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Exclusive: Victorian minister blasts Opera Australia whose audience will ‘die in their seats’

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Victoria’s Minister for Creative Industries, Martin Foley, has called on Opera Australia to “honour the deals they have with Victoria” and to urgently do something about its repertoire and ageing audience.

“They have progressively constricted their appearances in Victoria and have gone from (producing) original, commissioned work to increasingly (staging) the big musical blockbusters. They need to be here more — we fund them for two seasons, not one,” Foley told Daily Review.

The Sydney-based national opera company is funded by the Federal, NSW and Victorian governments but Victoria is the most junior financial partner providing the OA with $1.1 million, compared to NSW’s $3.4 million and the Fed’s $21 million per year.

“Opera Australia seriously needs to look at how they do things with the substantial money they get from the state and Federal governments,” the Minister said.

“Where is the engagement with the new audiences and with new Australian content?” asks Martin Foley of Opera Australia.

“We aren’t its major funder but we’re not an insubstantial funder. We have a policy framework that (OA) are well aware of. We’d like to see that policy framework delivered on,” he said referring to the Victorian Government’s “Creative Industries” strategy which requires the arts companies it funds to step up innovation to pursue “creative opportunities” and attract new audiences and markets.

He argues that the Melbourne-based Victorian Opera (VO) is streets ahead of Opera Australia in that respect.

“They (VO) get the notion that their job is to partner and ferment — and whether it’s with Deakin (University) or the digital people, with the regions, or by producing more original and Australian content than Opera Australia, they do (get it).”

Foley said the only comparably-sized arts company to OA is the Australian Ballet (AB), which he said does an “infinitely better job” than OA.

“They (AB) get the notion about development, the role they play in the wider dance ecology, and in engagement with the community. The two companies are chalk and cheese.”

“Where is the engagement with the new audiences and with new Australian content, that in theory is why they are one of the Major Performing Arts (MPA) organisations?” he asked, referring to the 28 major companies, most of whose funding is guaranteed by the Federal government.

“I think Opera Australia needs to reflect on the wider value that they can bring (in order to) bust out of the declining audience they’re locked into.

“This is not new. This is not something that comes as a shock,”  Foley said. “Report after report — and most cogently Helen Nugent’s report (the Federal government’s National Opera Review) has said that if (OA) continue on the way they are, their audience is likely to die in their seats.”

Foley accused his federal counterparts of sitting on the 2016 findings of the Review chaired by former banker, Helen Nugent. Among other things it commended Victorian Opera and suggested it should be elevated to MPA status.

He said getting the Feds to make VO an MPA company was “like wading through wet cement”.


[box]Image: Martin Foley (centre) pictured at a community event in Melbourne today via Instagram[/box]

29 responses to “Exclusive: Victorian minister blasts Opera Australia whose audience will ‘die in their seats’

  1. It might seem overly simplistic, but why doesn’t the Vic Government pull it’s $1.1m out of OA and give it instead to VO?

    1. Give it to Melbourne Opera who have been putting on operas for the past 15 years, not-for-profit and are 100% reliant on private sponsors.

  2. Companies claiming national status should only be able to claim such status if they have a seasonal touring programme that takes in all the capital cities.
    As long as opera remains seasonally non-continuous it battles the opposing needs of establishing what it normally constitutes as well as commissioning new works or producing works in ways that can only make sense if audiences have the background to understand how such productions manipulate original conceptions.
    Audience numbers reflect symptoms rather than causes.
    No amount of tweeking the content and distribution of activity will make a difference without an education system that honours the arts and in this case the musical arts. Taking a person from musical/arts illiteracy into the complexity of a Ring cycle is probably like what it might be to encounter aliens. The combined contributions to OA don’t allow for such developmental activity which really needs to be part of the arts education effort in Primary and Secondary Education.
    As long as companies are also forced to charge prohibitive prices for children there will also be a lack of representation and its inevitable impact on future ticket sales.
    To consider success elsewhere: Finland creates a population that is conservatively musically literate by the time they have left primary school and continues to develop that knowlege base through Secondary School. Nearly everyone sings and there is a choir for every village in the country. No wonder that the Finnish national opera attracts over a 1/4 million ticket sales a year for a population of just over 6 million(?). And it produces a mix of traditional and innovative operas continuously throughout the year.
    On a slightly different tack. As long as arts companies are forced to be ‘profitable’ they will never be secure in Australia. How can companies be expected to plan for serious commissions if they don’t know whether they will have the money to pay for it. NSW’s $3.4M and Victoria’s $1.1M along with the Federal government’s $21M sounds a lot but in our current bureaucratic age most of the money is lost to administration and accountability before ever reaching the coalface.
    We need a cultural revolution to change that.
    All great art has required intellect, vision and patronage.
    It is a Thatcherite absurdity to imagine that it can be done any other way.

  3. It is an amazing duplication and wasteful for the Victorian Government to find two opera organisations to service the State. Fund one and do it well. I would encourage the Minister to reassess future commitments to the OA.

  4. Anyone in receipt of Commonwealth funding should have undertaken to produce an agreed amount of new Australian work per season/triennial or whatever agreed timeframe. This would have a dramatic effect on the amount of Australian work written, performed and experienced. Couple that with a huge extra tax incentive to encourage private patronage and the skies would be the limit.

  5. I knew nothing about opera and wanted to learn about it. So I started attending Opera Australia productions in Sydney when I was eligible for the youth subscriber prices around 2008. For the most part, I really enjoyed the productions. Particularly a Baz Lurhmann designed Midsummer Night’s Dream and one based on Peter Carey’s Bliss. But most of the shows were very long (ie up to 4hrs) and this sometimes was a battle to get through late on a weeknight after a full day at work… even if other aspects were very good. Once I no longer qualified as a youth subscriber, I had to stop subscribing. Was prohibitively expensive to get anything but back row seats. And even the money for those didn’t seem worth not being able to see the stage/performers properly. And the prices to see the Ring Cycle in Melbourne the year before I stopped subscribing seemed prohibitive for anyone not earning at least double my income at that time. Made me feel miserable and annoyed.

    One year at the Sydney Festival, an opera ‘Semele Walk’ was put on in Town Hall on a catwalk where the chorus sat in plain clothes among the audience members and the lead singers walked the catwalk in Vivian Westwood designed costumes. Tix were about $80-100 but everyone was up close to the stage and could feel ‘part of it’. Production was incredible, surprising and exciting! It went for a comfortable 80mins or so I think. If at least half of OA productions were like that, thinking outside the traditional bounds in terms of staging etc, engaging more obviously with current issues… maybe more young people would want to go.

    Anyway, now I just go to the theatre. Maybe it’s more my thing anyway… but comparatively affordable, variable pricing and original productions certainly help too .

  6. The AO does a big musical each year to boost attendance and thus help pay for its other productions. A few years ago 90,000 people saw The King and I and 9000 attended Rigoletto. I dont believe the majority that attenders of The King…. wouldnt have enjoyed Rigoletto too if they knew it. Education and opera’s image need to change so that more people can fall in love with opera as I did when i saw my first Rigoletto. Just because a work is traditional doesnt mean its audience can be sneered at as Min Foley has. The VO could get on board here too as not all its productions are well patronized. Unknown operas have trouble drawing audiences let alone new works. Rather than giving just $1m why does Vic Govt give $2m and stop complaining

  7. I agree. Funds should be given to VO because OA is mainly in Sydney and not really interested in MELBOURNE.

    1. The Victorian Government already gives VO $3.8 million, compared to the $1.1 million it gives OA, even though VO’s Melbourne activity and audience is tiny compared to OA’s. VO is already 61% government funded (compared to OA’s 22%). OA is much better value – they have a big audience so don’t need the majority of their costs subsidised by the taxpayer, like VO.

      1. Some good points there JC. VO tries to offer an alternative but thats no reason to be miserable about AO or with funds to it.Cant see the VO doing Don Carlo

      2. Yeah, VO’s only doing 7 productions in Melbourne this year, plus one in Hobart, a regional tour and two streamed events…tiny activity compared to OA’s 3 operas and an operetta…oh yeah and VO’s doing 3 newly commissioned works in that ‘tiny’ activity…disgraceful!

        1. Yeah, VO’s only doing 7 productions in Melbourne this year, plus one in Hobart, a regional tour and two streamed events…tiny activity compared to OA’s 3 operas and an operetta…oh yeah and VO’s doing 3 newly commissioned works in that ‘tiny’ activity…disgraceful! Also according to annual reports (which is all I have to go on) OA had a 44,000 audience in Melbourne last year…VO had 59,000.

          1. You’re misreading it. You’re not counting all the activity OA does in Victoria like the regional tour, schools’ performances, Bowl concert, community choirs etc. And the VO number includes broadcasts, workshops etc, which OA doesn’t even count in its numbers.

  8. After a brief visit to New York and UK I can see that OA is myopically focussed on Sydney and treats Melbourne in a manner unlikely to engender engagement or enthusiastic support. Remembering the VSO and its excitement.. the IA simply does not justify my Attendance any more. I think comparing the Australian chamber orchestra to the is reveals the fundamental difference between a real nationally oriented arts body with superb performances and great developmental engagement over all Australia to sclerotic and self satisfied Sydney centric OA which simply doesn’t justify a melbourne based subscription any more. Again if Tertacini would talk -seriously for once- with Tognetti perhaps the OA could grow again. Meanwhile I have abandoned ship to the ACO anyway And am pabout to subscribe to the VO for a season to see if the sprit of Divalls VSO has been reborn! Victoria , just pull the OA funding, they are simply short changing the term ‘national’. Rebrand it opera NSW And it’s current offerings might better reflect t the realities A d one might check out the NSW opera on one of its already rare and increasingly turgid attendances in victoria!perhaps a better and more exiting programming might help of course, but is it too late?

  9. Did Martin Foley really say this? Seems more like the kind of spray Donald Trump would do than a professional politician. I’d be interested to know what Creative Victoria say about it – bet they are embarrassed.

  10. Melbourne Opera do at least four mainstage shows a year, tour regionally and internationally, are continuously nominated for awards and make substantial work for Victorian Artists in leading roles.

    Why don’t they get a skerrick of funding from the Victorian Government?

      1. That’s a terrible excuse PD. MO they pay all their soloists and orchestra, if they had funding they could pay their chorus too. AND they do more mainstage productions than the state company, with comparable quality.

        They are definitely punching above their weight with no of the infrastructure or funding. An Opera Community, not and opera company.

        If I were you PD, I’d get along to their Lohengrin production before casting any more aspersions.

        1. Sam…MO are able to apply for State funding if they want to (they may have done so…I don’t know). A quick check of the Creative Victoria website shows Chamber Made and Short Black also get funding, so I don’t know why MO would not.

          1. I don’t know why either. Nonetheless, I’d be booking tickets to that Lohengrin if I were you.

  11. How can AO call itself the AO when they only tour Sydney & Melbourne? It might be more profitable to increase funding for State operas throughout the country to promote excellence in production at State level & encourage creativity, take risks with developing & encouraging a body of new Australian compositions whilst maintaining a rotation & broad spectrum of both traditional and modern opera. So refreshing to experience King Roger this year!

  12. The Victorian opera going public have had the Ring cycle twice in three years (Sydney – none), and have seen major new productions of Don Carlos, King Roger, Cav & Pag, Rigoletto, etc etc – all for $1.1 million annually, all in the same period. As for Foley’s assertion that Victorian based companies do far better than the OA at diversifying their performance activities, that is arrant nonsense. The OA, far, far more than any opera company anywhere in the world, performs in varieties of venues, in front of a vast range of audiences from different socio-economic backgrounds. Opera on the Harbour (with 85% of patrons seeing Opera for the first time.) Opera on the beach (in Surfers Paradise). Opera touring (this year through NT, QLD, VIC). Commercial enterprises, (My Fair Lady etc). Two schools companies that work for 8 months of the year in two states. In Sydney this year the company will perform in 4 venues alone. As for the money, the OA Victorian schools company performs to 200,000 children a year, (and have done for decades) for not one cent of Victorian government money.
    Victoria has it extremely good with the OA.
    Foley is the new Trump of the Arts – fake news, fake facts, no idea of the reality of the situation.

  13. OA is a Sydney Melbourne company. No institution should be a national flagship on this basis. It’s simply not good enough. And yes, tame would have to be the word.

  14. This is deeply misleading: “The Victorian Government already gives VO $3.8 million, compared to the $1.1 million it gives OA, even though VO’s Melbourne activity and audience is tiny compared to OA’s. VO is already 61% government funded (compared to OA’s 22%). OA is much better value – they have a big audience so don’t need the majority of their costs subsidised by the taxpayer, like VO.”

    Bizarrely, some people commenting here seem to be suggesting that OA does its work solely on the $1.1m from the Victorian Government, while totally ignoring the vast federal funding directed to OA – more than all small to medium companies combined (who, by the way, as a total have an audience much larger than OA, both nationally and in terms of international touring). OA is the most lavishly publicly funded performing arts organisation in the country. According to their 2016 annual report, their total government funding is $25.5m. If I recall correctly (it’s hard to track down exact figures and there;s no breakdown in the annual report) around $22m is from Australia Council funding. OA has bigger resources than any other company, absorbs in real terms more public funding than anyone else, even our big state theatre companies, and on top of that has privileged access to high profile sponsors and arts ministers. You would think that would add up to a duty to the culture that supports it, in national touring and in nurturing contemporary Australian composers and new work. And fwiw, I know a few Melbourne-based opera fanatics who are pretty miffed with how Victoria is treated by OA.

  15. Quite rightly, Michael Foley called OA to account.

    Let’s not confuse the two issues, here: on the one hand Mr Foley, as Vic Minister of Culture, required an artistic accounting from OA.
    in terms of “bang-for-Victoria’s contributory buck, AS IS HIS RIGHT.

    He further identified both the contributory reason why Opera requires ever more support – OA’s seeming inflexibility in terms of Opera selection and the concomitant law of diminishing returns – a rapidly aging, “in-the-drop-zone” audience, which inhibits the creative process, relegating it to bureaucratic number-crunching. Mebbe Mr Foley could have been a tad more diplomatic, but you don’t use rock salt when you have double-O shot available.

    Me? I go to Live and in HD from The Met. It’s immeasurably cheaper, creatively superior, totally engrossing and better than
    being there, in that the cameras and commentators, go “inside” the fabric, the substance, the nexus of Opera.

    Here’s a suggestion: AO, lift your game.

  16. Interesting reading this conversation for an Australian who lives in WA. OA is as a number of contributors say, a NSW plus additionally occasionally a Victorian company. The occasional trip to Surfers Paradise is a positive – but that’s hardly enough to count as NATIONAL – and ALL publicly funded arts companies should engage with schools. I love Opera and only see OA if I happen to be in Sydney or Melbourne when there’s a production on offer that I wish to see ( ie not a musical) or I can get tickets to. I think that’s a total of 3 maybe 4 in 10 years. It’s very expensive to tour opera I acknowledge, but that doesn’t absolve OA of its national responsibilities. After all, I pay for OA through my taxes so wouldn’t mind greater access!

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