marcus westbury

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Opera’s opportunity costs? (or sing fat lady! Sing!)

November 30th, 2009 by marcus


LYNDON Terracini has been outspoken and surprisingly frank about the limitations of Australia’s major performing arts companies in recent weeks. The incoming Opera Australia artistic director has slammed Australia’s orchestras and opera companies as “conservative and predictable,” admitted that Melbourne has been poorly served by Opera Australia from Sydney and, most notably, has drawn attention to the narrowness of Opera Australia’s audience base.

It’s all reasonable and reasonably obvious. Yet the discussion he has generated implied that what he is saying is somehow insightful or unexpected. If anything Terracini’s admissions actually fall well short of the mark and remind us that Australia is long overdue for a serious discussion about cultural priorities. While his snapshot of the situation is accurate, he too quickly explains the problem away as one of the potential audiences’ ignorance and not of the companies’ growing irrelevance.

Undoubtedly Terracini, like all passionate people, believes in what he is doing. He argues that while people have a “prejudice about coming to opera” he is confident that “once they come, you can bet they will adore it.” This may be true in some cases but the convenient illusion that there is a great army of potential opera fans simply awaiting conversion is unrealistic. It is yet another in a long line of arguments that it is the failure of education, knowledge, marketing or some other external factor is behind the ageing demographics and the relative decline in interest in the major performing arts.

The reality is that Australia is changing and our cultural needs and priorities are changing with it. As Terracini points out, the ethnic diversity in the major performing arts audiences lags well behind that in smaller companies and across most other artforms. He points out that Opera Australia has failed to reach such places as Western Sydney and indigenous people are underrepresented as audiences or performers.

Yet looking at this as failure of audience outreach misses the point. It ignores the growing cultural diversity of Australia in the broadest sense — of practitioners, of artforms, of audiences, of influences, of traditions and opportunities for cultural expression. Despite the oft-repeated stereotype that arts funding favours the marginal and multicultural, the Australia Council’s entire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts board has less than a quarter of Opera Australia’s funding. Yet indigenous artists in music, literature and the visual arts have achieved much more in provoking, nurturing and promoting a distinctive Australian culture at home and around the world than a dozen Opera Australia’s ever will.

Criticising opera companies for catering to audiences that are overwhelmingly white, affluent and drawn from the corporate social set is like criticising athletes for their athleticism. It has long been opera’s unique strength that it is the subculture of the elite and influential. Opera Australia is the single-best-funded company in Australia by a long margin. It receives levels of government support well out of proportion to its audience numbers, its cultural relevance or its creative influence. In 2007-08, Opera Australia and the associated Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra received $17.5 million of Australia Council funding. By comparison, the Australia Council’s highly competitive funds for literature, music, theatre and visual arts between them had a combined budget of $21.8 million spread over 916 separate projects, organisations and individuals.

Opera Australia receives the equivalent of half the total allocation for competitive funding for all Australia Council artform boards.

It is admirable and urgent that Terracini reaches out to every last potential convert.

It is impossible to imagine a future in which Opera Australia survives without diversifying its audience — but in a serious sense it is the wrong question. Rather than ask how to make the Australian community more interested in opera, we should perhaps ask the unaskable about the cultural traditions Australians actually value and how we might best support and resource them.

For too long Australia’s major performing arts companies have treated the lack of a diverse audience for their work as an audience development problem and not a cultural shift. By framing it as a failure of marketing, they’ve even successfully leveraged even more resources and greater subsidies as a means of rectifying it. This can’t continue.

Terracini’s will ultimately be measured against his ambitions — i fear we will be saying the exact same thing at the end of his tenure. But the need for diversification is desperate otherwise the consequences for Opera Australia are unimaginable:  not that opera will die but that it will find itself back in the competitive, scrappy, under resourced funding process that other Australian artists and artforms take for granted.

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9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Paul Nov 30, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    Fantastic, Marcus. You seem to be the only person in the country talking any sense about this issue (on the internet at least). Good luck getting this one reprinted in Meanjin, they are a bit busy throwing links to The Australian at the moment. Great work again.

  • 2 Peter Dec 1, 2009 at 2:06 am

    Actually Marcus you are not posing the right question to this issue. The test question in thinking about culture is not ‘what matters to actual audiences?’ but ‘what culture is most revelatory, most profound, most meaningful?’, a question which, sadly for cultural administrators ultimately concerned with numbers, cannot be properly answered by ‘whatever people in general think is most reveletory, most profound etc…” This is not at all an argument in support of stodgily produced expensive canonical opera of course, but it is an argument against the reductive populism and pluralism that (if I am right) seem to organize some of your own remarks.

  • 3 marcus Dec 1, 2009 at 2:20 am

    Sorry Peter but where did you get that ‘what matters to actual audiences’ quote from me from? I’m not sure where i said it and it wasn’t my intent.

    My argument against Opera is not that it shouldn’t be funded only that is should be subjected to the same funding dynamics that every other artist, company and group that i know in Australia is subjected to.

    As for my own remarks, pluralism: definately! Populism: i wouldn’t think so.

    Peter to explain my context, I’ve spent the last 12 months opening 40 new creative projects in Newcastle and i’ve had to pay for it. I’ve been in the arts for 15 years and i’ve had two paid jobs in that whole time. I’ve managed 10 or 15 festivals, which included hundreds of distinct projects and events and thousands of performances – i’ve literally NEVER worked on a project that had enough money to pay the artists.

    At some point that pushes you towards questioning the inherent equity within and logic benind the system.

  • 4 Ian Milliss Dec 3, 2009 at 8:19 am

    Marcus have you come across an analysis of funding per attendee for different performing arts? I’m sure there will be one out there somewhere. It would be interesting to see if anyone receives a higher rate per head than OA. And it would also be interesting to see that turned on its head into a sort of voucher system (so beloved of right wing economists in other areas) so that a standardised rate (based on the OA rate?) was applied to all performing arts funding ie funding would be a multiple of the rate by the number of people who attend. Or perhaps the rate could be determined by dividing the available funding by the number of attendees of all funded events in the previous year. Crank up the spreadsheets and see how much OA would then receive. I assume that Ozco must do this sort of modelling somewhere deep in the bowels of its policy units, would they make the figures available?

  • 5 john Dec 17, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Is lumping so many very different things all together under the banner ‘arts’ possibly part of the problem? From the very outset (1973) lots have questioned the wisdom of the amalgamation that created the Australia Council. Are there actually discrete things : ‘arts’ ‘culture’ &’audiences’ that have common needs?

  • 6 john Dec 17, 2009 at 9:01 am

    marcus I agree with you on much….but…. Popular is the defining character of modern art, the 19C academy was a pier review system. ‘modern’ began when artists (Courbet was the first) left the pier review system and opened up shop in the vulgar public marketplace.
    “Populism” is a blinker that makes clear thinking impossible. Raymond Chandler was in his day dismissed as Populism, these days hes Fne lit 1. Every thing new comes from outside the little huddle that is culture.

  • 7 Marcus Westbury « Stumbling on melons Aug 15, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    […] and he’s trotted it out a few times since (I hope for a fresh fee) – for example, at the end of last year when Lyndon Terracini got the top artistic job at Opera Australia, and […]

  • 8 john walker Aug 16, 2010 at 10:00 am


    Opera audiences are skewed towards people in the top tax bracket – Why shouldn’t they subsidise whatever they like? after all its their taxes that are being used.

    A voucher type system dos have one big advantage , it greatly reduces the very large management costs that a top down distribution system has.

  • […] our arts funding down the years and the immediate precursor to today’s talk was a piece that i wrote in my column in The Age in response to comments from the incoming director of Opera Australi… late last […]