Lyndon Terracini is embarking on a revolution to make a night out at the opera fashionable again, starting with his $12.5 million outdoor extravaganza: La traviata on Sydney Harbour.

Opera Australia’s outspoken artistic director has crafted a manifesto he hopes will see a younger, broader audience fill out the stalls. And if that comes at the expense of the stuffy elites, well that’s just tough.

“I’m sure there will be people who want to closet opera in a conservatorium or in a university music department,” Terracini tells The Power Index.

“That’s not what it’s about, it was never about that. Opera was a popular art form and it’s now becoming a popular art form again, here in Sydney particularly. The cab driver said to me the other day: ‘everybody’s talking about the opera!'”

It’s apt that the baritone singer and former festival director name checks Australia’s largest city. Sydney is the site of one of the cornerstones of Terracini’s self-described “big, bold and beautiful” vision for popular opera.

When The Power Index speaks to Terracini, it’s just days after the glitzy A-list opening night of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (so-named after millionaire benefactor Dr Haruhisa Handa).

With most of the show’s three-week run still to come, Terracini is a busy man and can only speak for a short amount of time. Still, you can hear the excitement in his voice when asked how the alfresco performance has been received so far.

“We couldn’t have asked for it to go any better, 3000 people just leapt to their feet spontaneously at the end of the show. I’ve never seen that before,” he says.

La traviata is the first production Opera Australia has undertaken outdoors on such an ambitious scale and Terracini isn’t the only one hoping the dazzling harbour backdrop brings in a new set of opera lovers.

Destinations NSW, the tourism arm of the state government, is rumoured to have chipped in $6 million to help fund the Verdi spectacular, with its floating stage, enormous suspended chandelier and nightly fireworks display.

As part of the funding, Opera Australia has been told it must meet targets for international and interstate visitors. It’s something Terracini is confident they will do, telling The Power Index that ticket sales are already at $4.5 million (with a target of $6 million).

“A lot of people are saying it’s an historic evening for not only Opera Australia, but opera in this country,” he says.

History is something that otherwise doesn’t seem to bother Terracini all that much. He has made no secret of his plans to deshackle opera from its “elitist” clubby image and open the artform up to a wider audience.

Terracini was appointed artistic director in 2009 after his predecessor Richard Hickox suffered a heart attack and died. At the time Opera Australia was facing heavy criticism for allegedly sidelining mature singers, as well as letting standards drop.

“No one usually defines what it is to be an artistic director; what’s the job description? It’s actually a lot more than just casting singers or directors and so on or even choosing repertoire. An artistic director needs to have ideas and know how to implement those ideas,” he says.

He hasn’t been short on ideas for what opera look and sound like. During last year’s Peggy Glanville-Hicks address, Terracini criticised a “small group of people … who feel that their views are the only opinions of real importance” and advocated for operatic programming to be “popular without being populist”.

What all this means for the future of opera is still a little unclear. Terracini has said he wants to put on “opera events”, which means Broadway-style music theatre, family-friendly shows (a cut-down version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute by Broadway producer Julie Taymor premiered in Sydney recently) and “spectacular new productions”.

Critics say Terracini’s focus on the spectacle of the “opera experience” may come at the expense of substance and favouring popular classics could stymie the fostering of up-and-coming local operatic talent.

*Read the full profile at The Power Index

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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