Say what you like about the Gillard government’s decision to formulate a new National Cultural Policy — it’s certainly got tongues wagging.

And they don’t come more loquacious and mellifluous than that owned by Opera Australia’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini. A charismatic baritone who has made a name for himself as a persuasive festival director north of the Tweed, he has come to a position at Australia’s best-funded arts company on something of a mission. He wants to shake up things. He wants to win hearts and minds. Ultimately, I think, he wants to see the survival of opera as a living artform.

All of these motivations were on show in a recent speech he gave in memory of Peggy Glanville-Hicks. Terracini didn’t mince words. “Very little in opera has changed since the 19th century,” he argued, “and in many ways the form has become captive to its own traditions and peculiarly unaware of the changes that have taken place around it.”

What’s worse, it’s not just the opera company, it’s operatic subscribers and audiences who are partly to blame. Terracini singles out a “sense of patrician entitlement” on behalf of a small club of Opera Australia subscribers. This sense of entitlement, he argues, “is not only at odds with what we regard as the Australian way of life, but it is also completely at odds with contemporary Australia”.

It’s not just opera, by the way. Terracini slates the broader sector of major performing arts companies, which he argues “are in real danger of creating an elitist arts community and an audience which is not representative of contemporary Australia”.

Wow. I’ve often found myself at odds with Terracini as a critic and writer, but here I find myself in complete agreement. What’s astonishing about Terracini’s speech is that he articulates most of the criticisms that many of opera’s most strident critics have long been making. Opera is unrepresentative. It is elitist. It is hostile to new work. It is sclerified, rigid and out of touch.

Unsurprisingly, Terracini’s address quickly evoked howls of outrage. When The Australian‘s Matt Westwood rang around, he found plenty willing to differ. “We are doing new work regularly and audiences are coming,” Victorian Opera’s Richard Gill told him rather triumphantly. “Opera Australia, dare I say it, has been sitting in the 19th century for some time.” Canberra composer Larry Sitsky said that “if the audience [for contemporary opera] is small, it’s because people like Lyndon have failed to educate the audience”.

As usual, the most considered and substantial response came from Radio National’s Andrew Ford, writing in Inside Story. He thinks Terracini’s address should be read in the context of the National Cultural Policy, arguing that the trouble with discussions about relevance and “telling Australian stories” is that they can be “easily hijacked by people whose real agenda is to marginalise or destroy certain art forms”.

“And as for opera,” Ford continues, “it’s a sitting duck for those cultural warriors who use expressions such as ‘heritage’ arts (you can hear the sneer, can’t you?) and would prefer that opera didn’t exist at all.”

Unfortunately, the problem for opera lovers is not so much the barbarians at the gates, but the fifth column inside the walls of the ivory tower. When two of the leading figures in Australia’s musical establishment agree that opera faces critical structural problems, the argument that the criticism mounted against it by outsiders is merely a disguised form of philistinism can be seen for the hand-waving that is.

Much hangs on that word, “heritage”. If it means anything, it means a tradition from the past worth preserving. And it’s this whiff of the archaeologist’s embalming fluid that so unsettles many musicians and opera lovers. After all, a great work of Bach or Mozart lives anew every single time it is performed.

But the uncomfortable truth for opera — and indeed classical (or “Western art”) music in general — is that its audiences and institutions have by and large turned their backs on new work. Terracini himself points out that “since 1973, when the Australia Council was founded, more than 160 operas … have been commissioned and presented. Not one of those 160-plus operas has entered the repertoire.” Ford goes further: “I am struggling to think of any opera in the world that has become a staple of the international repertoire in these 38 years. Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre? No. Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach? No. John Adams’s Nixon in China? Not really.”

There are any number of possible reasons for this, but the most persuasive is that audiences don’t want new additions to the repertoire. They’re quite comfortable with seeing Verdi and Puccini and Wagner. They’ve never quite taken to Philip Glass. The reasons for this are historical, and in my opinion have much to do with the failure of modernism in music — as opposed to modernism in visual art or the novel — to win any kind of popular audience in the early-to-mid 20th century. No one can really be sure why, but orchestras and operas simply can’t stage blockbuster shows of mid-century figures such as Stockhausen, Adams or Glass in the way that art galleries can draw crowds for Warhol, Pollack or Beuys.

There’s nothing wrong with audiences wanting a certain repertoire, to the exclusion of newer work. Opera programming is no more rigid than an easy listening format on AM radio. Or, to use another analogy, Old Masters paintings. If an unknown Caravaggio was discovered tomorrow in a church basement in Naples, you might convince an art collector that this is a new example of Caravaggio’s work. It’s more difficult to convince that collector that Damien Hirst is the new Caravaggio. Contemporary art has its own audience, just like contemporary music.

Opera audiences demand many things: great tenors and sopranos, sumptuous sets, magnificent acoustics. What they don’t want, on the whole, are new operas. There’s nothing wrong with that. The desire for a set repertoire of classics is no worse than the obsession with novelty evinced by the denizens of contemporary art galleries, or the love for robots and explosions by the teenage boys who form the audience for big Hollywood action movies.

You can see the outrageous point I’m suggesting here: opera is just another artform like any other. In which case, perhaps its time we started treating it as such. This would mean abandoning the fiction that it deserves, because of its merit, more public funding than circus, or poetry, or new media art.