Written by: Richard Letts
“Opera Australia has punished a media critic of its personnel policies by withholding his reviewer’s ticket to its performances. Among relevant questions: Do reviews have a role beyond assisting in marketing? How are major funded companies assessed artistically? Should there be no public discussion of their personnel practices?”
The online arts publication Daily Review in an article on April 21 stated that Opera Australia’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini had ‘lashed out over (its) news coverage of the company by revoking its Deputy Editor and critic Ben Neutze’s media tickets… Neutze has not received an invitation for the company’s upcoming Sydney production Two Weddings, One Bride…’ Upon inquiry, ‘Opera Australia confirmed that Terracini had ordered Neutze be removed from the company’s media ticketing list.’
The Daily Review assumes that the news coverage in question was an article by Neutze that looked at the company’s internal workings, its rapidly increasing use of international artists, and its apparently ‘disrespectful’ treatment of senior creative talents.
Daily Review states: ‘It’s standard practice in Australia and around the world that critics are provided with complimentary tickets, enabling them to review live performances. It has long been a convention in democratic countries that the provision of review tickets does not guarantee positive coverage. In fact, in many democratic societies the media are expected to report fearlessly on the arts, especially when those artistic endeavours and the salaries of its staff are paid for with taxpayers’ funds.
Neutze writes that ‘I’ve had a good professional relationship with Opera Australia for quite a few years and love a lot of their work. But I’m not really surprised I’ve been taken off the list… Lyndon has revoked other critics’ tickets when he hasn’t liked what they’d written.’ The article identifies Diana Simmonds, Harriet Cunningham and Jade Kops.
Loudmouth publishes reviews of recordings and books. They are supplied to us by their publishers at no cost. Presumably they do so because we and other publishers bring public attention to their products and possibly boost sales. So it’s not necessarily about generosity, it’s about marketing. However, their purpose, like ours, might extend further than mere marketing.
We like it if our excellent reviews attract readers. But our main purpose is to bring these recordings and books to public attention, to inform about the nature of artistic activity, to attempt to evaluate the work of Australian artists, to encourage the artists and to play a part in vitalising Australian arts.
In any case, if Opera Australia were to supply tickets only to those who give positive reviews, it cheapens the currency. If all reviews are all-positive, how are we to believe any of them? OA opens itself to the suspicion that so far as it is concerned, reviews are indeed no more than a marketing ploy. But why would we want to read such reviews? We look for expertise, insight, integrity.
Curiously, the article that apparently earned Ben Neutze his banishment as a reviewer of national opera company productions was not a review. It was a sort of round-up of reports and commentary on OA operations that had already been published elsewhere. It was not flattering. But Neutze’s opinions of the company’s personnel policies need not influence his artistic assessments.
OA’s action opens up larger questions.
‘Major Performing Arts companies’ (MPAs) are funded by the Australia Council through a process separate from funding decisions for small companies and independent artists.
The funding applications from the latter are assessed and ranked by artist ‘peers’ on the basis of the quality of their art and their proposed use of the funds. Also, the financial plan needs to stack up. More than 80% of applicants are not successful in gaining funding, not necessarily because they are not worthy but rather, because the money runs out.
The MPAs on the other hand have funding that is essentially guaranteed unless they are not meeting the Australia Council’s business expectations. During George Brandis’s raid on funding from artists and small companies, the MPAs’ basic funding was quarantined from cuts. Furthermore, although the purpose of the MPAs is not so much to be successful businesses as to be artistic flagships, poor artistic output does not endanger their subsidies because so far as we know, there is no Australia Council formal artistic evaluation of their work. For the small companies and individual artists, funding decisions begin with an artistic evaluation and ranking.
So although Opera Australia receives by far the largest grant of any of the performing arts companies ($25 million), there is no formal assurance that this level of support is artistically justified.
The only regular public evaluation of the artistic work of OA and the other MPAs comes through published reviews. The Australia Council seeks to support ‘artistic vibrancy’ and in fact identifies media reviews as one of the suggested measures.
There is no quality control for media reviewers other than whatever their editors bring and there is no relevant quality control either for the editors. So the reviews may range from expert to seriously uninformed.
Nevertheless, we begin to know where to look for credible reviews and their role then does go well beyond gossip or promotion.
Neutze’s offending article discussed aspects of OA’s personnel policy: its increasing employment of foreign singers to the evident cost of Australian singers and its treatment of a creative team for an Opera on the Harbour rerun.
Neutze cited findings by the National Opera Review, which as an official inquiry could be supposed to be expert and factual. One graph showed that from 2010 to 2016, the annual total number of performances in leading roles decreased from 838 to 634 (-24%) but of these, the number of performances by foreign artists increased from 60 to 251 (+318%) and for Australian artists decreased from 778 to 383 (-51%). A chart gave year by year detail of these changes.
The Review saw this as an issue and states ‘A trigger for a conversation in relation to an appropriate balance in relation to the percent of performances by Australian singers in leading mainstage opera roles might be set at 80 percent.’ It says that OA has fallen below the 80% figure for the last four years.
OA has responded to the Daily Review with the assertion that 94% of principal roles are sung by Australians. If you go to the OA website, you will find a list of about 270 ‘Principal Singers’. Some are familiar names in major roles but most would at best sing only small roles. Possibly, some on the list are not given any roles at all. The term used by the Opera Review description is ‘leading roles’ hence, presumably, there is a difference between a leading singer and a principal singer.
OA appears to have shifted categories to evade the criticism. ‘Opera Australia predominantly casts Australian singers … However, Opera Australia is one of the world’s leading international opera companies and believes that Australians deserve to hear a wide range of the world’s best singers, no matter where they were born. Paris Opera, La Scala and Chicago Opera are not expected to only hire French, Italian or American singers, and neither should opera in Sydney and Melbourne only feature Australian singers.’
And of course, that is another evasion. Nobody is suggesting that there should be a ban on foreign singers. It is good for Australian opera companies and audiences that we hear the world’s ‘best’ singers (although that is not always the outcome of importation).
OA may have aspirations to be a leading international opera company and that’s good and many of its productions are excellent. But it is funded as the Australian national company. Surely that must mean that it has a major responsibility for fostering Australian artists and works.
As an aside – it would be good if more of the importations were Australian singers who are achieving major international success. That would help the statistics, too.
Opera Australia receives very substantial funding as the national opera company. Does the national funding body, the Australia Council, have a view of what that entails? What responsibilities does it envisage fall to the opera company in order to warrant its favoured status and funding? Is it enough that it operates within budget and causes no financial embarrassment? What is its cultural role?
Of course, the Council may make suggestions or impose requirements in private communications to the company. However, on the evidence they do not include stipulations about support to Australian singers or indeed diversity of repertoire or support to new work or similar matters raised by the Review. Does the Council place no requirement on the company that could possibly divert it from financial ‘success’ and for which Council could then be blamed?
It is not a good idea for funding bodies to be involved in the management or artistic operations of their clients. However, the purpose of the MAPs is artistic and it is highly desirable that the funding bodies define broad expectations about how the artistic purpose is achieved – and assess the quality of the achievement. What are the appropriate expectations of the national opera company? Should we have a national opera company at all?
There are dozens of questions to ask. Which ones are asked by the Australia Council?
From the New York Times editorial by James Bennet April 28
… particularly during this turbulent and searching time in America and around the world, we should have the humility to recognize we may not be right about everything and the courage to test our own assumptions and arguments. In the Opinion pages of The Times, I believe the best way to do that, and to serve you, is to foster collegial debate among brave, honest journalists with very different points of view.