Hanrahans are scarcely a new phenomenon in the so-called ‘heritage arts’. Classical music in general, and opera in particular, have been publicly declared to be dead or dying for hundreds of years. But when no less an institution than the Metropolitan Opera starts talking openly about a new ‘global crisis confronting the operatic form’, it might be time for us to take a little more notice.That is what George Brandis, the federal arts minister, seems to have done by announcing a major review of Australia’s four major federally funded opera companies(Opera Australia, State Opera of South Australia, West Australian Opera, and Opera Queensland).
One immediate response to his announcement was an Op-Ed in The Australian by Lyndon Terracini, artistic director of Opera Australia. Entitled ‘Opera Must Become More Accessible in Order to Survive’ (12 August), it argued that the challenges facing opera were essentially twofold: rising base costs and diminishing contemporary relevance.
At first glance Terracini’s prognosis seems both obvious and accurate. But his stated rationale suggests an even deeper root cause for opera’s current malaise: a decline in historical awareness and artistic vision emanating from opera companies themselves, for he makes several claims about operatic practice which are, at the very least, contestable. For instance, anticipating criticism from what he describes as ‘fringe companies’ (by which he presumably means non-government-funded companies) that opera can in fact be produced much more cheaply in Australia, he asserts that ‘the creators of some of the greatest works of art in the lyric repertoire wrote for full orchestras of 60-plus musicians and full choruses of at least 48 singers’. But operatic production has always been an art of the possible. Whether the composer was Verdi or Monteverdi, Wagner or Weber, the historical record, both in Australia and Europe, shows us that performing forces adapt to local circumstances (the size of a theatre, the quality of the soloists, etc.). The adherence to every whim of a score is in fact a recent affectation: one thing it absolutely is not is historically informed performance practice.
Terracini also laments the diminishing relevance of opera as a contemporary art form. He argues that ‘there has not been one opera written and performed anywhere in the world in the past seventy-two years that has found a place in the standard repertoire’. This is, he declares, ‘a frightening statistic’. But such a stark claim belies evidence to the contrary from around the world. While it is certainly true that opera has struggled to add to a canon forged largely in Western Europe between 1786 and 1926, the ongoing success of later works like Peter Grimes (1945), The Rake’s Progress (1951), Nixon in China (1987), and Dead Man Walking (2000), to name a few, suggests the current situation is far from hopeless.
‘Operatic production has always been an art of the possible’
Terracini is on firmer ground concerning the failure of Australian works to find a place in the repertoire. But here he might acknowledge that he is speaking on behalf of a company that has failed to support revivals of productions of successful and culturally significant Australian works such as Richard Meale’s Voss (1986) and Richard Mills’s Summer of the Seventeeth Doll (1996). In this respect, Opera Australia is in part responsible for the circumstance it decries.
Peter Gelb, Terracini’s counterpart at the Met, insists that there is no alternative now for companies other than innovation. ‘The answer is not in simply playing La Bohème to death … That is a certain recipe for losing the audience altogether.’ Yet that is what Opera Australia’s just-announced 2015 season essentially delivers. How much does OA’s declining audience base have to do with the frequency with which a few standard repertoire works return year after year?
While we should acknowledge the challenging funding environment in which Opera Australia operates, a vision of opera in Australia that does not seem to extend beyond competing with other forms of commercial entertainment will do little, if anything, to justify the limited government subsidy it already receives, let alone encourage more substantial levels of support. More worryingly, it fails to recognise that people who compose or perform operas are in the end driven not by a desire to compete with other forms of mass culture, but to use the particular aesthetic qualities and historical context of opera to expresses something unique about the human condition in order to enrich the lives of others. We should not be bashful, opera ultimately only justifies itself, financially as well as culturally, if it continues to help us evaluate and reflect upon the conditions of existence – no less.
In announcing his review, Senator Brandis declared that it was a ‘timely opportunity to take a comprehensive look at this important art form in Australia’. He is right: we can but hope that as a result of this process, government and opera companies alike will be more willing to affirm in public the value of opera as not just a financially viable form of entertainment, but also as a powerful form of aspirational culture with ongoing relevance to all Australians.