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Media

Aug 21, 2008

Opera Australia does its bit for the SMH arts pages

If you think the Brits' inferiority complex in sport was bad, you should see what’s going on in the world of opera, writes Nicholas Pickard.

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If you think the Brits’ inferiority complex in sport was bad, you should see what’s going on in the world of opera. The Brits are quite displeased with the way that a certain antipodean singer is treating one of their own.

“There is more drama off-stage than on at Opera Australia as a serious rift is developing between the company’s star singer and its British musical director,” Roger Maynard wrote in the UK’s Independent.

At the centre of the affair is a letter from mezzo-soprano Fiona Janes which has been circulated to media outlets in Australia and the UK. First picked up by the Sydney Morning Herald, it alleges that the company is descending into “an abyss of mediocrity”.

The letter also makes very serious allegations of ageism and discrimination within the company. For The Independent newspaper, it is all the more tense because of “the fact that there is a Briton at the centre of the row”.

Which, of course, is absolute garbage but this affair does bring into sharp focus the fragile relationship between media outlets and arts organisations.

The far more interesting story is how arts journalists at The Sydney Morning Herald have been put under the magnifying glass in the last few weeks. Ever since Rural Press took over the Fairfax management, there has been an order that they can no longer enjoy the freedom of working from home and that they need to put out more results.

A few noses are out of joint down at the Pyrmont headquarters in Sydney, which makes Opera Australia’s affair all the more tantalising for the arts desk at The Herald.

But arts organisations are generally not very good at dealing with public criticism at the best of times with so much sensitivity around their use of public funds. So as soon as a debate spills onto the pages of a local rag, organisations shrivel up quicker than you can throw a tomato.

As usual, this new affair with Opera Australia is primarily about personalities. It’s similar to recent public rows between disgruntled actor Colin Moody and the Sydney Theatre Company and arguments between Barrie Kosky and pretty much everyone else.

Janes’ letter is just another of these explosions. What’s interesting is that the letter was leaked to the media even after the Opera Australia board agreed to meet with the singer. The company certainly learnt a lot of lessons from the brouhaha that exploded in the media over conductor Simone Young in 2002.

But this debate is getting even more out of hand for the company as director Elke Neidhardt and singer Kirsti Harms get on board with further criticisms published in the Herald today.

Usually arts powerbrokers are unwilling to publicly open up and have a constructive debate about creative decisions, but in this case Opera Australia appears to be on the front foot and opening up communication channels.

They have sent a letter to The Herald which is yet to be published and they are re-starting a consultative committee to discuss future creative plans for the company.

The two positives out of this will of course mean that The Herald gets some more much needed arts content and the company will appear to be transparent in its dealings. As for the Brits and their sensitivities, maybe they should just concentrate on one thing at a time and keep shaming us Australians at the Olympics.

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2 comments

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2 thoughts on “Opera Australia does its bit for the SMH arts pages

  1. Emma Matthews

    Following from the ABC news story last Friday with respect to the dissenting Opera singer, I was not surprised to find an Opera Australia advertising brochure in my SMH on Saturday morning. I thought this was a clever media campaign…

  2. Hugh Northam

    I have enjoyed excellent performances by Emma Matthews and Cheryl Barker in Rusalka and Arabella respectively. Both productions involved English artistic directors. The direction of Rusalka by Opera North’s directress was asinine, silly and musically and culturally illiterate, and only just stopped short of sabotaging the excellent singing, orchestral playing and conducting. The direction of Araberlla was attractive and a complement to the performers. But compared with what one reads in reviews of a recent production of Parsifal at Covent Garden, and a production of Salome set in a cellar, one feels grateful that the mediocrity complained of by Fiona Janes does not extend to productions which, to quote The Spectator’s opera critic Michael Tanner, have the aim and objective of promoting the hegemony of modern directors at the cost of subverting the composer.

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