The last five years have been a particularly difficult and unusual period in the opera world, with both Australian and international companies facing huge financial pressure and apparently dwindling audiences.
That situation has made for a challenging few years for Lindy Hume, who has been Artistic Director of Opera Queensland from 2012, and is stepping down from the role in November.
“It’s been quite a turbulent time, with all these shifting tectonic plates,” Hume says.
In her time at the helm of Queensland’s state opera company, there’s been significant changes in state governments, a federal government-initiated National Opera Review, the rise and fall of the Brisbane Baroque festival, and initially two Brisbane seasons from Opera Australia. Internationally, the New York City Opera closed and reopened, the San Diego Opera had a near-death experience, and both New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the English National Opera faced significant organisational crises.
Throughout this period, Hume — who has previously been Artistic Director of the Victorian State Opera, Perth International Arts Festival, and Sydney Festival — has been working to transform Opera Queensland and “chip away at the expectations of what a state opera company can do”.
“There’s this whole existential crisis that opera is in, trying to address the notion that it hasn’t captured hearts and minds in the way that it’s done in the past. So we’ve had a very strong focus on participation and opening the doors of the company in different ways,” she says.
Hume has extended the company’s regional touring program, and collaborated more closely with other Queensland arts companies, such as Brisbane Festival, Shake & Stir, La Boite Theatre Company, and Dance North. Opera Queensland has also sold thousands of tickets to its main productions for just $25 in a popular move designed to encourage new audiences to take a chance on the company, and performed in new venues across Brisbane and Queensland, moving beyond its regular home at the QPAC Lyric Theatre.
Hume announced her final Opera Queensland season today, which includes a mix of works from the canon — including a new production of Don Giovanni from Hume, Graeme Murphy’s production of The Merry Widow, and a regional touring production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore or The Witch’s Curse — alongside works that evolve the operatic traditions, such as Reprise, a collaboration with the Gallery of Modern Art, and a musical response to an exhibition of images by Gerhard Richter.
“Opera is a big thing to shape, and you can’t just suddenly disappear the standard repertoire.”
It’s part of a move to extend the company’s activities beyond a traditional subscription season model that presents primarily traditional opera.
“I think we needed maximum flexibility,” Hume says. “The flexibility issue is one of the biggest for opera companies in Australia. The degree to which you’re nailed into using particular venues and particular orchestras, or subscribers who need a particular seat; you just need to be as responsive to the environment as you possibly can, and what we’ve tried to do is give ourselves a shape that allows us to be more flexible.”
But making those changes hasn’t been the easiest of tasks, and has proven a significant financial challenge for Opera Queensland. Like many opera companies, it was in a difficult financial position when Hume joined in 2012, and its records attracted the attention of last year’s National Opera Review.
The Review said the company was in a poor financial situation and recommended that it be given three years to turn its finances around or it should lose its status as a “major performing arts” company, and the subsequent support. But the company has now posted surpluses for 2015 and 16, and is set to do so again for 2017. Hume says turning the finances around has been a massive challenge while simultaneously working to extend the company’s reach.
“There’s no silver bullet,” she says. “There’s not something you can do and suddenly you have a massive surplus; you have to do it all in a very orderly way.
“Opera is a big thing to shape, and you can’t just suddenly disappear the standard repertoire — you have to play the long game of developing audiences for a different kind of adventure while, at the same time, taking the canon very seriously.”
According to Hume, the future for the company is looking “much brighter”, and she’s pleased to hand over a more financially secure company to new Artistic Director Patrick Nolan.
Nolan comes into the role with a similarly broad outlook for opera, and should also have the benefits of a new funding model, currently being negotiated with the Queensland Government and Australia Council. But Hume says her successor may find some challenges in understanding the company’s audience.
“I’ve learnt that Queensland audiences don’t necessarily do what audiences in other parts of the country do. I’ve done a lot of work for audiences across Australia, and across the world. You do things expecting an audience to respond in a particular way, because you’ve seen other audiences do that, and they just don’t up here.”
The company has had some surprise hits, such as its recent production of Candide, which they’d initially considered a big risk. Other productions, such as Hume’s lavish, critically-acclaimed production of Rigoletto, failed to attract large audiences.
“I look at this situation and go ‘what am I? Some kind of unicorn?’
When Hume leaves the company, just two of Australia’s 28 major performing arts companies will have women in artistic director roles. Hume finds it strange that the statistic hasn’t been more widely reported given that gender parity is a currently big point of contention in the Australian arts.
She says she finds the gender disparity in the world of opera, in particular, “pathetic”.
“I look at this situation and go ‘what am I? Some kind of unicorn?’ It’s weird. But I can’t tell you the number of women who say to me, ‘God it’s good to be directed by a woman who understands women.'”
Hume’s breakthrough production was a critically-acclaimed production of Carmen more than two decades ago, which brought a woman director’s perspective to the story of one of opera’s great femme fatales. The production was performed many times at Opera Australia, which this year has stark gender disparity in its creative roles.
“It’s so obvious that it’s not just about the careers of female artists,” Hume says, “but about the kind of things that people see on stage. And it’s about addressing the misogyny of opera. When you look at the cruelty to women — the rape and murder that happens — so much of that is not seen through a feminist framework, and not questioned enough.”
In addition to her artistic directorship of major companies, Hume has had a huge and accomplished career as a freelance director and will continue that work with productions in Seattle, Stockholm and New Zealand in the near future. She’s planning on living in regional Australia and is hoping to invest more time into artistic endeavours in those areas.
But Hume won’t be gone entirely from Opera Queensland, and will direct a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni for the company in 2018. With Don Giovanni‘s womanising and raping protagonist, audiences will have another opportunity to view the canon through Hume’s feminist perspective and maybe even see a more expansive view of the art form.
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