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.
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.
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.
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 Cycle, to 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, Carmen, may 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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