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The Brandis initiated National Opera Review: change is coming

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The arts industry looks set to undergo another major overhaul. It might not be as radical and tumultuous as former arts minister George Brandis’ secretive and ill-conceived plan to gut the Australia Council, but the National Opera Review ordered by Brandis in 2014 released its 341-page “Discussion Paper” on Friday and it signals some profound changes for the arts.
Chaired by the highly respected former banker, Helen Nugent, the report is an astoundingly forensic investigation of the four federally funded opera companies in Australia — Opera Australia, State Opera of South Australia, West Australian Opera and Opera Queensland. Nugent and her three person panel were charged with examining their “artistic vibrancy, engagement with audiences and financial positions”.
Their discussion paper — compiled after public meetings and consulations with arts companies, funding bodies and venue managements — raises dozens of questions about their artistic and financial health. Any way they are answered points to major changes in the country’s opera sector which will impact on the entire performing arts.
Some of the more radical questions it poses include isolating Opera Australia to Sydney, selling off the OA’s valuable inner Sydney real estate, promoting Victorian Opera to Melbourne’s primary opera company, “exiting” Opera Queensland or making it the sole regional touring company in Australia. It also asks if the government should be funding Opera Australia’s increased staging of musicals with commercial producer John Frost.
The paper was due to be released some months ago but for reasons known only to Brandis it was not made public. In what appears to be a pointed decision, Brandis’ successor, Arts Minister Mitch Fifield, has released the warts and all examination in his first week in the job.
Interestingly, Opera Queensland from Brandis’ home state, is described as in a “parlous” state. “Opera Queensland is under severe financial pressure … Even though government funding has increased, Opera Queensland has made a loss in each of the past six years, generating a cumulative deficit of $2.9 million,’’ it states.
But the paper is not about apportioning blame. Indeed, it commends the four companies’ management in responding to the post-GFC environment of rising costs and increased audience expectations. Between them they put on 576 performances in 2014 alone, attended by 700,000 people, generating $86.5 million in revenue with 88% of that coming from box office. They employed the equivalent of 600 full time staff.
But it explains how hundreds of of factors — financial, demographic and artistic — have led to the current problems despite a marked increase in ticket sales for opera.
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The discussion paper makes for fascinating reading for anyone who loves — or hates — opera. Commonly held opinions and prejudices such as opera is elitist, or not popular in this country, or that Opera Australia is too commercial are all raised, but the report’s avalanche of information and tables shows that these prejudices are simplistic. Opera is indeed one element in a fragile “ecosystem” .
Here are a few excerpts from the report (the headings are ours).
“Opera Queensland and Opera Australia have experienced the most strain. Their cash position has weakened and their operating reserves have eroded. The two other companies have been tested financially, but not to the same extent. 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,” the paper reports.
“In 2014, the Federal and State governments’ commitment to access was an average of $60 per paid attendee across the four companies, with Opera Australia being the lowest at $49 per attendee including musicals.
This level of subsidy is not inconsistent with other artforms, with dance being similar at $63 and orchestras somewhat higher at $86. Having said that, the Major Opera Companies in the less populous states have a more significant subsidy per seat, reflecting the high level of fixed costs associated with staging an opera and the smaller audience base on which they draw.”
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“First, artistic innovation is being constrained. There is an increasing tendency for new productions to be sourced from offshore and for the repertoire to narrow and focus more on popular 19th and early 20th century works of Italian origin.
Second, artists are feeling the impact. There is a significantly reduced number of productions and hence of performances of mainstage opera. This is constraining the number of employment opportunities for principal artists, as well as for the ensemble and the chorus. The increased use of international guest singers further exacerbates this situation in relation to the available principal roles.
Third, the ability of artists to sustain an opera career has diminished. Faced with financial pressures, Opera Australia has moved to reduce the number of full-time ensemble and chorus members employed on longer contracts. The number of staff employed on longer contracts for technical positions has also reduced, as has the number of orchestral players.
Finally, a significant reduction has occurred in remunerated positions for younger artists. This trend has been seen, not just with Opera Australia, but also with WAO and Opera Queensland.
Moreover, operas are being frequently repeated, with the focus being on popular operas. Last, but not least, few new works of Australian origin are entering the repertoire.
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“In 2014, musicals accounted for 51 percent of Opera Australia’s performances and paid attendances and 48 percent of its box office”.
“The challenge, however, from a Government’s perspective is that musicals are not mainstage opera. They compete with commercial providers. As a consequence, market failure does not exist, and the case for government funding is not clear cut. Indeed, providing an implicit or explicit government subsidy might create a market distortion from a commercial producer’s perspective.”
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“While overall attendances for the major opera companies have significantly increased, mainstage opera attendances have declined. Growing overall audiences reflect the increased offering and attendances at musicals, and HOSH (Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour).
“As a consequence of these developments, the companies are at a tipping point where a cycle of success could become a cycle of decline. The challenge will be to ascertain what initiatives can be taken to address this situation”.
“A …response by Opera Australia, Opera Queensland and SOSA has been to reduce the number of mainstage opera productions and performances. In Sydney, the number of mainstage productions (excluding musicals) has been reduced from 14 in 2004 to 9 in 2015; while the number of opera performances has decreased from 164 to 120 over the same period. In Melbourne, the number of productions has reduced from 7 to 5 and the number of opera performances from 62 to 33”.
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“Between 2009 and 2014…. Opera Queensland experienced the largest percent decline (12.2 percent per annum), Opera Australia had the greatest impact on the overall number. Its mainstage attendances decreased from 260,891 to 189,114 over the same period, a decrease of 6.2 percent per annum. SOSA experienced a small decline, while WAO declined at a rate of 4.1 percent per annum.
“Opera Australia saw a stronger decline in Sydney than in Melbourne where a higher percent of repeat operas have been frequently staged. It might also reflect Sydney subscriber tickets and single ticket prices being respectively 34 percent and 11 percent higher than the equivalent in Melbourne. The reduced number of productions and performances also contributed to this outcome, creating a measure of concern amongst committed and knowledgeable opera goers.”
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“While these donations and the ability to diversify the company’s business activities were welcomed, they were not enough to cover the negative contribution to overheads that arose from those activities.
“The total other revenue (including musicals, HOSH, concerts and touring) increased by a very significant $38.5 million, offset by increased costs of $38.2 million. In other words, as a result of these activities, Opera Australia was better off by $0.3 million.
“This is a very concerning dynamic. Growth looked at in isolation might be applauded. However, a continuation of such a dynamic suggests that the company is assuming much greater risk, particularly if it is unable to generate the same rate of increase in government funding or private sector income. It also suggests that a high price is being paid for the benefit of receiving donations tied to specific activities once the increased overhead levels are taken into account.”
“Artistic vibrancy lies at the core of each Major Opera Company creating a cycle of success. Such vibrancy comes from offering a programme that engages with and innovatively challenges audiences, while staging performances of the highest artistic quality. Creating this dynamic underpins a company’s long term sustainability artistically and financially, as well as from an audience perspective.
However, companies under financial pressure, such as that being experienced by the Major Opera Companies, may initiate a short-term response that, while understandable, can longer-term create unintended consequences that erode and even undermine their artistic vitality. In those circumstances, the dynamics related to a cycle of success may be disrupted.”
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Public comments on the discussion paper are invited by October 26. The review panel led by Helen Nugent also includes Kathryn Fagg, Andrew McKinnon, and Moffatt Oxenbould.
When he released the paper last week Arts Minister Mitch Fifield described it as “a landmark document that will have an influence on the performing arts in Australia into the future”.
It will. Nugent’s 1999 “Securing the Future” investigation into the country’s major arts companies led to a complete overhaul of the sector and a new injection of government funds.
The government response is likely to be a mix of increased funds and radical surgery; it won’t be a simple financial bail-out.
As the report states:
“(In) public consultations in the lead up to the release of this Discussion Paper, advocates argued that the answer to the precarious hand to mouth existence facing the Major Opera Companies was simply for governments to provide more funding.
“The Panel, having contemplated that view, considers that, while government funding is important, simply providing more funding is not the only answer. More fundamental change is required to address the financial challenges facing the companies.”

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