Thursday, 4 September 2008
Mr Gordon Fell,
Chairman, Opera Australia,
Elizabeth St, Surry Hills, 2010

Subject: Performance standards

Dear Mr Fell,

I wish to contribute to the current debate on standards at Opera Australia. We have read strong criticisms by previously employed opera singers and equally powerful letters of support from currently employed artists. Because each of these could be seen as self interested, I believe that it may be more instructive to deal with facts in an unemotional manner.

Major concerns as raised by others and which I share:

  1. The employment of the wife of the musical director as a mezzo-soprano soloist in the company. This is a most unusual but not unique situation. Your Board has a responsibility to subscribers, other artists and funding agencies to ensure that Mrs Hickox has been engaged in a manner which is fair and equitable as well as at arm’s length from her husband (and consistent with his contract). Similar situations in business, politics, or medical practice would normally not permit such an arrangement at all and the spouse would need to seek employment elsewhere…
  2. Guest artists in the past four years, with few exceptions, have been of a lower standard of fame, quality and probably cost (in current dollar terms) than previously. In addition, the guest artists have often been used for small numbers of performances of what might be termed “boutique” or “connoisseur” operas such as Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. While this is not a criticism in itself, it does mean that such guest artists have only been heard in a very small proportion of the performances given by the company.

    Each year under former administrations the national company showcased at least one and sometimes three or four very famous singers each year, even if we exclude Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge’s appearances. The names include people who have made significant recordings, memorable performances at the great opera houses of the world and are or were draw-cards of the highest calibre. Such names include Botha, Connell, Jo, Schorg, Mitchell, McIntyre, Cole, Zschau, Marton, Vaness, Glossop, Milnes, Tourangeau, Horne, Pavarotti, Te Kanawa, Loringar, Resnick and Marenzi, a very incomplete list.

    A more recent list includes some fine artists, but fewer in number and often of a second or third order in comparison to the above. Several of the artists have been somewhat disappointing such as Rhys Meirion, Richard Berkley Steele and Michael Todd Simpson.

  3. Some recent problems raise questions about how professionally the company is being managed at the moment. Examples that come to mind are:

i) Why did our opera season start with musical and not an opera? An opening night Gala should be an important event in the life of an opera company, its chorus and orchestra. It is also potentially a major fund raiser. This was denied our company this year. This was an artistic decision that many long term subscribers were not happy with.

ii) Why did Orlando start at 7pm and finish at 9.35pm? And why were audiences not informed the reason at the time? Also, why did the advertised and seriously promoted conductor Mr Pinnock not conduct? Why was the audience not informed of these facts and given some reasons at the time? This seems to be the result of last minute decision making and a disregard for inconvenience to subscribers.

iii) Why was Mr Kanen Breen given the roles of Cassio and Arturo recently. He is a comprimario artist. In these two roles he was well out of his fach which is bad for him and bad for the audience. It was most disappointing to learn that the understudy for Edgardo has sung the role of Arturo and would have made an ideal cast member (and probably cost very little to use). Putting Ms Nikolic in the role of Amneris next year is highly questionable when there are more appropriate Australians to do the part. Also, Mr Carbo is obviously inappropriate for the role of Don Alfonso. He should be Guglielmo. These are just a few recent examples of poor or even outlandish casting decisions.

iv) The argument that the company is currently making a profit provides evidence that some of this surplus could have been used to employ at least one top line artist over the past year. There is an argument that this would have resulted in more ticket sales for at least one opera and possibly more subscription sales, further improving the profit line. The drawcard of the Sydney Opera House has proven irresistible to many great artists in the past. Has the OA been on contact with any agents for the great artists of our time such as Fleming, Florez, Hvorostovsky, Blythe, Licitra, Alagna, Georgiou, Netrebko, Dessay, Voigt, Pons, Villazon, Boccelli, Theorin, Pape, Westerbroek, d’Intino, de Niesse, etc?

Many of the “great performances” of recent years have been from artists who will not be singing for much longer (e.g. Connell, O’Neill, Summers, Kenny). The company needs a source of inspiration and that can best come from those with world class reputations.

v) There are many Australian singers currently overseas who should be given the opportunity of working with their national company. For example, why have we not heard Maria Pollicina, one of the best Australian singers of her generation in my view? Could it be that the management is reluctant to showcase singers with true operatic sized voices?

I hope that the board will review what is happening under its stewardship and see to it that there is quality opera in Australia instead of the current creeping mediocrity.

Peter Fray

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