National Opera Review: draft submission from The Music Trust | The Music Trust


Richard Letts, with contributions from Michael Campbell, Lynn Gailey, Alex Masso, Mandy Stefanakis, Vicki Watson and informants from within the sector. February 2015

NOTE. This submission was prepared in anticipation of a call for submissions from the review committee. However, as of July 2015, the call has not come and it is rumoured that the date by which the committee is to report has been postponed from June to late in the year, possibly because of the uproar around the Minister’s reallocation of Australia Council funds to administration by his own Ministry.

The committee has conducted live hearings but it is clear that in that context, ideas even of the complexity presented here were not and possiblyt can not be satisfactorily delivered.



The scope of the Review

The Terms of Reference direct the review to consider the circumstances of the four main companies funded by the Commonwealth: Opera Australia, Opera Queensland, State Opera of South Australia and the West Australian Opera. But if the Panel is truly to conduct a National Opera Review, it will need to take full advantage of the appended Term of Reference authorising it to include “other issues it considers relevant”. Its findings will be more telling if it considers the context – the situation of the entire opera sector in Australia and its further development.

Our concern is with the vibrancy of opera in Australia and this submission is written from that perspective.

Operatic artists

The vibrancy of opera in Australia depends above all upon the quality and circumstances of our operatic artists. To an extent, the designers, lighting people, choreographers, even directors, have opportunities in other art forms and do not depend exclusively on opera for their careers. Operatic conductors require particular operatic knowledge and skills and tend to specialise in opera, although some may work also for orchestras. Opera singers primarily depend upon opera even though some may find themselves suited occasionally to work in older musicals. The same applies to music staff such as repetiteurs and coaches. So the operatic artists on the musical side depend largely on the opera companies for employment.

We are concerned not just for the operatic artform in Australia, but above all for opera created and performed by Australians. Singers are the bedrock and we want the finest Australian singers to have the opportunity to live their creative lives in Australia and be adequately remunerated for that. Considerations around this are taken up in the paper.

The national company has tripled the performances given to imported principal singers since 2010 and reduced the employment of Australian singers. The impediments to the use of imported singers have been removed and there is no onus upon the national – or state – companies to consider the larger questions around the situation of singers. An overview and a policy are needed, taking into account the needs of singers throughout their careers. Consideration should be given also to the development and employment of Australian conductors and directors.

Pre-professional development of singers is poorly provided for. Support could be given to small companies that provide opportunities for young singers to perform roles on stage.


It is not conceivable that the artform can survive if companies present almost exclusively the few most popular operas of the past. This is especially at issue because of the current policy and program of the national company which is presenting a reduced season of 12 works, virtually all of them Italian and very frequently programmed, and which has somewhat belligerently stated that it will not be performing operas of our time.

The companies need to prepare a repertoire of operas of our time, including operas by Australian composers, capable of building audiences to a level that is financially sustaining. In fact, the much less resourced state companies and a smattering of very small companies manage to present operas of our time with some success – as, apparently, do many American companies. (So also do European companies but their subsidy levels support risk-taking.)

We suggest that the national and state companies should be required to take a developmental role for opera in Australia as an aspect of their core funded activity. This role may have to do with development of repertoire or singers or some other aspect of opera. Those that do so satisfactorily will be eligible to compete for special additional funds to enhance or add to these developmental activities.


It is hypothesised that the single-minded pursuit of large audiences through presentation of a limited popular repertoire could have the effect of discouraging the experienced core audience and making a company hostage to the popular repertoire. Strategies are needed both to build audiences and build audience curiosity and risk-taking in the interests of the survival and vitality of the artform. Consideration could be given to building audiences through the media as well as through live presentation.


Opera involves many artists and many disciplines. It is very expensive to produce and present and absorbs, for instance, 10% of all arts subsidies from the Australia Council. Its funding is privileged in various ways and this arouses resentment in the performing arts sector, potentially a politically dangerous situation. It is difficult to see a solution to this problem.

Because opera in Australia is not richly funded by comparison with the funding to European companies and therefore is more dependent on box office, companies are more at risk financially if they innovate.

The companies, especially the state and smaller companies, could use more money. On the other hand, opera’s existing share of the available funds argues that other artforms should have preference. Our suggestion is that all boats must rise.

The national company and the state companies

The national company in 2013 received slightly more than twice the government funding provided to the state companies in total ($26.4m : $12.5m). Examination of the activities of the national and state companies shows that the levels of activity are roughly in proportion to the levels of subsidy.

What is the role of the national company that would justify its privileged funding? It does serve the two largest cities with between them about 40% of the national population. It has by far the largest program and audience – but then that should follow from the size of the subsidy. The paper suggests some ways in which it could assert a national role.

But it is evident that despite their more lowly circumstances, it is the state companies that are the innovators. It questions whether there has ever been an assessment of the optimal role of these companies and speculates that the level of funding and therefore of activity is largely historical and arbitrary. It is suggested that there should be such an assessment and that the health of opera in Australia would be supported by a more equal level of subsidies.


Dear Review Panel

We are pleased to have the opportunity to make this submission.

The submission addresses big issues for opera in Australia and those Terms of Reference to which we think we can make a contribution.

It has been formulated by The Music Trust, a national organisation established in 2013 to undertake projects to advance music in Australia. Since it is new, a summary of its activities: it has advocated on behalf of, inter alia, school music education, strengthening ABC Classic FM, culture’s place in international trade agreements and via this submission, the development of opera in Australia. Its website the Music in Australia Knowledge Base is an ambitious program to attempt to describe the entire Australian music sector.The Trust organises the prestigious Freedman Music Awards in classical music and jazz, and a research award in music education. It undertakes research, produces papers, and publishes monthly reviews of music books and recordings.

In its activities, it is guided by an Advisory Council of very distinguished members of the cultural sector.[1] The Director is Dr Richard Letts and some biographical information can be found in the endnotes.[2]

Terms of reference

The Review of course must address its Terms of Reference. We urge the Review members to take full advantage of the appended term: The Review may also examine and report on any other issues it considers relevant or incidental.

A ‘national opera review’ that considers only the performance of the four companies now funded by the Commonwealth is severely constrained. The exclusion of the Victorian Opera – and indeed, important small companies – demonstrates that the present situation is an accident of history rather than the result of a vision of how opera can flourish in this country.

This submission addresses some of the main terms of reference but takes some further steps towards the review suggested by the title.


Many of the matters laid out in this term require access to company documents. We comment on only a few others.

[The Terms of Reference will be shown in this way throughout this paper.]

The companies’ ongoing financial viability is to be assessed, including having regard to the following:

• The effectiveness and efficiency of the delivery of opera performances in Australia by the four opera companies, including developing an assessment of:

o Their workplace arrangements, including workforce flexibility and the sustainability of the approach adopted;

“Workplace flexibility” is often taken as code these days for maximum freedom for managements and minimum consideration for workers.
This review is, one hopes, about the optimal conditions for the flowering of an artform in the particular circumstances of the Australian cultural, social and economic environment. That flowering of course depends upon everyone involved: management, production personnel, artists – but finally, on the artists, both creators and performers.

The knowledge and skills required for the creation of operatic artists and productions can barely be understood by we who are not directly involved, including business people who increasingly make decisions about the operations of arts companies.

Management needs the authority and skills to be efficient, productive, effective and this requires workable employment practices.

But what are the conditions in which fine operatic artists of all disciplines can sustain satisfying careers in Australia? In what ways should their opportunities be protected and maximised?

To what extent should Australian singers be protected from competition by imported artists? Because of changes at Opera Australia, this issue has become one of lively current concern. We are informed that there were 70 performances by foreign artists in 2010 and 215 in 2015. The increase has been paid for by a reduction in employment for resident Australian artists.

This situation has arisen in part because there is no longer a balanced process for review of applications for visas for foreign artists. For many years, arts companies were classified by the Department of Immigration as “cultural/non-commercial” but in 2010 were reclassified as “not-for-profit”. This, in itself, seems rational if unnecessary. However, under the cultural/non-commercial category, the Department was required to consider advice from the relevant union – the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance. MEAA would discuss with the applicant companies the merits of each case in terms of striking a balance between the need to support employment for Australian artists, the particular artistic needs to be met by the imported artist, achievement of international performance standards and the public good and then make its recommendation. But under the new classification, the Department of Immigration is not bound to seek the union’s advice and therefore, on the face of it, responds only to the applicant company’s argument. Whether it has its own guidelines or expert knowledge or seeks advice from elsewhere we do not know, but the circumstantial evidence of greatly increased use of imported singers suggests that there are either new rules or no rules. In both cases, it would be good to know the Department’s objectives.

Company managers and artistic directors must have the immediate interests of their company to the fore and cannot be depended upon to view this question from the larger perspective of the prospects and vibrancy of the art form in Australia. The union presented a useful moderating force, now absent.

There should be a process for reaching decisions on importation of artists that balances the various needs and objectives including the maintenance of sufficient employment opportunities for Australian artists.

The corporate structures, constitutions, management and governance of each company to ensure they are fit for purpose.

The role of the business community and business ethic. There is increasing concern in the artistic community that control of arts companies is passing to business people. Ralph Myers, until recently the Artistic Director of Belvoir Theatre, comments that business people are now being appointed as Artistic Directors.[3] The Australia Council pushes for business people to be appointed to Boards. Opera company boards consist almost entirely of business people. Reviews like this one have tended to give priority to issues around the financial viability of companies rather than their artistic results and cultural contributions.

Financial viability for artistically mediocre programs could be said to be counter-productive. Business people bring business skills that can strengthen financial viability of companies, skills which should not be expected in artists. But Myers comments that business people will be likely to choose safety over vibrancy.

Is there adequate artistic membership on the Boards of each of the companies? Do all members have an informed knowledge not only of the operations of their company but also of its role in the development of opera in its community and in the country as a whole? Do they engage with the issues of repertoire and artist development that are fundamental to the future of opera in Australia?

• The rationale and role of government funding in supporting the operations of the companies.

Is the funding enough?

Is the current funding level too great a call on government funds overall?

As a proportion of government budgets, support to opera and to the arts as a whole is miniscule. The appropriate level of support from that viewpoint is entirely a matter of values, of perceived public good.

As a percentage of government arts budgets, is the level of opera funding appropriate?

It is high – about 10% of the total Australia Council budget. Most of the opera funding goes to Opera Australia. Funding to state companies comes mostly from state governments and while very modest in the world of opera funding, is a significant part of state arts budgets. It is important to note that the issue here is not the adequacy of opera funding, but its share of arts funding.

Commonwealth funding to opera has been protected by governments of both persuasions, presumably because previous inquiries, seeking to put an end to companies going into the red and then more or less holding governments to ransom, have indexed funding but imposed management standards and practices. Having in a sense set the conditions for financial viability of the companies, it would be curious if the government then did not play its part. Consistent with this, in the recent budget cuts funding to the major performing arts companies was quarantined and the small companies and individual artists had to bear the entire burden – we estimate roughly an overall cut of around 20%.

As a consequence of the relatively high funding and the protection of funding levels, there is considerable resentment of opera and orchestral music in the music world as a whole. This is both unpleasant and politically dangerous, especially if, as informal communication suggests, most parliamentarians are fairly ignorant of classical music and are not very supportive. (They are, after all, products of our education system!) It is not inconceivable that at some point these various forces will align, and opera will be vulnerable. One has the impression that the big companies ignore the issue and go their way. This is not prudent.

Solutions? Difficult. Quarantining companies from funding cuts applied to everyone else is a dramatization of privilege at the time that the others are in crisis. ‘All in this together’ would be a great improvement. Increasing overall funding, or funding to the small end of town, would be helpful but beyond the scope of this review. We do not suggest a cut to opera funding.

Are the funding levels to the companies adequate?

Panel members will be aware that subsidies to European companies account generally for about 80% of their income. In the USA, there is little government subsidy and far less opera. The subsidy level in Europe supports more activity, more innovation, more support to artists. There may well be as many Australian singers employed in Germany as in Australia, who knows. There is no prospect of this level of subsidy in Australia although the small size and geographical isolation of the Australian opera market may argue for it.

At a crude level, it can be said that in Australian companies, the level of activity is proportionate to the funding. Opera Australia gets about nine times the funding of the average to state companies and presents 10 times the number of opera performances (helped probably by its location in the largest cities).[4] Opera Australia’s heft has given it advantage in building sponsorships and donations. Indeed, the diminution of its subsidy level to 26% of total income is not a result of falling subsidy so much as increased income from other sources.

Funding levels become hostages to their history. The level of activity of the state companies is approximately proportionate to their subsidies but on what basis were their subsidy levels initially decided? Probably the states were lobbied, there was horse-trading and we got what we got. Once a funding level is established, it is difficult to achieve more than incremental change, no matter how arbitrary the initial decision.

The funding level dictates the scale of operation but is the scale of operation appropriate?

State companies. Looking at the 2015 programs of the four state companies as published on their websites, there is a pleasing diversity of approach, in general a good thing for the opera ecology. One offers four mainstage operas, one offers three. The other two present one mainstage opera and one musical theatre work (by Sondheim and Bernstein, so from the serious end). Only two have children’s developmental programs. None presents a new mainstage work for an adult audience (this is not a typical year in that regard). There are a number of new works for presentation to children or even performed by children. There are various other concerts, studio performances, ‘pop-up’ performances, galas etc and we do not presume to second guess their purpose. It does seem to us, however, that you cannot build an opera audience without giving regular opera experiences and two mainstage productions in a year may not be enough. (One of those companies is the Victorian Opera so it is in an ecology where there is a powerful mainstage season from OA. The other is OQ which has a big operating deficit so perhaps it has no choice.)

The above description is a snapshot of the year 2015. But the programs can vary a lot from one year to another. State Opera of South Australia programs high risk years likely to incur deficits followed by low risk year to return to surplus. This is strategic, admirable and apparently workable. The Victorian Opera has a policy for commissioning a new work each year although this will not necessarily result in the production of a new work every year.

But what would be a reasonable provision of opera in these various cities, taking into account size and distribution of population, its interest, the special cultural opportunities and obstacles, not to mention, if one may, the actual issues around the artform, and development of the artform and audience? We will return to these issues.

We suggest that consideration of these questions would probably lead to a conclusion that the state companies could be supported to do more.[5] We could ask also: What level of activity would be sufficient to support a small coterie of accomplished resident artists? What functions can the state companies carry out better than can the national company? Would a larger scale of activity improve their ability to secure sponsorships and private donations, as it has for OA?

• Benchmark information on the delivery of opera in Australia versus comparable opera companies internationally.

We have not conducted research into this matter. However, the committee may find this article anecdotally interesting.[6] It is about the robust health of the opera companies in Athens and Madrid despite the extremes of their economic situations. The Athens company is especially interesting because the season described, presumably normal in Athens, would be high adventure in an Australian company, and because of its unusual and effective audience building activities. (For much more on the repertoire issue, see below.)


The companies’ ongoing artistic vitality is to be assessed, including having regard to the following:

• An assessment of the artistic vibrancy of the companies and the relationship with their financial strength;

Repertoire: standard repertoire

Opera companies around the world have a staple repertoire of ‘standard’ 18th and 19th century works. Opera Australia has a large enough program for repertoire balance to be an issue and views to be put. In 2015, the number of works has been reduced from 16 to 12 and they are almost all Italian and extraordinarily familiar.

On the face of it, the OA strategy is to enlarge the core audience – an important objective – by selling it the core popular repertoire. Allied to this is the programming of high quality imported artists in lead roles. Their relative merits will be recognised and assessed by an experienced audience but not by a new audience so presumably they are intended to attract the regular core audience to works with which it is already very familiar. As noted, there is a consequence for the company structure and Australian singers.

Is the intention then to reduce the repertoire to the 12 works in this year’s program plus a few others? In its Sydney hearing, the Review panel was told that hundreds of seats were empty for L’elisir d’amore, a work that while perhaps unfamiliar, is hardly a challenge musically (and the production was delightful). Does this indicate a further decrease in the remaining audience’s willingness to step one centimetre beyond the totally familiar?

Hypothesis: beyond a certain point, the larger the total audience required per production, the greater the membership of people with little experience or familiarity with the repertoire. If the financial viability of a large opera company depends upon attracting very large audiences to every production, it will have to cope with the inexperience of the large audience by presenting the most popular works. Hypothesis 2: with programming of only popular works for the large audience, the experienced audience drops away as the inexperienced audience builds. The company becomes even more firmly a hostage to the narrow repertoire.

Half a dozen long-term subscribers have told the writer that they are not subscribing this year. This repertoire is no longer interesting to them. They are fairly traditional opera goers who feel let down: there is some resentment behind their decisions. Are they representative?

It would be interesting to explore the possible consequences of the OA strategy. For instance, is the experienced core audience resubscribing in its usual numbers. More speculations follow.

Repertoire: opera of our time

But the big issue is new repertoire, opera of our time.

It is not conceivable that opera can survive indefinitely on the apparently ever-tightening repertoire choices we see today. The Music Trust surveyed the programming by Australian orchestras and opera companies in 2014 of Australian works and newish works from anywhere. The news is very dispiriting. Please see the linked paper on the Music in Australia Knowledge Base.[7]

Artistic Director of OA, Lyndon Terracini announced somewhat belligerently a couple of years ago that OA would not be presenting any new opera because no-one wanted to listen to it and the people who do want it presented are ‘opera snobs’.

(There nevertheless have been media announcements of an OA commission for a children’s opera, The Rabbits. There are conflicting reports of the provenance of this project, however it seems clear that there is a partnership between the Perth and Melbourne Festivals, Perth’s Barking Gecko children’s theatre, the West Australian Opera and Opera Australia. It will play in Perth and Melbourne.)

The experience with L’elisir d’amore suggests that it is unfamiliarity, not just the dissonance in new works, that deters some audiences. In any case, Terracini is misleading when he characterises all new opera as unlistenable. The production of Of Mice and Men a little while ago was very audience-friendly. Review committee members may know of the American Greg Sandow, a campaigner for classical music to change its ways if it wants to survive. He wrote to The Music Trust recently that many of the state companies were presenting new American operas like Of Mice and Men, successfully. And they are not protected by government subsidies. New American opera did not go down the modernist path as devotedly as did opera in Europe and there are many audience-friendly works of quality, that speak of our time. Who saw John Adams’ Nixon in China at the Victorian Opera a couple of years ago? Stunning. There could be more such Australian works too, if composers were given a chance.

Strategies to produce new operatic works. If we want Australian composers to produce fine operatic works, they have to be given the opportunity to write them and to test them on stage and then rewrite them, even several times, to learn not only about operatic composition and voices but drama and the stage. Marvin Hamlisch, composer of Chorus Line, says that it took eight years of workshopping before its eventual full production. The test for musicals is ultimately, will they make a profit? The test for serious opera is, is it good? [8]

Although new mainstage opera is, according to its Artistic Director, beyond the capacity of the national company, three of the four state companies are involved in commissioning and producing new works. The tiny State Opera of South Australia has commissioned, is workshopping and may present productions of three operas created by Australians. The first, Cloudstreet, was an opera waiting to happen, already highly successful as a novel and as theatre. The score is being written by George Palmer, whose style is comparable in a general way to some of those currently successful American composers. He has written vocal works, mostly religious in theme, orchestral and chamber works, but no dramatic works. On the face of it, he should receive considerable dramaturgical and workshopping assistance. As noted, Victorian Opera commissions a work each year. West Australian Opera is involved in The Rabbits and in a joint commission with the Victorian Opera and New Zealand Opera for an opera, Star Navigator, by Neil Finn.

Under Moffatt Oxenbould as Artistic Director, The Australian Opera instituted a workshop process for Australian composers, called that National Opera Workshop. The committee could inquire of Moffatt about the success of the Workshop. Our understanding is that it produced works both good and awful, as would be expected, and some additional important serendipitous benefits. Its disappearance was a result of unrelated circumstances rather than failure in achieving its purpose, although it probably needed years more for that to be assessed.

We argue that opera’s future depends upon strengthening the process of creation and production of new work of artistic integrity and audience appeal and persevering with and testing it for at least ten years.

Developmental role: funding. At the Sydney meeting, the question of the developmental role of the opera companies came up, not only with regard to repertoire but also artists. If they have a developmental responsibility, it has to be a condition of their basic funding that they execute it. It is not sufficient for the companies to say that we cannot afford it unless specially funded because that would suggest that this role is secondary and optional, only an appendage to the main business.

However, there could be additional funds available via competitive applications, for which those who are satisfactorily mounting a developmental program on their core funding, are eligible. Something along these lines was included in Simon Crean’s cultural plan.

Perhaps the role of the development of new repertoire would more fruitfully be assigned to the state (and small) companies. They already demonstrate an interest. Their management costs may be lower. They are not as hostage to costs of magnificence in production as is OA, nor the need for very large audiences. They would benefit from increased activity. There could be an energising diversity of approaches. When a really good opera eventuates, it could be scaled up for mainstage production by the originating company or even purchased by OA for mainstage seasons in the larger cities.

A modest increase in core funding would be needed, on top of which they could compete for the special development funds. Victorian Opera and the small companies should be eligible to apply.

Opera and the media. Major companies are filming their staged opera productions for world-wide cinema release. OA has done so. What are the outcomes for audience and artform?

More interesting, there is a commission to Elena Kats-Chernin to compose an opera for television. Elena is experienced in writing for theatre and can compose interesting music in an approachable style. We are not equipped to comment on the possible impact or the practicalities but the idea is clearly worth exploration. Presumably, costs could be covered through fees from television networks, mainly in Europe, and the need for box office is circumvented. If successful on television, the path may have been prepared for a stage production.

This commission comes not from the OA but from the five opera company members of the Opera Conference, for which OA is the lead organisation. All companies contribute financially. Decisions about the work have been made collectively.

There are possibilities for opera productions for the internet. We are not competent to explore this but there would be those who are.

• An analysis of the ways the delivery of opera in Australia contributes to the development of artists, musicians and other practitioners from the early to later stages of their careers.

Australian singers

It is good that we hear fine foreign singers on our stages. It’s even good for our singers. But there is no excuse for importing singers who are not of higher quality than the resident Australians. And if singers are to be imported, a national opera strategy would probably give preference to overseas-based Australians, other things being equal.

The Sydney meeting heard from young singers who said that they cannot get work here at the beginning of their careers and so have to go overseas. They achieve professional standing there, and then still cannot come back because there are too few opportunities.

Meanwhile, here, the main employer, OA, is reducing the number of resident principals and the size of the chorus, in favour of foreign singers and presumably, the budget.

There will never be enough work in Australia to occupy every deserving singer. Nevertheless, if first rate artists are to live here, they have to be able to win a decent living. They cannot pop across the border for short-term engagements and experience shows that it is very difficult to be based here and build or sustain careers in Europe or the USA.

Companies preoccupied only with their own success and especially with their business, are not necessarily thinking about the national situation of opera. How can this be brought to bear?

Pre-professional development

A big problem for young pre-professional singers is that their main opportunity in Australia comes from competitions. Competitions give a very limited experience and the reward is to be given money to leave the country.

What they need are opportunities to get on stage and sing roles. Where do they do this? Even in the opera schools, opportunities are very limited and the graduate fees are terrifying. We can think of only four amateur opera companies in Australia. There are very few ‘young artist’ opportunities and the professional companies are not going to give major roles to young artists.

Pacific Opera when Christine Douglas was the Director seemed to offer a brilliant model. It is a model that could be taken up by the Review under the appended final Term of Reference. Pacific Opera was unfunded, the pressure on its leaders was relentless and in that previous form, it succumbed. This is probably typical.

A relatively small amount of funding could give some stability and encourage the formation and development of such companies.

Older singers

The Sydney meeting heard that fine singers over 40 are being displaced by young singers. But there are not enough opportunities for younger singers either. From the supply side perspective, the “scene” needs to be larger. This issue needs attention and proposals from the Review.


Some hold that it is the role of the national company to tour to all capitals.
This is an extraordinarily bad idea. Such touring is costly and the extra expenditure supports the travel industry, not opera. Far better to spend such funds on building the strength of the state companies and indeed, such small companies as Pinchgut, Chamber Made, Sydney Chamber Opera.

Touring by small companies can reach distant audiences and give valuable experience to young singers. They do not meet costs from box office and require subsidy.


The extent of access provided by the companies and the way that interrelates with their artistic vibrancy and financial viability, including having regard to the following:

• An assessment of the delivery of opera in metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas, including through:

o The delivery of performances, including regional touring;

o Education programs.

• Ways to broaden and increase audience engagement across all Australian states.

Building audiences

If what one sees on the companies’ websites gives the full picture, not all companies offer performances or other exposure for children, although it has been an article of faith for many years that this is essential to production of future audiences.

A study by the Knight Foundation in the USA found that future audiences were created, not by taking children to performances but by teaching them music-making. To give extended music-making experiences to very large numbers of children is not something that can be expected of the opera companies. It’s a job for the schools and one in which, generally the state and Catholic systems, at primary school level, fail. Are there ways in which the companies could induce greater school activity?

We have a suggestion. Most primary schools have no music education program. After a lot of analysis of the situation, we believe that in present circumstances, the best possibility for increasing music education in schools is to persuade principals to introduce or improve music programs, using specialist music teachers.

Opera companies could accelerate this by seeking to persuade and assist principals to take action. Such action could leverage results far more than can direct provision of workshops to the children. For The Music Trust analysis, go to the linked website. [9]

Assistance from the media

Following upon the cuts to the ABC and the slashing of the live broadcasts and recording program of ABC Classic FM, The Music Trust has been preparing a proposal for a reconceived broadcaster which, inter alia, would address the repertoire issue, build young audiences and offer collaboration with the performing companies. Building audiences initially through free media seems to have advantages over trying to sell tickets to those with no experience that would give a predisposition to buy them.[10]

We would enjoy discussing it if the committee finds that helpful.


On the role of the state companies

Does each of the state companies have a clear conception of a distinctive character and purpose?

Is this a useful question? What would drive them to do so?

Each plays to a local audience and in Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane, there is no competition. Their programs, as we have seen, are small: in 2015, two, three or four mainstage productions: probably not enough to build a knowledgeable, passionate audience of any size. Given those circumstances, one would think that there is strong pressure to present the most popular traditional operas in order to attract and build an audience and balance the books.

And yet – it is the national company that has the most conventional repertoire and the state companies that are at present the repertoire risk-takers. In other development areas, OA for instance has a young artist program but the Victorian Opera has a larger one and has formed a partnership with a tertiary institution to enrich it.

If there were a strong sense of a national opera enterprise, understood not only by the companies but with the public somehow brought into the picture, state companies could be encouraged to seek to develop and celebrate their distinctive characters. The Victorian Opera has a special opportunity – which it seems already to exploit – because the audience need for standard repertoire can be satisfied (more luxuriously?) by the OA. The others already present both standard and new repertoire so the conditions are there in which to build distinctive identities.

Other areas in which they could develop distinctive character include artist development, commissioning, collaborations with other art forms, use of technology, use of media, audience development, children’s programs, use of alternative venues, development of small schools or touring companies, regional touring, community collaborations.

How could that sense of a national opera enterprise be introduced and nurtured, one in which the state companies do not simply, in isolation, serve the local audience but assist in creating an opera “scene” in which the whole country is engaged?

If a state company is to contribute to a national opera enterprise, it is tautological that what it is doing must be distinctive and must be shown or known beyond state borders.

Some illustrative possibilities:

• Frequently, a noteworthy state company production is presented in a major festival in another state.

• In their home cities, State companies could present something strong and distinctive and capable of attracting audiences from other states or even from overseas. The State Opera of South Australia in 2014 presented a set of three Philip Glass operas in repertory for the first time ever in this country, attracting an interstate audience which could have been expanded further had there been more funds for marketing.

• A state company could tour regionally and interstate a very small but brilliant production, light on its feet, requiring modest funding and building a different sort of audience.

• A state company could organise an annual residential opera workshop and/or production for young singers recruited nationally (just as could OA).

On the role of the national company

What is it that makes the national company national? In its early days, there was a view that the national company should tour regularly to all the main capitals. In the 1980s, citizens of Perth and other capitals would complain: How can it be the national opera company if we never see it perform?

Clearly OA cannot tour to all capital cities on a regular basis without major additional funding. Would this be the best use of such funds? We have already given an opinion on that idea.

But what then qualifies the OA to be seen as the national company, remembering that with the designation comes Federal funding far in excess of that to any other company? (This has in the past been a matter of hot public contention, promoted especially from Victoria.)

To assert that it is the national company because it has the largest program begs the question. It has the largest program because it has the largest subsidy.

To what extent does that largest program serve a national purpose? It can produce large operas such as The Ring, but then so did SOSA. It can import star singers but so also do other companies on occasion and the ability is tied to the subsidy level. It could produce new, cutting edge opera, but appears to have a contrary philosophy and in any case, it is better if there are many companies doing so.

Are there nationally important activities that it is uniquely placed to carry out?

• Well, it is the only company that operates artistically year-round. It therefore is especially well placed to give full time employment to operatic artists. Its preference for Australian artists can contribute significantly to the viability of locally based careers not only for singers but also conductors, directors, designers and others – and indeed, people in opera management.

• Whether it has any advantage in offering young artists’ programs is not so clear, on the evidence. Its year-round artistic operation should be an advantage. But perhaps it is more constrained than smaller companies in giving young artists principal roles. It could establish an annual program like the Merola Program that runs in conjunction with the San Francisco Opera; that could be enormously valuable.

• It can commission and produce new operatic works for film or television. The initiative with Elena Kats-Chernin may point the way. While there need not be a view that the projection of Australian opera internationally is the prerogative solely of the national company, it is an appropriate role and such productions would necessarily be sold internationally in order to recover their costs. We do not know the economics and whether financially OA is best placed to undertake these projects.

If we all were free to re-invent the structure of opera in Australia, would the present structure of a large, relatively well funded “national” company, much smaller state companies and a smattering of small, innovative companies be our choice? Perhaps not.

We assert that an ecology in which the main companies are more equally resourced would lead to a more vital and creative opera for Australia.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Australia decided that it will be the best it can be in the field of opera (or any other art) instead of again opting for the medium ground – or the minimum acceptable? Describe the best we can be; that would be an interesting conversation. The best we can be is not about an open cheque book but an artistic vision that suits the character and circumstances of this country. It would speak to our people, our world, about the things that matter to them. [11]

Thank you for the opportunity to make this submission. We would be happy to respond to any questions.

Yours sincerely
Richard Letts AM


  1. Advisory Council members: There are two main websites: and and a special music education advocacy site,
  2. Richard Letts has been a practising musician. He holds a PhD from the University of Californian at Berkeley, was Director of two performing arts schools in the USA, returned to Australia as Director of the Music Board of the Australia Council, then of the Australian Music Centre. While at the Music Board, he wrote the ‘Tribe Report’ which led to the independence of the former ABC orchestras. In 1994, he established the national music council now known as Music Australia, and left it in 2013 and set up The Music Trust. He has completed major research projects and published books and many papers. From 2005 to 2009, he was President of the International Music Council, based at UNESCO, Paris. He has not worked in opera.
  4. Hopefully, we can assume that the very substantial music theatre program, now with almost as many performances as the entire opera season, has the purpose of earning a profit which then is used to support the opera program. There is a long list of reasons that popular musicals should not be supported from government subsidies.
  5. Random example from Germany: in Karlsruhe, population about 315,000, there is this year a 10-month season presenting seven productions, one of them a new work.
  8. It may be helpful to make the following distinction in matters of government financial assistance.
    ‘Industry assistance’ to commercial activity such as the production of popular musicals (were it available) has the objective of supporting activity to enable it to make a profit. If it makes a profit, it has succeeded; if it does not make a profit, it has not succeeded even if, artistically, the work is good. If it was not commercially successful, the conditions for further assistance probably are not present, and if it was successful, further assistance is not needed.
    ‘Artistic subsidy’ is to support work considered to be of high artistic value, which cannot be produced on earned income alone. Its success is measured artistically. There may be financial benchmarks but normally it would not be expected that with artistic success comes financial viability. Success is artistic and recommends the producers for further subsidy, quite the opposite to the situation with industry assistance.
    Apologies to committee members for whom this was already obvious. We find considerable confusion in the community on this matter.
  11. The English National Opera (ENO) is in difficulties due to a big funding cut. Here is an excerpt from an article about ENO that suggests the possibility of an opera world that is hardly a concept in Australian discourse.
    ‘There’s a wider problem too. Opera just does not feel as if it is the artform that speaks most urgently to British audiences at the moment. Spend a night [at ENO] and then go to the Young Vic in London, or to a National Theatre of Scotland or Wales show. One can feel it: there’s an air of inquiry, challenge and excitement around British theatre that seems absent from opera.
    ‘There is no shortage of young people wanting to be in the theatre, both as artists and audiences; there is an alert community of bloggers and writers engaged in debating it, challenging the traditional gatekeepers, the newspaper critics. Look at the leaders in theatre too: there is a cadre of fizzingly dynamic figures such as Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court who, with her team, articulates a clear sense of purpose. This feeling that opera is falling behind is despite the fact that talented composers and librettists are adding wonderful works to the repertoire (think of George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s extraordinary Written on Skin, and the exciting promise of Thomas Adès’s adaptation of Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, premiering in Salzburg next year).
    ‘ENO has so much to offer. It has a wonderful orchestra, brilliant stage management, delightful front of house. It is, in short, a talented company of people that soldiers on in the teeth of setbacks, continuing to stage beautiful work. But they need to be liberated from the Coliseum [the argument is that, at 2,300 seats, it is too large], and their work infused with a stronger sense of mission. If opera is to stand a chance of reinventing itself as a crucial part of our national cultural fabric, there needs to be radical change. ENO could, and should, lead the charge.’

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