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.