Opera Australia’s Lyndon Terracini responds to Peter Tregear

Lyndon Terracini Tuesday, 02 September 2014
Published in ABR Arts

Peter Tregear’s comments on Arts Update (‘Opera, the art of the possible’) regarding my recent Op. Ed. piece in The Australian are disappointing and require a response. Professor Tregear expresses strong opinions, but these opinions are not related to the facts.

Firstly, Opera Australia’s audiences have not declined, as Tregear claims. Quite the contrary. OA now has far more paying customers than at any time in its history. In 2013, OA took $51.7 million at the box office and gave 743 performances.

Secondly, Tregear quotes Peter Gelb and claims that the answer is not in ‘playing La Bohème to death’. This is extremely misleading and quite erroneous when taken out of context. The Metropolitan Opera in New York performs La Bohème every year and has done so for decades. Franco Zeffirelli’s production is a great one, and audiences love it. If The Met did not present La Bohème every year, its box office takings would be substantially lower.

Since 2012, sixty-one per cent of our paying customers have been first-time opera-goers. With Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, that figure rises to sixty-six per cent. These audiences want to see La Bohème, Tosca, La Traviata, and Carmen; and so they should. They are masterpieces which have stood the test of time. If a major opera company does not stage this repertoire, and stage it at the highest level with adequate resources, it will be out of business very quickly. There are many examples of this, none more obvious or current than the disaster of New York City Opera, which did exactly what Tregear advocates and then had to close its doors. A major opera company which had a wonderful history is gone.

‘If a major opera company does not stage this repertoire, and stage it at the highest level with adequate resources, it will be out of business very quickly’

Tregear argues that Peter Grimes, The Rake’s Progress, and Nixon in China have become part of the repertoire. That is also inaccurate. These operas can be presented, at best, once every ten years. Even in highly subsidised German opera houses, Peter Grimes is not frequently performed. That is not to say that I do not want to program Britten’s opera (I do), but the cost of presenting this repertoire cannot be absorbed into OA’s budget. For such repertoire, OA plays to approximately 6,000 people in a season, if it is a new production. Bliss failed to play to more than 6,000 people on television and in the theatre, and was extravagantly resourced. (Compare these numbers to the 20,000 people OA’s Rigoletto in the recent Sydney season.) The last time OA staged these operas, the budget shortfall was $500,000 per opera. Arabella, Capriccio, and Peter Grimes were critically acclaimed but all failed financially.

Tregear claims that one of the reasons why contemporary Australian opera doesn’t succeed is partly because OA does not revive these operas often enough. But even fewer people buy a ticket for a revival of this repertoire. When OA staged The Love of the Nightingale in Sydney after seasons in Perth, Brisbane, and Melbourne, 1,250 people bought a ticket – for the entire season. Compare that to the 22,900 people who attended Tosca last season.

Tregear expresses views which are not based on the facts and are therefore highly misleading. It is very easy to proffer opinions without undertaking proper research, but unfortunately that approach merely regurgitates falsehoods which are not constructive within any context. We are all desperate to broaden the repertoire, but unless that repertoire is adequately supported financially OA cannot afford to do it. To ignore that fact would be irresponsible. The European opera houses that perform some of this repertoire receive eighty-five per cent of their budget from government, compared with Opera Australia’s twenty-five per cent.

In 2015 some of the finest singers in the world will perform in some of the greatest operas in the repertoire for OA along with outstanding conductors and stage directors. An important part of the season is The Rabbits by Kate Miller-Heidke, which OA has co-commissioned. This is a contemporary opera that will find an audience and resonate strongly with contemporary Australians.

Accurate reporting and research are essential components of a serious debate and one would hope that in the future Peter Tregear does his homework.

Published in ABR Arts

Comments (13)

  • Leave a comment

    Performing in the chorus for OA's amazing production of Peter Grimes was one of the highlights of my performing career. Sadly it was unquestionably a box office disaster. From the stage it looked to be less than 50% attended. Such a disappointment!

    Friday, 21 November 2014 11:51 posted by Anonymous
  • Leave a comment

    In response to Mr Terracini's statement that Opera Australia sold 5349 tickets to Peter Grimes in 2009. What was the percentage of seats bought for each performance, or perhaps just an average percentage would do. The number rather implies that the Grimes performances were a little over 50% sold! which doesn't gel at all with my memory of being in the audience at the time, on more than one occasion. So what we're the box office percentages in total, not just those sold through OA but also via the venue? Just over 50% houses, on average seems preposterously low.

    Thursday, 11 September 2014 21:15 posted by Phil Turner
  • Leave a comment Lyndon Terracini

    In response to "Insider" Opera Australia sold 5349 tickets to Peter Grimes for the season in 2009. Batavia had 3640 paying customers and VOSS, 4780

    Tuesday, 09 September 2014 16:07 posted by Lyndon Terracini
  • Leave a comment Lyndon Terracini

    In response to Richard Letts' questions. In 2013 OA presented

    142 main stage performances

    133 musicals performances

    20 Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour performances

    11 Concerts

    4 Free Events

    419 Opera Australia Touring and Access performances

    13 Co-production performances.

    Total = 742 performances in one year.

    I hope that clarifies OA's activities.

    Tuesday, 09 September 2014 11:47 posted by Lyndon Terracini
  • Leave a comment

    Understood - I stand corrected.

    But I'm assuming you accept the difference between new to OA and new to opera as an artform? Both really valid - and as I stated previously - as great achievement - but very different.

    Monday, 08 September 2014 13:53 posted by David Smart
  • Leave a comment Lyndon Terracini

    In response to David Smart I would refer him to my original OpEd piece for The Australian:

    "Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH) played to 42,000 paying customers over three weeks in its first year alone and importantly 66% of that 42,000 had never ever purchased a ticket to an Opera Australia performance."

    The subsequent HOSH events, which he cites, had slightly lower first-time audience percentages, which I attribute to the first-timers from 2012 becoming repeat attendees.

    Monday, 08 September 2014 09:54 posted by Lyndon Terracini
  • Leave a comment

    If we're REALLY talking hard facts and figures Lyndon, there should be transparency about the difference between new to opera and new to OA. You could be a WA opera subscriber but never have attended OA (and therefore not be on the database). You're new to OA - but you're not new to the artform. This is still an achievement but stop trying to inflate the access figures as it just smacks of gimmickry.
    It may also be useful to be consistent with your own figures. OA's releases cite two different figures for Handa across two years (fine) - but neither of them are the 66% figure which you state above. Links here: https://opera.org.au/res/pdfs/media_releases/HOSH/130417_Carmen_triumphs_in_second_year.pdf and here https://opera.org.au/res/pdfs/media_releases/HOSH14/HOSH_Wrap_Up_release.pdf (thank you Twitter).

    And yes, 'accurate reporting and research are essential components of a serious debate.'

    People (including media and politicians) aren't stupid and notice inconsistencies. All of them are your audience.

    Friday, 05 September 2014 14:27 posted by David Smart
  • Leave a comment

    I think the quality of OA performances has improved markedly under Lyndon Terracini's leadership. It is good to know also that audiences have increased and the company operates in the black. All credit to him for those important achievements.
    Concerning factuality, Mr Terracini says that OA is presenting 743 performances this year. It advertised 384 of which 185 are popular music theatre. So there will be 200 mainstage opera performances. What accounts for the other 360 performances? Where do they fit in the budget and budget priorities?
    Mr Terracini says that "We are all desperate to broaden the repertoire" but the only gesture in this direction is a commission to a composer known as a popular singer whose record as a composer, so far as I know, is limited to popular song-writing. Presumably, this will not be a main-stage work and will not be a work that uses soloists, orchestra, chorus... In short, it seems a pretty weak response to those feelings of desperation and is as unlikely to broaden the "grand" opera repertoire as the modernist works upon which Terracini built his reputation as a singer.
    Implicit in Mr Terracini's article is that the requirement for a new work to be included in the OA mainstage season is that it should break even financially by attracting audiences to as many performances as are given of the less popular standard repertoire works - AND it should be able to be successfully re-presented at intervals of considerably less than ten years. With such requirements, Mr Terracini's desperation is unlikely to be relieved any time soon.
    The regional opera companies in the USA are managing to present new operas with sufficient success to remain in business and I am told, with audiences as good as those for less popular standard works like Rigoletto.
    Opera Australia's current all or nothing policy cannot lead anywhere. A rethink is needed: a longer-term strategy to find existing works that speak of our time, and to give Australian composers the opportunity to write and workshop operas with the prospect that the best will be presented by the company. These might initially not be mainstage works . It is a strategy that should be conceived as unfolding over the next couple of decades.
    If the State Opera of South Australia can have such a strategy, it should not be beyond the national company.

    Friday, 05 September 2014 10:15 posted by Richard Letts
  • Leave a comment

    Why we continue to accept Mr Terracini's nonsense about Peter Grimes only being able to be done every ten years is absolutely beyond me. It is demonstrably false. English National Opera has managed to do a complete sell-out run of 9, then 7 performances in the space of 5 years, OF THE SAME PRODUCTION, with largely the same cast. Not to mention the fact that Opera Australia itself had such a sell-out of it's Peter Grimes in 2009 that they were actually trying to recruit the cast to stay on for extra performances. Sadly, international schedules being what they are, none of the major cast members were available. But to say that this award-winning production could only be repeated every ten years is just plain false, and, I think, knowingly so.

    With the vocal resources that OA currently has at its disposal, the entire show could (and should) be cast from singers currently living in Australia: Barker, Coleman-Wright, Moran, Dark, Breen, Fiebig, Gore, Arthur, Anderson et al. They can even import a Grimes with an Australian passport, should they choose.

    No, this sort of selective use of what are being called "facts" is exactly the sort of things that. Mr Terracini claims is wrong with Prof Tregear's piece.

    German houses, every the highly subsidized ones, don't do Grimes for a very specific reason. It's because the story and the music simply don't resonate with a non-English speaking audience in the same way that it does for us Anglophones. To use the fact that German opera houses don't do a particular work often as an excuse for not doing it here is simply ridiculous and non-sensical. The corollary is that if a German house does do something, then so should we, so we can expect lots of Der Freischütz, Lohengrin and Viva La Mamma and Evita then, all of which get frequent outings in major German houses? Of course not. Completely different audiences. So using the "they don't, so we shouldn't either is equally ridiculous in both directions.

    Enough of treating us like people who are prepared to be spoon-fed whatever nonsense you'd like us to believe about your lack-lustre and boringly repetitive programming, Mr Terracini. If you continue to serve up the gruel, your regular diners will abandon you in droves and the "new" audience you seem so keen on will starve and won't be back for seconds.

    Wednesday, 03 September 2014 16:31 posted by Insider
  • Leave a comment

    This still doesn't explain why 2015's offerings are so slight--couldn't there be ONE opera from the 20th century or 21st century repertoire? There's been some wonderful seasons in the recent past--including Of Mice and Men, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, Macropoulos Affair, Peter Grimes. Some were poorly attended, like Of Mice and Men--but it hardly had time for the word to get around.

    Wednesday, 03 September 2014 12:29 posted by Susan Lever

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