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Nov 11, 2011

Nothing changes in opera -- and nobody seems to care

The reason opera is a "heritage" artform is that its audiences don't want to see new operas. Time to abandon the fiction that it deserves more public funding than anything else.


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.


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25 thoughts on “Nothing changes in opera — and nobody seems to care

  1. Eric Sykes

    “This would mean abandoning the fiction that it deserves, because of its merit, more public funding than circus, or poetry, or new media art.”

    Here here.

  2. Gavin Moodie

    I agree with Eric Sykes: at last someone asks why high art warrants more support than other forms of cultural creativity.

  3. Graham Henderson

    It is just not true that opera lovers want only the same old classics, there is a constant demand for new works.

    But modern opera doesn’t deliver the goods, and you are spot on with the reason.

    There are plenty of great singers, plenty of enterprising directors – even if experiment sometimes results in cr*p. Modern literature has all that opera needs for plot and libretto.

    Today’s performers can act the shorts off Melba and Co.

    The problem is the music. It’s not just that you can’t whistle the tunes, you can’t find them in the “plinky, plinky,thunk,whistle” of the modern score.

    Modernist music has become an intellectual exercise in which composers and musicians wrestle with technical difficulty leaving the listener reduced, despairingly, to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

    So the opera companies satisfy the demand for new works by mining the back catalogues of composers dead for two hundred plus years. Vivaldi, Rameau, Scarlatti and a dozen others. The ABC Opera broadcast next week is a Haydn opera not performed since Esterhazy in the 1770’s.

  4. Gavin Moodie

    I don’t like his work, but surely Benjamin Britten wrote melodic operas, yet while they are performed occasionally none is in the standard repertoire.

  5. rachel612

    Even on its own terms, this is an incredibly silly statement:

    This would mean abandoning the fiction that it deserves, because of its merit, more public funding than circus, or poetry, or new media art.

    Is it a fiction that staging opera, irrespective of its merit, costs more to stage than the average poetry reading?

    Is it worth spending money to stage it well? Or should it be staged cheaply and badly? Or should it be staged at all? Should it be staged as a warm-up act to the poetry reading, with a couple of singers and a player piano?

    No doubt Australian film-makers who churn through taxpayer support like circuses on steroids will be quivering in their boots. Perhaps we’ll see them race off to invest their time and energy in new media art instead of their current decadent activities. The average new opera might cost $400-500k, while last time I checked, the stunningly populist Eye of the Storm had a budget around the $14m mark.

    The juxtaposition of high art and low art is always a sure sign that an attack of the drivels is impending, in much the same way that talk of modern music being difficult always overlooks the way that Hollywood movie composers took on all the modernist tricks.

    If opera’s such high art and poetry low, then let them put a poetry reading of T. S. Eliot over the next advertisement promoting sport, instead of that obscurantist tosh Nessun Dorma …

  6. Gavin Moodie

    This is mistaking support for an art form with support of an instance of an art form. Of course staging an opera is more expensive than staging a poetry reading – altho why opera should be quite so expensive is worth examining. But if poetry is worth supporting mightn’t it be worth supporting with more money and asking opera to do with less?

    Had governments spent $14 to screen the Eye of the Storm to 28 audiences in Sydney and 10 audiences in Melbourne then this point might have some force. But of course, this again confuses creating a work of art with its dissemination. The Eye of the Storm will be watched by hundreds of thousands, with a subsidy per viewer a fraction of the subsidy for opera seats.

    Surely no one is suggesting that poetry is low art, unless they are considering Pam Ayers a poet.

  7. John Tevelein

    South Africa’s Isango Ensemble production of Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ at the recent Melbourne International Arts Festival was infused with rhythm and life and was stunning. Not only did they move the setting to a different time and place they, “quelle horreur” messed with the music! It has been acclaimed wherever it has been staged. It ain’t even a propa opera company and they still had fat ladies and all.

  8. Mary Rose Liverani

    The best thing that has happened to opera in the last few years has been the production and wide distribution of low-priced high definition screenings from the New York Metropolitan Opera seasons. Never having seen a single opera in my life before, I attended my first opera movie at the Dendy Quay in Sydney, curious to know if di Lampedusa was right in describing ‘opera mania’ as a tragedy for Italians, a response to and a perpetrator of national illiteracy and ignorance – even if ‘art’ in certain instances.

    Lampedusa lamented that while France and the anglophone countries with their high literacy rates engendered the great literatures of the 18th and 19th centuries, works that enhanced their citizens’ understanding of their history, politics, culture and economy, infantilised Italians were revelling in operas that were without exposition or context, duped into thinking that if they knew Otello they knew Shakespeare, or that Sicilian Vespers offered a comprehensive account of the politics behind the arrival of the French in Sicily.

    By the third opera, I was pretty sure I had figured out the genre’s enduring attraction. Not the music per se. Putting aside the famous arias I’d much rather listen to lieder or a symphony concert. Rather it’s the surfeit of raw passion that deluges the stage, naked lusting for sex, money, power and revenge, directed and rallied by the musicians from the beginning to the end of a performance – the total surrender of intellect to the senses by an entire audience – similar, I imagine to that which coheres a great sporting crowd at a World Cup match, or soldiers being pumped up before a battle. It’s a very weird experience to participate in a collective orgasm that has people breathing deeply, looking round at one another and madly clapping a movie musical at its end. And in the corridors off-stage where the camera follows the singers, their own exhilerant exhaustion confirms that they have plumbed depths of emotion in themselves and their audiences, probably impossible to replicate outside the opera world.

    If opera is to reach wider audiences it will have to be through films like those produced by the Met whose stagings, even to the non-financial eye, are breathtakingly costly. If modern composers are to compete with the traditional operas perhaps they will have to concentrate on probing the old lusts that lurk below literacy and allow singers to give unshackled voice to them in word and deed. The formula works every time. It just needs a modern gloss.

  9. Clytie

    Ben, thanks for this series of thoughtful articles. On the whole (and even as a long-time classicist), I agree with your view on balancing our investment in arts and culture.

  10. Stuart Omond

    @John Tevelein, Isango Ensemble’s “messing with the music” involved removing the good bits because they were too hard for the singers. And the night I went it was less than half full; the supposedly poor attendance at Bliss was better, from what I saw at least.

  11. Simon Loveless

    It’s notable to me that the big institutions constantly in the firing line in these debates happen to be the very institutions that employ the largest numbers of musicians (singers and instrumentalists). Without them, there would be far fewer opportunities for performing musicians. Funny to see the word ‘elitist’ so often thrown around to support policies which would actually restrict opportunities for greater participation.

  12. Eric Sykes

    Loveless: “which would actually restrict opportunities for greater participation…”. Not at all. In fact an equity of investment across art forms would increase participation. Those making Australian contemporary performance work, or interdisciplinary art for example might actually get paid, even paid the same as a full time orchestra member (shock horror).

    And further Rachel612, a good multi-media installation, operating at an international standard of production value costs pretty much the same as and in some cases more than an opera season. In Australia of course we rarely, if ever, see multi-media work of this standard, since we spend next to nothing on it, so it always looks at best half finished or at worst totally naff; which of course plays directly into the hands of those that say a violin requires more skill to use than a computer.

  13. Simon Loveless

    My whole point is that there would be less opportunity for participation in music. Eric doesn’t deny this, in fact he seems to see it as a victory for others. Which was entirely my suspicion.

    I’m writing as someone who doesn’t have a full time position, but instead ekes out a living moving between various small community music organisations and projects, mostly in the field of choral music (the musical genre that has the lowest costs and the highest scope for general participation, and paradoxically the musical genre that is most consistently overlooked when it comes to institutional support for music). I suspect my ‘practice’ is much more grass-roots based than most of the people throwing around accusations of elitism.

  14. AaronH

    Modern art succeeds because it changes the format, the expectations, and the conventions of its field. The best modern artists aren’t just copying what came before, they are building upon it to create something unexpectedly new.

    Modern opera, and modern “western art” music in general is just more of the same, really.

    The real revolution occurs closer to “pop”. For example, Brian Eno is a real innovator in music. Ambient and generative music use the same building blocks as other forms, but turn the form on its head to create something new.

  15. Simon Loveless

    How much modern western art music have you actually listened to Aaron? Brian Eno is far more conservative than, say, John Cage

  16. Eric Sykes

    Loveless: I do deny it. I deny it outright and upfront. What bit of “not at all” do you not understand?? I argue for equity, not cuts. I argue for a clear and simple recognition that all art forms deserve support, not one particular art form over another.

    Cage of course is where Brian got most of his ideas from, when is the last time you saw a major orchestra in this country do a comprehensive Cage retrospective?

    Classical music in Australia is conservative, reactionary and viciously elitist compared to the field in Europe or even Asia. Have you actually read Terracini’s speech or are you just mouthing off your usual defensive knee jerk?

    Someone has the bare faced audacity to suggest that western art music may not be the ultimate art form, that there may actually be other art forms that speak equally as well about the human condition, that delve just as deeply into human emotion.

    I for one have no wish to “cut” funds to Opera or orchestras so stop saying I have and get with the program. I do absolutely claim and demand equity, and whenever anyone from another art form demands equity classical elitists such as yourself jump up and down and claim that the end of civilisation as we know it is approaching.

    Oh and more people engage with contemporary community arts in this country than visit classical music concerts, but you see it’s not a competition Loveless, it’s a field of endeavor. And we contemporary artists demand your professional respect please, the respect we offer you in turn. Nobody is attacking your involvement and commitment, but we do deny your art forms apparent god give right to eat nearly all Australias art funds and then cry poor every time anyone asks for a equal respect.

  17. Eric Sykes

    whoops that’s “an equal level of” respect.

  18. AaronH

    RE: Simon Loveless: John Cage is indeed more provocative than Eno, but I didn’t use him as an example, simply because I find his creations to be mostly unlistenable. It’s a personal view, but all views are. Eno may not have been the first to create ambient music, but he set in place the general ground-work for the form of ambient that has become commercially viable (and which I find personally appealing). As far as generative music goes, he was indeed a pioneer, as well as an expert promoter.

    As for the rest of the debate, I think artists in fields that create something genuinely new should receive greater funding than those producing yet another unoriginal production of Puccini. Yes, it’s a shame if there are less opportunities for performers, but I don’t think their particular occupation is any more deserving of government subsidy than others. Government funding should exist to help set up new productions (provided they have an adequate business plan and include a degree of originality), but the productions themselves should pay their own way.

  19. Peter Knight

    Nice article Ben and you hit the nail right on the head.
    I heard Lyndon Terracini’s address in Melbourne last night and he did certainly identify some of the issues facing opera. He was right when he says that the massive government funding Opera Australia receives for trotting out endless repeats of nineteenth century European repertoire is scandalous and really a waste of our cultural dollars. However, his ‘vision’ for how to fix this problem seemed pretty dull to me. He went on about T20 cricket and compared the issues facing opera with those facing test cricket and suggested that maybe a ‘T20’ approach to opera might be the answer. Sounds like a recipe for total crap to me.

    It seems to me that there is a serious failure of imagination going on with opera and orchestral music. I read the other day that the Melbourne Symphony is doing a program of Doctor Who music. How depressing to think that the people who decide on the MSO program think perhaps this might be a way to connect with ‘new audiences.’ Yes people might go to hear it because it’s novel, but this sort of garbage is not going to advance the form or make it culturally relevant and it will not develop new audiences for orchestral music. People who actually might be potentially interested in orchestral music will recognise the desperateness this kind of programming expresses and know that the orchestra is offering nothing they need.

    Music is about energy. Orchestral music and opera need to be energised not popularised! This will take time but it will only happen through the fostering of innovative new work, experimentation, commissioning, performing new work, risk taking etc. These things have been neglected in opera and orchestral music in Australia for a long time and from my outsider point of view the situation looks pretty close to terminal. But, if a resuscitation is going to succeed, if you are really going to make these forms culturally relevant and Energised again, then it won’t happen by trying desperate (and pretty sad) measures to make them ‘popular.’

    I hasten to add though that I’m not saying opera and orchestral should be unpopular either, just that you can’t put the cart before the horse. Audiences will come if work is genuinely relevant and culturally vital. Terracini’s vision lacks this vitality.

  20. Gavin Moodie

    One might also consider the role of the ABC and the community ‘fine’ music stations in developing awareness, knowledge of and interest in classical music after the 19th century. ABC Classic FM is better now, but in its early years and before that Radio National had a very trad playlist. The various MBS FM stations don’t seem very innovative.

  21. Andrew

    I was pleased to see that that Ben E liked what I had to say on Inside Story and touched that he should quote me so liberally, but lest it be assumed we are singing from the same opera score, I feel I ought to point out that I don’t especially agree with his conclusions. In particular, I don’t believe that opera is an art form ‘like any other’. I think of it as a sort of creative umbrella, under which many different arts come together – writing, acting, dance, the visual arts and, naturally, a wide range of musical skills: a hybrid art, if you like that sort of jargon. Because of this, opera – even when small-scale and done on a shoe string – is an extravagance, and I don’t mean that negatively. It’s the nature of the thing. There is something fundamentally lavish about opera and, in this regard, it’s different to many other arts. From its beginnings, it has provided spectacle, and has at various points in its history been wildly popular: Handel’s operas in 18th-century London, Verdi’s in 19th-century Italy, the cult of Wagner, etc. I never understand why people think it is high-brow or how it acquired the reputation for being an elitist pursuit. Of course it can be expensive to put on and therefore expensive to attend, but you don’t overcome this by reducing public funding. If you want more people to go to the opera, you might consider increasing the subsidy and lowering the ticket prices. I consider opera unique and the operatic repertoire home to some of the greatest works of art ever created. I therefore agree with Lyndon Terracini that we should aim to have a genuinely popular opera tradition in Australia, one that allows access to ‘Don Giovanni’ and ‘Tristan and Isolde’ and ‘Peter Grimes’ for as many people as wish to experience them, and one that actively encourages, promotes and nurtures new work (though I do take Peter Knight’s point about T20 – I’m not sure Lyndon’s a big cricket fan).

  22. JMNO

    As they say, I am not an expert but I know what I like. I love opera. At its best, it is an occasion – lush sets, marvellous costumes, passionate, moving drama and beautifully-sung music. I don’t want to just see the old favourites. I often wish that the companies would put on more of the existing repertoire of operas which are rarely performed in Australia rather than recycling much-loved but very-often-seen ‘popular’ operas such as Don Giovanni (on again after a short break). And I would willingly go to modern operas if they were more listenable to. In some cases the raw force of the drama succeeds in spite of music that is not melodic but performances should be enjoyable and not a chore. The old operas were written to entertain. Why not new ones?

  23. Antony Ransome

    It’s easy to knock opera as elitist, but you can’t blame a dancing horse for looking silly. There are two problems here. Large-scale opera has only ever been considered in Australia as a sumptuous, expensive art-form for a culinarily devoted public. But as is still shown in Germany, where I worked as a singer for many years, ‘grand’ opera does not need the most expensive productions to succeed at every level. The real value of opera lies in its unique ability to speak to its audiences psychologically by virtue of its emotional depth and breadth across the whole range of artistic endeavour. What is required here is an all-out effort to convince younger people who are looking for more meaning in life to seek it at an operatic performance: it can be in the cinema, by talented local amateurs/professionals or in quirky, smaller-scale productions, as well as at a preferably pared-down OA performance of international standard. I look forward to Melbourne’s Wagner ‘Ring’, the most psychologically fascinating opera composition of all.

  24. Simon Loveless

    Eric Sykes, I did misunderstand you, and I’m glad to be corrected that you aren’t in favour of cuts. If you also speak for Ben in saying that, all the better.

    If I keep jumping to the conclusion that Ben (& Marcus et al) want cuts, it’s probably because the monologue usually goes like this:
    – (some) classical music institutions get a lot of funding, compared to funding available in other areas.
    – followed by a series of statements questioning the relevance/worth/integrity/etc of classical music as an artform (and sometimes of classical musicians, or at least the institutions that employ them)
    – which would imply the conclusion that classical music should be stripped of much of it’s funding, even if that conclusion is not explicitly stated.
    Hence anyone involved in classical music (however remote their personal relationship to public funding or their views on the conservatism of the major institutions) gets understandably defensive.

    Whereas if the monologue went:
    – certain artforms don’t get the level of funding that is made available to classical music (or some parts of the classical music
    – followed by an argument for the equal merits of those artforms and an exposition of the real costs involved that require greater funding support
    then none of us would disagree. I certainly haven’t argued, and do not argue, that other artforms deserve less funding or less respect.*

    I could pick up further on some of the side arguments about Cage/Eno etc, but I’ve got work to do.

    *I did make an unnecessary and probably inaccurate comment about relative grass-roots engagement of my personal ‘practice’ compared with others, for which I will apologise for any offense taken. It was meant as self-justification, out of the naive belief that working almost exclusively with ‘amateurs’ and living on a subsistence income would provide me sufficient protection against personalised accusations of elitism. Clearly that strategy didn’t work…

  25. Eric Sykes

    Simon Loveless: I do not speak for Ben, wouldn’t presume to.

    “followed by an argument for the equal merits of those artforms and an exposition of the real costs involved that require greater funding support….”.

    We’ve been doing that, consistently. Certainly I am well aware of very good, highly skilled Australian artists doing that since at least 1986. What generally happens is that we are:

    At best: ignored; or at worst: attacked for simply saying some art forms may be just as deserving as classical western art music (on the grounds that this tradition is the “only” tradition that could possibly speak deeply, with excellence and universally to all about the human condition).

    Then funds are actually taken off contemporary arts practice (yes Simon that’s right we have been cut consistently since the 1980s to support Australian major institutions). This fact is easily demonstrated by a look through Government arts funding programs, and the levels of support to art forms since the 1980s. For classical traditions it’s up. For everything else it’s down. Ben and Westbury are only the latest generation of creatives to have noticed this. It has been going on for a while you see.

    And we are over it Loveless, we are over the big institutions crying poor to government every five years or so because they can’t sell enough tickets and then having Government funds syphoned off other programs to support them.

    We are over it. So I for one am doing your arts practice a really big favour by not arguing for cuts you see. We would like that favour returned now and again.

    We would like the arts recognised as a broad field of human endeavour. We would like the large arts organisations to, even once in a while, give a stuff about anything other than themselves you see. We really are over it, so don’t be at all surprised anymore Simon Loveless if our language seems a little “extreme” to you.


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