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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