You might think the Coalition must be really serious about arts funding cuts when it zeroes in on four of the country’s opera companies with yesterday’s formally announced inquiry into their combined $32 million a year taxpayer paid funding.

The accepted wisdom is that opera is an art form for silvertails — people who can afford to drop $200 or more for a good seat at the Sydney Opera House to see an Opera Australia production sung in a language that isn’t theirs while wearing bad wigs. So why is Attorney-General Senator George Brandis targeting an art form patronised by so many of his fellow travellers and enjoyed by Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt?

Remember that the Howard Government loved the so-called “heritage arts” so much so that in 2004 it gave $7.2 million to a very small, but blue-blood connected outfit to produce classical music recordings? The then arts minister Senator Richard Alston approved the funding to the Melba Foundation (and later joined its board). Furious Australia Council staff only learned of the hand-out after the deal was done. The Labor government finally cut Melba’s funding in 2012.

But no-one should be too surprised by the National Opera Review, which promises to take a good look at Opera Australia, Opera Queensland, State Opera of South Australia and West Australian Opera. Governments want to know their money is well spent,  and the conservatives have shown they are not afraid to be radical in their approach to arts funding — and opera in particular.

Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett was one of the masterminds behind folding the Victoria State Opera into the Australian Opera to become Opera Australia in 1996. Even now there are resentful mumblings among VSO faithful who include many of Melbourne’s moneyed.

And it was the Howard Government in 1999 that commissioned banker Helen Nugent to come up with a business plan to save the country’s 31 major arts organisations from increased costs and dwindling income. Her landmark “Securing the Future’’ report saw an extra $70 million given to the arts, but it made the companies more self-sufficient in the long run.

This National Opera Review is pretty light-on in detail other than saying it will examine the four companies’ artistic vibrancy, audience engagement and financials. But under Helen Nugent’s guidance this review has potential to be similarly disruptive — and again, in a good way. There are many in the arts who resent the large slice of the funding pie the opera companies get when they attract such small audiences.

The Live Performance Australia 2012 report into ticket attendance and revenue nationwide showed that in that year (all) opera had a 2.6% share of the industry compared to theatre’s 9.8 % and contemporary music’s 33.7 %. The report also showed that in 2004 there were 630,000 opera attendances, but by 2012 this had declined to just 430,000 attendances (with more than 50 % of those in New South Wales).

If you went by the numbers alone, opera would be kaput. How to justify such a spend for such a small return? But then again, maybe that small return has something to do with the fact that opera prices are routinely much, much higher than for most other art forms. And maybe, despite the best recent efforts of Opera Australia, those who work in these companies are not doing the best job they could in communicating the excitement that opera genuinely offers punters in its melding of music, voice, dance, art, design and poetry.

Kids flocking to laneway dives to see indie-queer theatre collectives’ cross-gender, all male versions of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? or Wuthering Heights 0.2: On Ice might be surprised by the similarities such shows have to mainstream opera productions. Opera, believe it or not, is one of the most adventurous and resilient of art forms, which is why it has endured for 400 years and why it is continually reinvented by ground-breaking musicians, designers, performers and directors.

The review panel (which includes esteemed former artistic director of the Australian Opera, Moffatt Oxenbould) one assumes, will be looking at how to get the most out of the resources these four companies are working with, and how they can best conceive, commission, create and stage work that will engage more artists and more audiences.

That’s why George Brandis’ review — whether you love opera or think you loathe it — is a good idea.

*This article was originally published at Daily Review

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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