OA subscriber numbers do not include subscribers who attended its commercial shows that are staged at commercial theatres such as Melbourne’s Princess Theatre.

As wide-ranging as the Discsssion Paper is, Nugent said, some issues could not be explored due to the lack of solid data. This includes the rather fundamental issue of changing demographics and the decline of the traditional Anglo-Saxon audience as the number of Australians born outside Anglo countries increases.

“Anecdotally though when I go to the opera in Sydney you can see the demographic has changed and there are a lot of non-Anglo Saxon faces in the audience,” she said.

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