Brad’s Blog – The Dark Arts of Season Planning

Ah ha!! Now for some of the frank discussion I’d been hoping for! Today another newsletter arrived in my inbox from our brandnewstillshiny Artistic Director – and this is the kind of blog I’ve been waiting for. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m dead keen to know everything about everything and I find these season planning decision processes fascinating – of course every musician knows that making music is a balancing act between artistic integrity, business sense, and pleasing your audience, but it’s nice to have the goings on of a major company explained. I’m very keen to see what the 2016 season holds (I’m hoping for a new commission and something other than Italian Opera). I have quite strong opiniong on the topic of season planning, so I plan to write a separate response to it once uni stress dissipates and I have a bit more time – in the meantime read Brad’s blog and hopefully you’ll be as pleased as me!

Original version appeared on the 19th May 2015  and is available at ‘Brad’s Blog’


I promised in last month’s posting that I would discuss the ins and outs of planning a season, which is what I am going to do. But first, the winner of last month’s challenge, to provide a pithy synopsis of The Marriage of Figaro, is John Mercer: thank you, John!

Almavivas have lost wedding blisses
He’s after his servant’s new missus
Plus androgynous page
It’s a real Mozart rage
But the ending is all love and kisses

So, to season planning. One interesting aspect of planning a company’s output is the bewilderment from audiences, supporters and media as to why certain works either feature or are absent from our repertoire. So I thought it might be enlightening to sketch out the processes by which these decisions are made, and the constraints under which we (and all companies) operate.

The first and biggest factor is performance availability. In Perth, WAO performs main-stage productions at His Majesty’s Theatre, which is currently managed by the Perth Theatre Trust. Since WAO does not own the theatre, we need to pencil in season dates well in advance with the theatre, and this shaping dictates everything downstream. For Opera in the Park, similar planning has to be undertaken with local authorities. This accounts for the rhythm of WAO yearly seasons, and is the grid on which we build. Moreover, our long-standing collaboration with WASO means that their availability for opera seasons needs to be planned well in advance.

Next come the limitations of the venue itself – notably stage size. Australian opera theatres range from the cramped (Sydney Opera House, which has barely any wings) to the expansive (Adelaide Festival Theatre and Melbourne Arts Centre). His Majesty’s Theatre is at the smaller end of this scale, which dictates which productions we can mount. For instance our forthcoming production of Faust has been optimised for HMT – this optimisation costs money, and would look tiny in Adelaide. Some productions simply won’t fit in our space.

After these considerations comes repertoire. Since beginning as WAO Artistic Director I have looked in depth at the performing history of the Company, looking at imbalances and omissions in our offerings since 1967. We are very fortunate in that, musically speaking, we can fit a large Wagner-size orchestra in the pit, something which is beyond the Sydney Opera House. So no repertoire is necessarily excluded on physical grounds. The biggest financial constraint is in the cost of commissioning a new production, as opposed to reviving an existing one. This is why, with the Opera Conference as a co-production consortium of the State opera companies, one shared production is commissioned each season. Each member company has the opportunity to present it, and it can be added to the nation’s repertoire of productions in future years.

At WAO we aspire to a distinctive roster of productions, which the Opera Conference structure might seem to mitigate against. That is why Carolyn Chard’s development of the 2013 Otello worked with a different group of co-producers, from Australia and beyond – to diversify and vary the productions we can offer beyond national boundaries. This is something we are actively considering developing further in coming seasons. It is important to us that we have a distinct artistic identity, and this comes from productions which are identified with us in particular, as well as from new commissions and inventive presentations. If each State opera company is presenting the same repertoire, in the same productions, year after year, Australian opera falls further and further behind the diversity available to any travelling opera patron in Europe and America.

The next consideration is casting – can the proposed repertoire be cast at a level suitable to both our purse and our artistic ambitions? I have made clear that I intend to cast (West) Australians where possible, complementing them with international artists (and not forgetting that many Australians are also international – something my recent audition tours to London and New York have affirmed). There are many marvellous Australian artists, but the normal vagaries of their availability apply – I am currently wrestling with the situation of a certain artist who I want to cast, who has sung the role for me, but has a direct clash with a Covent Garden engagement. Squaring these circles is the aggravating bit of planning, familiar to festival directors and theatre promoters alike!

As I’ve written previously, the core goals of my tenure at WAO are to renew the repertoire we offer and to connect ever more strongly with our audience. This blog is an important part of the latter, and the former is something we are deeply engaged in for 2016 and, particularly, for our 50th anniversary year in 2017. In principle we have now planned 2016, which will bring new repertoire and productions to Perth for the first time. I can’t wait to share this news with you…but we’ll all have to wait for a few more months!

Until next time

Brad Cohen
Artistic Director