Carmen will be allowed to be included in West Australian Opera’s repertoire, so reversing one of the dumbest decisions made by an arts company this year.

Western Australian Health Minister Kim Hames said on Monday he would write to the company to say it could stage the Bizet classic set in a tobacco factory without fear of jeopardising its $400,000 sponsorship with WA government health organisation Healthway.

Last week, the opera company management made the extraordinarily silly decision to dump the much-loved opera because of its fictional characters’ smoking. General manager Carolyn Chard told radio 6PR that the company had a “great deal of respect for the [sponsorship] partnership”.

“We will avoid any controversy on programming it [Carmen] in the next two years when we’ve got a significant partnership with Healthway. Sponsorship is so important to arts companies, and we feel that the timing was really right for us. Carmen is a work that we love, I think everybody loves Carmen, it’s a beautiful opera,” she said.

The decision brought ridicule upon the opera company and even the condemnation of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who said the decision was “political correctness gone crazy“.

Healthway had no role in the opera company’s self-censorship. Its chairwoman Rosanna Capolingua told ABC Radio that the Healthway board was pleased but surprised by the banning of Carmen. “The board reacted very much like we are all reacting now: Wow, really? OK. Jeez, that’s … what a significant decision WA Opera have made,” she said.

Jeez indeed. Although the WA Opera’s decision seems comically inept, the issue of pleasing sponsors is one that affects all arts companies and might possibly increase as government funding remains static or is reduced as companies desperately compete for sponsorship deals or philanthropic support.

The Transfield/Biennale of Sydney saga earlier this year — when artists objected to the event’s sponsors involvement in offshore detention centres — had arts leaders scrambling to make sense of their sponsorship arrangements, especially in light of federal Arts Minister Senator George Brandis’ statement that the government might review the funding of “shameful” arts companies that capitulated to “blackballing” sponsors because of political objections.

If WA Opera is any example, it seems that arts companies are dazed and confused by how to negotiate their way through sponsorship deals. In the tradition of Australian arts companies and artists who feel they have to apologise for their existence — we’re nice to have around but not really essential — they are willing to bend over backwards to satisfy the suits. Arts leaders need to realise that although the corporates have the dollars, it’s artists who have something they want to be associated with: talent, artistry and conviction.

*This article was originally published at Daily Review

Peter Fray

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