It’s difficult not to think that the lunatics are in charge of the madhouse. Make that Opera House. Or more specifically the opera company. Opera Australia’s latest attempt to divert attention from its losses, its antediluvian board, its abysmal standards and cavalier attitude towards artists is to announce nation-wide auditions for singers.

Why? Don’t they have any? Or is this a publicity ploy like the earlier announcement of a conducting scholarship in memory of the late Richard Hickox? As the highly experienced and widely admired critic John Carmody pointed out in a letter to Opera Magazine republished in Crikey, Hickox’s legacy is a dubious one. As another music critic, the SMH’s Peter McCallum wrote, Hickox’s strength was in the English repertoire. “His heart and soul was (sic) really in English music.” So why the rush to anoint him? Given that Radiance, the expensive concert tribute mounted in Hickox’s memory, was poorly attended, it’s unlikely that too many of Opera Australia’s loyal but long-suffering supporters would endorse the scholarship notion.

If Messrs Switkowski and Collette feel impelled to honour any conductor for his or her contribution to opera in Australia why not Richard Bonynge or Sir Charles Mackerras or — dare one mention the name? — Simone Young, all of whom have done more to advance the cause of the art form than the late Mr. Hickox. Switkowski and Collette promised a year of change. Don’t hold your breath.

It looks very much like more of the same, lots of young inexperienced singers paid peanuts and overworked performing numbingly predictable repertoire before audiences of rusted-on subscribers growing older and fewer in number each year.

Postscript: Opera lovers will be saddened by the death yesterday of mezzo-soprano Heather Begg, a member of the Australian Opera during its glory days. Besides being a splendid singer, Begg was also a fine actress, at home in high camp roles such as the Queen of the Fairies in Iolanthe or in dramatic Italian verismo, notably as the Princesse de Bouillon in Adriana Lecouvreur in which she sang opposite her friend and colleague, Joan Sutherland.

Begg was suffering from leukaemia and it was in anticipation of her imminent demise that the newly-elected New Zealand government, pledged to restore the British system of honours as of July 1, moved quickly to make her a DBE so that she died as Dame Heather Begg, in the ranks of other celebrated Kiwi musical figures Dame Kiri te Kanawa, Dame Malvina Major and Dame Sister Mary Leo.

Peter Fray

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