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Inside Opera Australia: foreign singers favoured while creative teams ‘disrespected’

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There’s growing disquiet in the Australian arts community over Opera Australia’s apparent push towards the casting of foreign singers in prize roles, while creative teams appear to have been “locked out” out of revivals of productions they had originated for the company to great acclaim.

SupportBadgeDaily Review has spoken to numerous former and current OA artists who say they’ve been “disrespected” by the national opera company as opportunities for local artists are seen to be drying up.

These criticisms have emerged after the company’s Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini had his contract renewed for the next four years last month.

The company is currently undertaking interviews with prospective candidates to take over the role of CEO from outgoing boss Craig Hassall. Terracini is currently acting as both Artistic Director and interim CEO.

AUSTRALIAN SINGERS MISS OUT

The National Opera Review, released late last year, reveals just how drastically Australian singers have lost out at OA over the last six years.

The number of performances by Australian singers in leading roles at the company has decreased by 51% over that period, from 778 to 383. At the same time, the number of performances by international singers in leading roles at the company has more than tripled, from 60 to 251.

Source: National Opera Review, © Commonwealth of Australia 2016
Source: National Opera Review, © Commonwealth of Australia 2016

The reduction of work available to leading opera singers is in part due to Terracini’s long-running productions of major musicals co-produced with John Frost (My Fair Lady, South Pacific), as well as his favouring of international singers. Terracini has previously fought against restrictions on the number of foreign artists able to work on Australian stages.

Several of the company’s former stars are now only booked for a handful of performances each year, or are no longer employed by the company at all.

The final report of the 2016 National Opera Review made a series of recommendations to reverse this trend. It argued that the opera companies under review should report the proportion of locals to foreign artists to their funding agents.

It recommended that those companies which don’t find an appropriate balance between locals and foreign talent could be fined up to $200,000 against their core funding.

The review states: “A trigger for a conversation in relation to an appropriate balance in relation to the percent of performances by Australian singers in leading mainstage opera roles might be set at 80 percent.”

According to the review, OA has fallen below the 80% figure for the last four years.

Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 9.26.49 am
Source: National Opera Review, © Commonwealth of Australia 2016

OA told Daily Review today that 94% of principal roles at Opera Australia in 2017 are sung by Australians, although it’s not entirely clear how a “principal” role is defined as opposed to “leading” role.

“Opera Australia predominantly casts Australian singers … However, Opera Australia is one of the world’s leading international opera companies and believes that Australians deserve to hear a wide range of the world’s best singers, no matter where they were born. Paris Opera, La Scala and Chicago Opera are not expected to only hire French, Italian or American singers, and neither should opera in Sydney and Melbourne only feature Australian singers,” an OA spokesperson told Daily Review.

LOCAL STAR REPLACED

News has also emerged this week that Helpmann Award winning mezzo soprano Jacqui Dark has been replaced by American singer Michelle DeYoung in the company’s upcoming staging of Wagner’s Parsifal. It was announced last August that Dark would sing the leading female role of Kundry opposite superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann, but her name was recently removed from the OA website with no explanation.

OA has declined to comment on the matter to Daily Review and to social media users who have raised question about her apparent removal from the production.

The role of Kundry is a rare opportunity for an Australian singer, given how rarely Parsifal is staged here. Dark recently performed another challenging Wagnerian role, Fricka in OA’s Ring Cycleto great acclaim and a Helpmann nomination.

Over the last day, leading members of the operatic community have posted their support for Dark on Facebook and expressed dismay at the situation.

Dark’s manager, Patrick Togher, said: “Out of respect for her colleagues, Jacqui has no comment at this time.”

a ‘climate of fear’?

This incident comes after Australian tenor Stuart Skelton slammed the company in the international classical music publication Bachtrack. Skelton, who is one of the country’s most successful opera singers working overseas, criticised OA for flying in “every second-rate singer from anywhere to sing stuff when we’ve got people in Australia who sing those roles just as well.”

OA quickly leapt to its defence in the comments section of the article, repeating its claim that 94% of the principal singers employed by Opera Australia are Australian.

But some artists who do get a role at OA fear that the favourable treatment might not last for long. Several have told Daily Review that a “climate of fear” exists within the company.

There are also reports that some singers are also feeling pressure to maintain slim figures following Terracini’s comments in a 2011 interview, that the sight of two overweight opera singers making out was “obscene“.

LEADING CREATIVES LEFT OUT

Audiences at this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Carmenmay be surprised to learn that the highly regarded original creative team — the Helpmann and Emmy award winning director Gale Edwards, Helpmann and Tony award winning set designer Brian Thomson, and Helpmann award winning costume designer Julie Lynch — will not be involved in the remount of the production opening next month.

Daily Review has learnt that Edwards, Thomson and Lynch were not invited back to oversee the revival despite requests to do so. It’s understood they all offered to work for a minimal fee but their request was rejected, with resident directors and designers used for the remount.

They are also the team behind what has become OA’s signature production, the 2011 Weimar-inspired La Boheme

That production is revived every year for the company’s New Years Eve celebrations and a long Sydney season. OA last week boasted that it sold 92% of its capacity this season, but the original creative team have not overseen remounts.

In a statement, OA told Daily Review: “It is standard practice that directors and designers are not invited back to revive productions because we have a talented pool of revival directors who specialise in that work.”

The trio were highly reluctant to talk about the situation, but Thomson told Daily Review: “As Trump told Turnbull, ‘it’s a lousy deal’.”

Thomson is arguably the most influential theatre designer Australia has ever produced, and is still receiving ongoing royalties for designing the iconic film version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

But unlike most other art forms, including musical theatre, opera generally doesn’t pay royalties to its original creative team, who are offered a base fee for creating a production. Instead, it’s customary to offer them the right to recreate their work should it be revived, and be remunerated appropriately. It’s unclear why OA has not allowed Edwards, Thomson and Lynch to do so given the success they’ve brought to the company.

Thomson’s work on Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour has also been key to the event’s ongoing success.

In the first year of the event, Thomson conceived the staging of a nine-metre crystal chandelier and in its second year he created a billboard with “CARMEN” emblazoned across the harbour. Images of these designs were seen all around the world and were integral to its marketing success.

Thomson was thanked in 2012 by the then CEO of OA Adrian Collette, for giving the event its “visual identity”.

Daily Review understands there are other OA talents who have created productions for OA who have had similar experiences to Edwards, Thomson and Lynch.

CRITICS UNDER PRESSURE

OA has a history of responding strongly to critiques of its direction, famously blacklisting two senior critics for opinion pieces. Sydney Morning Herald critic Harriet Cunningham and Stage Noise‘s Diana Simmonds were both refused media tickets at the beginning of 2015. It is standard practice almost everywhere in the world that critics are provided with complimentary tickets to allow them to review.

Last year, critic and journalist Maxim Boon was offered a ticket to review the company’s Ring Cycle in Melbourne for Daily Review, but the offer was rescinded after his critical opinion piece about the company was published in The Guardian. OA has said the withdrawal of complimentary ticket was due to an administrative error.

It now seems critic Jade Kops of Broadway World has also been removed from the OA guest list for an upcoming OA production.

Kops had written measured reviews of OA’s current Sydney productions of La Traviata and Cavalleria Rusticana / Pagliacci, taking issue with the dramatic performances of imported artists. Soon after, she received an email from an OA publicity representative advising that her RSVP to the company’s Tosca had been rejected as the company had “overbooked” opening night.

In a subsequent email, the representative said: “To be honest you didn’t help your cause they way you’ve been highly and quite frankly, unfairly critical of our international performers. Performers who have been highly acclaimed by ALL other reviewers, without exception. It seems to us that you have an agenda and you’re using reviews of our productions to push that agenda. So when it came to making cuts to the list, this did not work in your favour.”

Invitations for OA’s production of Carmen on Sydney Harbour were issued last week, but Kops is yet to receive one.

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14 responses to “Inside Opera Australia: foreign singers favoured while creative teams ‘disrespected’

  1. Leaving aside any other comments I could make about Lyndon’s leadership direction… Where is the MEAA in all this?
    I know that in the past at least, OA had negotiated quotas of union agreed numbers for international contracts (as the union needed to sign off in order to facilitate the 457 visa used to allow international artists to work legally).

  2. As I am not a professional critic I do not need to fear being blacklisted. I used to be a regular attender and then a season ticket holder for OA. I gave up going to OA when it became apparent that the same operas were being put on year after year. The ‘high point’ each year is meant to be the ridiculously overpriced event on Sydney Harbour: I went to that a couple of times and the ‘wow’ factor doesn’t last. I still go to the Sydney Theatre Company which, despite putting on the odd turkey, at least offers something new and fresh each season. Opera has gone stale, for me anyway. I feel very sorry for locals who can’t get work … but it’s just more of the same thing that people in other walks of life get. A powerful boss comes in and favours some personnel over others. Given the lack of change in the actual operas put on, I reckon I could have a go at creative direction. “Hmm, let’s make the set of Carmen really fascist…and for Tosca, more fascists….for the Pearlfishers, wetsuits and we’ll put a submersible up the back.” It can’t be that hard. I’ll audition singers based on the amount of sucking up the agents do, and run the auditions over Facetime using copper-cable internet so that the link drops out every 5 seconds.

  3. Well, after your measured article, it is patently obvious there’s something dreadfully awry at Opera Australia.
    Imagine the Met telling the Rolling Stone, or NY times critics that they can’t attend any opera functions because
    they, the critics have been less than laudatory. It’s simply risible.

    As for the Operatic choices, it’s Hobson’s. I believe in supporting the arts, because, as a wiser man than I once said:
    “If we don’t, all we’ll ever get is an artistic groundhog day, where the only item on the menu is ‘White Horse Inn!'”

    Me? I’ve voted with my feet. No more Op Aus for this little black duck until someone goes through the place
    with a scythe – starting at the top.

    James Gillard

  4. Everybody is entitled to an opinion, but there are so many inaccuracies in both the article and the comments.
    Overseas artists: if we didn’t have them we wouldn’t have had Ermonela Jaho absolutely wowing the audiences in Traviata. The strongest standing ovations since Sutherland.
    Productions :I’ve been a regular attendee since i was 11 at the old Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown. Starting with Baz Luhgrmann’s Boheme a quarter of a century ago, OA has increasingly emphasized the drama of the Operas. John Bell’s Tosca for instance. We saw the restaged Boheme to an absolutely packed house last month and it was even better than before.
    The incredible new production of Cav/Pag, linking for the first time ever these two musical masterpieces gave us great drama as well as great music.
    So stop the bitching, stop the gossiping. OA is doing a great job, and leave them to do what they clearly are doing well.’

    And my wife and I pay for our tickets

    1. Dear Victor,
      No one is against international artists… yes, you need your Ermonela Jaho and similar… the point is , lets have a balance as other countries do USA, Italy ect…
      But did we really need 2 , not 1 but 2 imported tenors for “perlfishers” when we have at least 3 in Au that could do it as good if not better… Mr. T couldn’t give to one of the AU tenors a possibility to earn for living? Opera singers are not reach, many are just surviving and Mr.T is getting a big check to ruin what is left of Australian singers… I’m sorry but that is a disgrace !

  5. “To be honest you didn’t help your cause they way you’ve been highly and quite frankly, unfairly critical of our international performers. Performers who have been highly acclaimed by ALL other reviewers, without exception. It seems to us that you have an agenda and you’re using reviews of our productions to push that agenda. So when it came to making cuts to the list, this did not work in your favour.”

    Says it all about OA really

  6. It would be interesting to know the content of foreign singers in Royal Opera House Productions. I think it would be quite high. We Anglo Saxons by upbringing and charachter, in my view, cannot sing and act passionate and emotional and comedic roles in Italian Opera no way near as well as Italians. Similarly with many German Operas and Operettas.

    A 2011 production of Il Trittico and a production of die Fledermaus ( a very long time back ) were both full with Italian and German singers. With just English singers the experience and enjoyment would have been greatly reduced.

    So perhaps somebody can inform us of the percentage of foreign singers in ROH productions and other national companies also.

  7. There needs to be an investigation to the number of imported co/productions too as local & highly talented designers & directors are not getting work. There is a trend for productions to be sold around the world but it greatly impacts on locals as, unlike Europe & America, there are not many options in other companies. Thankfully I am in a position to see productions around the world but rarely do I see OA productions mounted in Europe. If co/productions are to be a reality in cash strapped times it needs to be a two way street l’est talented people suffer. NIDA et al churn out directors & designers each each but there is no work in the highly prized opera world in Australia.

  8. As a national company, Opera Australia is reducing significantly its presence in other cities such as Melbourne. Therefore opportunities for Opera Australia to provide employment for singers, musicians etc. etc. is significantly lessened for the year. In Melbourne . This year in Melbourne just three opera productions will be presented in the first half of the year. Happily one is KING ROGER. At least something new and with some special promise. Just four performances alongside ten of a familiar Bizet opera now titled CARMEN AT ARTS CENTRE MELBOURNE The final Autumn inclusion is CAV AND PAG to be presented five times while MY FAIR LADY in winter will play just short of one hundred performances. The “Spring Season” is filled entirely by twelve performances of THE MERRY WIDOW. Up till now the Spring Season has been either the four operas in the Wagner Ring cycle or perhaps three more traditional opera works. It must be very difficult indeed to find new and more importantly renewing subscribers when the seasons are shorter yet the works themselves are repeated so much. Should more questions be directed to the national funding bodies if determined opera lovers must go to Sydney for some of the operas and to hear the more publicised singers? Reading about unhappiness within the artistic creators of the opera stagings is all the more alarming.

    Sydney does have the audience pulling attraction of the iconic Opera House where visitors are not discouraged from taking so many selfies inside the opera performance theatre itself. But should Opera Australia be entitled to retain its stature as a national company, when more and more of its dedicated opera interests, and not music theatre or operetta, are focussed in one city only.

    Over many decades I have subscribed to Opera Australia but with the present reduction of performances and regurgitated repertoire plus inevitably increased ticket prices, my friends and I can no longer justify this annual expense.

  9. This is really sad. She was excellent in the Hong Kong Salome I saw.

    If the opera hired her and now pull her off their website, surely they have to explain why? When Netrebko, Yoncheva and others don’t appear, there is always a reason given.

    Sounds to me like lawyers are involved. Poor Jacqueline – it’s hard enough to be an opera singer without this stuff. Tell us why Australian Opera!

  10. We saw yesterday the ROH production of Il Trovatore.
    Designed by a Swiss, but restaged by the local ROH team.
    The four singers (Caruso famously said this opera requires the four greatest singers in the worls)
    An American, a Russian, an Armenian and sensationally Anita Rachvelishvili, a Georgian.
    That’s the way it is.
    and boy would it be wonderful if OA could lure her to our shores.
    By the way Ermionela Jaho is shortly appearing as Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly for the Paris Opera.
    so OA doesn’t import second rate artists.
    We love the productions , so leave OA alone to do as best as they can at a difficult time

    1. “at at difficult time” – if only you knew how much harder every other arts company in Australia has to work to get productions off the ground, as opposed to the monster that is OA which consumes more of the federal arts budget than every single independent artist and small arts company in the country combined.
      I don’t have a problem with OA employing internationals, if they were actually doing their job and growing audiences and making revenue and improving the art form and bring it into the 21st century. They keep chewing up more and more tax payers money to sell obscenely overpriced tickets to the same rich old people and don’t seem to care because they don’t have to.
      Could you imagine if we were employing international teachers in our schools over local teachers, when it’s taxpayers paying their wages?
      Until OA decide to give up the obscene amount of funding they get from people who don’t get any benefit from them at all, they should employ more Australian artists, of whom there are many who are good enough.
      In fact, how about they employ the Australians who are kicking goals in Europe in opera companies because they don’t get a look in in their own country?
      OA is embarrassing.

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