‘Why I’m not going to the opera next year’ by Harriet Cunningham

Talk about a punch – Harriet Cunningham is a critic to be listened to, and what she has to say is a loud echo of what of commentators and practitioners have been saying about programing in Australian Opera companies. It is boring. It needs to change. Maybe now that the National Opera Review is underway there may be hope yet.    

‘Why I’m not going to the opera next year’
by Harriet Cunningham
This article first appeared on Crikey’s Daily Review on the 8th December 2014

I’m starting to think that Lyndon Terracini is playing us for fools. “Us”* being his core audience, his loyal cash cows, the rusted-on Operati who faithfully turn up to whatever gets served up at the big white pointy building in the middle of the harbour.

Ever since Mr T became artistic director of Opera Australia, in difficult circumstances, in 2011, he has been making friends and enemies. That’s standard procedure for any leader, and it would be a worry if he didn’t. He’s been accused of narrowing the company’s repertoire, making casting decisions on the basis of looks rather than talent, kow-towing to the elite and, that old chestnut, “dumbing down.” He’s even been accused of making money.

In particular, those at the gritty end of the arts spectrum – composers, performers, visual and performance artists, all those brave souls tussling with difficult ideas and trying to make sense of the world through art — have been feeling, rightly or wrongly, betrayed.

The announcement of Sydney’s 2015 main stage program reveals 11 shows more limited in repertoire, more traditional in style and more narrow in their appeal than I have seen for years. Puccini, Verdi, Mozart. More Puccini. More Verdi. Oops, I forgot, Gounod and Cole Porter. Nothing German. Nothing Russian. Nothing American and, heaven forbid, nothing Australian. Not only that, but the directorial input is about as narrow as it has ever been: Sir David McVicar looks after two of the new shows, Elijah Moshinsky does Don Carlos Redux and all the others are in house retreads. The only truly brave choice, for my money, is getting Dean Bryant to direct Anything Goes.

I don’t know how they’ve been going with sales but I’ve had at least four staunch subscribers of many years tell me they’ve given up on 2015. There simply isn’t enough of interest to get them there. I have no doubt they’ll buy single tickets to Don Carlos and Faust, but seeing La boheme (pictured above) or Madame Butterfly for the umpteenth time is simply not doing it for them.

Hearing this feedback got me thinking. Maybe Lyndon Terracini is being smarter than we think. I mean, let’s take a look at where he’s come from: a performer himself, for many years he was a worshipper at the altar of the avant-garde. Famous for his work with iconoclastic composers such as Louis Andriessen, Hans Werner Henze and Elliot Carter, he has also pulled his weight in the Australian arena, taking leading roles in operas by Brian Howard and Michael Smetanin, plus commissioning and co-creating new works. He’s also spent much of his artistic life in the geographical hinterlands, winning awards for his work promoting the arts in regional Australia while living and working in Lismore. His festivals in Darwin and Brisbane were always heavily slewed towards community involvement – real, man-on-the-street community involvement, with sausage sizzles and school kids.

So what’s this goat-loving, bum-baring, hippy type doing running one of the bastions of High Art?

I’m starting to wonder whether our Mr T has decided to start the Revolution from within. He’s larding on the gold, stockpiling the fireworks, appealing to the high snob end of Sydney culture – it was his initiative to reintroduce evening dress as the preferred dress code for opening nights — and, at the same time, transporting A Night at the Opera back in time, back to the good old days, when young men were polite and young women were fragrant and it was all just lovely. Of course, the good old days never existed, as Terracini well knows, but why let reality spoil a good night out.

Those who can afford the tickets flock to the spectacle. “What’s on?” “Dunno, but everyone’s going…” “Lunch, darling?” “Got to dash, but I’ll see you at the opera, won’t I?” “It’s such a lovely spot, champagne by the harbour, ooh look, there’s Ita Buttrose…”

Meanwhile, in a dusty corner of Surry Hills, the real work is going on. At any given time, there is a full company of Opera Australia employees touring Australia with cut down versions of operas, taking them into schools and regional venues. In the Gold Coast, Western Sydney and inner-city Melbourne people have been getting together to sing in community choirs under the direction of Opera Australia music staff. Terracini has commissioned new operas from Elena Kats-Chernin and Kate Miller-Heidke. And, just quietly, Terracini has been creating new work with Indigenous communities including Barkly Regional Arts in Tennant Creek, the Winanjjikari Music Centre All Stars and Mbantua Festival of Indigenous culture. You probably haven’t heard about it, because it’s not something that makes news in Sydney, but it’s happening.

Is this Revolution by stealth? Is Terracini robbing the rich to give to the poor?

What has upset me most about 2015 programming — and yes, I am upset and frustrated by the insistence on wall-to-wall opulence, extravagance, indulgence and, dammit, tradition over inspiration — is the cynicism. It’s the shameless give-em-what-they-want approach, with the arrogant assumption that what we, the mainstream opera going public want, is aspirational escapism – red velvet, big skirts, men in tights and the odd nipple flashed here and there.

It’s patronising and it’s disingenuous. If Terracini is managing to take money that would otherwise have gone on some worthy ground-breaking new opera which would have got enthusiastic reviews and poor ticket sales in Sydney and send it out to regional communities in Australia that’s arguably not a bad outcome. However, I’d feel much more comfortable if he’d ‘fess up. If he’d just say, “Sorry, I’m going to milk this museum culture for all it’s worth and give it to people who really need the money.”

*I’m saying “us” but, for complete disclosure here, I don’t pay for 100% of my opera going. Indeed, I have even been paid by our national opera company, not to go to operas, but to write words for them, for their brochures. There are words written by me in all the brochures from 2006 onwards, including 2015, although the last time I sent an invoice was in 2013… And last time I paid them was probably for the Melbourne Ring Cycle, for which I happily stumped up $2000.