You don’t expect questions of immigration, demographics and population growth to be discussed in rarefied opera circles. But at Opera Australia, it’s all part of a delicate balancing act in reimagining an archaic art form for an ever-changing audience.

“There’s a lot of discussion about how many people will live in Australia in 2050,” OA artistic director Lyndon Terracini told Crikey. “What no one is saying is what will the make-up of that population be, and that’s what we have to address. The cultural and ethnic make-up of that population will determine a lot on where we’re targeting. We have to connect them to what we’re doing.

“[It’s] rapidly challenging. I mean, the speed in which it’s changing is extraordinary I find.”

The melting pot stirred by Terracini, in his first year at the company after directing three Brisbane Festivals, is not just one of multi-culturalism. There’s the uneasy equilibrium between art and commerce, at an important juncture for opera globally and government-subsidised performing arts domestically.

OA chair Ziggy Switkowski — the man with the rather operatic CV as former telecommunications king-pin, nuclear physicist and arts patron — recently announced a loss of nearly $1 million for the last financial year. The financial downturn hit hard — expensive opera tickets, CEO Adrian Collette admits, were prohibitive to many.

It was the company’s first loss in six years. Compare that to the world’s most revered opera house, The Metropolitan in New York, which, as Vanity Fair recently reported in an eye-opening account of opera’s own global downturn, is drowning in $US47 million of debt. Opera is an expensive business, and it’s getting harder to attract new patrons.

Crikey spoke to the OA maestros at the Sydney-based company’s home-away-from-home in Melbourne, as it presents a season of work to the city’s fabulously fickle arts lovers that epitomises the changing face of opera. Its Tosca was dark and dour stuff; a modern and virtually monochrome production that had one critic demanding it be dumped from the repertory. Meanwhile, a new Australian work Bliss, based on Peter Carey’s 1980s novel about an ad-man’s mid-life crisis, won high praise and audience support while inevitably falling short of the blockbuster status of Mozart, Verdi and Puccini.

Such is the inherent tension in  21st century opera production: re-invention is crucial, but subscribers still demand the classics — as they were meant to be performed. Some critics insist OA leans too far towards the latter; Barrie Kosky, the vociferous Germaine Greer-esque expatriate, recently spat OA was only interested in “bums on seats” with fare “sh-t the like of which wouldn’t be served in the worst provincial theatre in Europe”.

Terracini isn’t afraid to have a foot in both camps. With 60% of revenue drawn from the box office (governments chip in roughly 30%, sponsors the rest) — a much higher share than opera companies around the world — the crowd-pullers will remain. The company is a custodian, he says, to the great works of theatrical art.

“Maybe the fundamental view about how organisations like Opera Australia are funded should be reassessed and viewed more as though you’re running a gallery, because in essence that’s what we do,” he said.

And Terracini has an eye on Broadway and the West End, at musical works that will challenge the notion of what opera is.

“The Italian translation of opera just means ‘a work’,” the baritone explained. “What we’re doing I suppose, fundamentally, is getting back to the true meaning of the word, creating artistic work that happens to be within an opera company.”

Collette hints at tapping indigenous culture for local works, while Terracini talks of closer Asian ties (OA took a production of Carmen to Taipei last year, and is now negotiating with Beijing producers). It’s about creating an “Australian identity”, he says, reflected in the most diverse and enigmatic sense of the well-worn phrase.

“Within Australia that extraordinary mix that’s taken place will produce work that is more about Australia now than it was 50 years ago,” Terracini said. “We need to find a way of delivering a form of theatre that’s as exciting and revolutionary as cinemascope and colour were in television.”

Want more theatre news and reviews? Crikey‘s new blog Curtain Call goes behind the curtain — read the latest here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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