marcus westbury

my life. on the internets.

marcus westbury header image 2

What’s so special about Opera? [My Festival of Dangerous Ideas Speech]

October 6th, 2010 by marcus

What follows is the text of the speech i gave at the Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. This is pretty much a straight cut and paste of my speech notes so it may not read all that well on the screen to others and is inevitably full of typos, poor punctuation and general note-to-self-ishness. It may also differ slightly from what was said at various points. It was hastily edited and reedited several times in transit. Still, if you want to know what i said this was more or less it…

I’m not yet sure whether I should have accepted the invitation to the Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas.

Presenting an argument against the privileged position of opera at the home of opera in Australia seems not so much a dangerous idea as simply dangerous.

As i was being led through the rabbit warren out the back and into my concrete dressing room with only one way in and one way out i couldn’t help but think it was all just a little foreboding.

I’ve watched enough TV to know that if you cross the sopranos on the their own turf there’s a fair chance you’ll get whacked.

Looking around this stage I’ve watched enough b-movie mysteries to pay particular attention to the many props and sandbags that could easily and “accidentally” fall from the ceiling.

The other reason I should perhaps have thought twice about accepting the invitation is that – as i hope will become a little clearer – my beef is not really with opera.

Contrary to what you might think my criticisms of opera have actually been reasonably sparing and reasonably specific.

Opera to me is not a problem but a symptom of one.

It is as an example of a wider problem that i have returned to it on a few occasions. Given we are in the opera house i can can see why there might have been the temptation from the FODI to ask me to revisit the topic in this forum at this time.

Still, there is something deeply amusing about the thought of presenting an argument about opera at the opera house. As you would expect in the context of a “Festival of Dangerous Ideas” there was a great desire on the organisers parts to make the argument sound as provocative as possible.

Lest anyone think that my intention was to inflame and outrage as much as humanly possible it might be worth going through some of the proposed titles that were originally proposed for this session…

Ruling Class Welfare: why subsidised opera is a scam

Upper Class Welfare: opera as a rort

Robbing Hoods: how opera robs from the poor and gives to the rich

The Undeserving Rich: how opera steals from the public purse

Opera Bludgers: pulling the plug on a dead artform

Contralto Con Artists: why is opera so special?

The Mezzo Sopranos: why opera subsidies are a criminal waste

While I was genuinely impressed with how many very talented former Daily Telegraph sub editors are on staff here at the opera house i had to reject all these titles because they all genuinely misrepresent my argument.

The Festival course loved all those titles because they were highly provocative and sufficiently dangerous to sell a lot of tickets.

I rejected them on the ground that they were unnecessarily inflammatory and that they would make everyone believe that I was running an unreconstructed class war argument and obsessed with destroying and deligitimising the very existence of opera in Australia.

I’m pleased to say that we have successfully charted a course where we have both managed to not sell a lot of tickets AND everyone is convinced that i am running an unreconstructed class war and obsessed with destroying a deligitimising the very existence of opera in Australia.

Of course I’m not entirely innocent here either…

While i will plead that am not obsessed with their destruction it is certainly true that I have made the odd snarky reference to the “covers bands” that soak up two thirds of 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 Australia Lyndon Terracini late last year.

Terracini had questioned the relevance of OA and suggested – quite rightly – that reasserting that would be one of his biggest challenges. I agreed and provocatively went a little further to suggest that given the uniquely privileged position of opera the argument was perhaps more urgent than he even he was acknowledging. Still, I write a different piece each week and have done so for several years. The role and relevance of Opera is a subject that i have seriously touched on half a dozen times and mostly as an example – my larger argument is not about opera.

My larger argument here is two fold.

One is that we seriously undervalue and under-invest in living original artists in this country

And the second, and interrelated one, is that there is a dangerous and growing discrepancy between where arts funding and policy attention being is directed and with the artforms that Australians actually value, attend and appreciate.

We are well overdue for a debate about those jarring discrepancies and i make no apologies for trying to start one.

As i have discovered as soon as i started to open my mouth within the arts community there is a very small constituency for the status quo.

It is hard to find anyone who doesn’t have a direct vested interest in the major performing arts companies – particularly the Opera and the Orchestras – that doesn’t think the system isn’t due for some sort overhaul.

So why am i using opera as an example? The simple reality is that Opera occupies a uniquely privileged position within the Australian arts landscape.

I’d encourage any of you to do as i recently did and take a look at the Australia Council arts grants.

According to the Australia Council web site one single Opera company last year received more funding from the Australia Council than SEVEN HUNDRED AND EIGHTY ONE applicants for all 6 of the Australia Council’s major artform boards combined.

From last years grants lists on the Australia Council web site in the 2009-10 financial year Opera Australia received $18.3 million. By contrast the Australia Council’s entire competitive funds for literature, music, theatre, dance, visual arts and inter-arts or cross artform projects combined gave out just $17.6 million in published grants for projects.

Before any of you jump on me I’m well aware that  published grants aren’t the entirety of arts funding.

But on even the most generous interpretation of the numbers the issue is not whether OA receives more Australia Council funding than all the nation’s writers, or all the nation’s non orchestral musicians, or all the nation’s dancers, or all the nation’s media artists or all the nation’s visual artists only whether they received more money than all those artists combined.

There are lies damned lies and statistics but at issue is not whether Opera Australia received more Australia Council money  than all the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander artists and arts organisations – only whether they received closer to 3 times, ten times, or 50 times the amount.

Take a second to think about that. From a policy poking of view the cultural heritage that Australia sees the most urgent need to preserve, invest in and support is not an Indigenous Australian one but an imported European one.

You may disagree but from my point of view even putting aside the compelling social justice arguments, the economic and export value that Indigenous arts generate and the pricelessness of a uniquely Australian culture of Indigenous artists in music, literature and visual arts it is hard not to argue that Indigenous artists are simply a much better cultural investment.

They 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 could.

My point is not that Opera is not as some earlier session titles might have proposed either illegitimate or a “criminal waste” but it is a startling benchmark of just how undervalued everything else is.

My apologies to Opera Australia but in the context of a debate about funding priorities it is difficult not to point out that there is a 500lb tenor in the room.

This is not an argument against opera but for everyone else – the thousands of artists who are outside the current system.

It is an argument that in a dynamic cultural world, within a finite arts budget every cent of money, and every minute of policy time, and every resource in kind that is spent cannot be done in ignorance of the harsh realities that are evident elsewhere in the arts.

It is an argument that those harsh realities and lost opportunities require the attention of policy makers if Australia is to truly embrace the many unique opportunities and possibilities that are being created by unique contemporary globally relevant Australian culture that is being presented with unprecedented opportunities and challenges by an  and nurtured by an era of rapid technological and cultural change.


At the core of the problem is that Australia has a two-track art world.

On one track are Major Performing Arts companies – the Australia Council’s flagship companies – with their full time salaried employees, marketing, PR and fundraising departments, well connected corporate boards and access to political and bureaucratic power.

Opera Australia is largest and most obvious example but the Symphony Orchestras and to a lesser extent to the comparatively leaner main stage theatre and dance companies are beneficiaries of this system too.

In the last financial year the 28 major performing arts companies received the best part of a hundred million dollars from the Australia Council.

On the other track are virtually all of Australia’s other artists and smaller companies – the many thousands of artists, projects and companies that scrapped it out for the for a fraction of that amount on offer to all the rest of Australia’s practitioners across theatre, music, literature, visual arts, music and dance boards and the thousands of unsuccessful applicants.

That is to say nothing the many more who are thwarted by the archaic definitions and inappropriate processes of a system that assumes that culture trickles down from the big companies and not up from living creative communities and individuals.

The fact that this is a two track world where the assumptions are so ingrained that a singe company’s resources can tower over much of the rest of the creative community in orders of magnitude approaching a thousand to one without being particularly remarked upon.

It is a world that condemns emerging sectors, artforms and communities outside major companies and arts centres to perpetual unsustainability and a parade of lost opportunities.

Most ominously it is also a world where the very legitimacy of arts funding buckles as the art forms that Australians value are marginalised at the expense of the privileged few.

Take music as an example. Australians love music, as the Australia Council’s own comprehensive survey More than bums on seats exclaims. It found that nearly two-thirds of Australians “participated” in music last year and more than half attended a live music event.

Slightly more than one in ten attended classical music, more than two in ten attended music theatre or cabaret, and more than four out of ten attended what the survey lumps together as “other live music” – a category that covers everything from pop to rock to country and dance.

Yet opera according to the same survey was actually the least the popular form of live music in Australia.

What then is the rationale then for the fact that operas and orchestras combined account for 98% of all music funding?

Yes Opera is expensive. Yes much other music is commercial and not in need of public support but the music that Australians appreciate goes a lot deeper than the top 40. It includes many genres and sub cultures like Opera where market failure makes it difficult to create and present high quality work to passionate Australian audiences.

Even at the nascent end of the commercial world it includes market failures from the death of suburban venues, to the viability of regional touring to the poker machines that are killing off live music venues in the inner cities that are of great concern to many and are surely worth more than 2% of arts funding?

My argument here is not that opera is undeserving of support. Only that it is not exclusively or disproportionately deserving of support. In this context opera is simply one of dozens of musical cultures or subcultures where market failure provides a valid claim to policy support and in some cases funding.

Opera may be very well subsidised, very expensive, very influential, very well connected, very Anglo, and very appealing to high incoming earning individuals but by any definition it is still a subculture – the days when it was a central and preeminent cultural form have long passed.

But there is an additional danger here – that is the legitimacy of the very idea of arts funding itself. I believe that one of the reasons why Australians don’t necessarily identify strongly with the idea of the funded arts is that the funded arts less and less identifies with Australians.

If i can offer up “Exhibit A” look no further than the language used routine within the arts sector and particularly within the funding agencies.

While the numbers and survey data unambiguously suggest that Australians cultural routines consist of a diverse smorgasbord of arts and cultural activities large and small, popular and niche, digital and analogue the arts community insists on perpetuating a false and frankly misleading dichotomy.

Routinely, it is the norm for artists and even the media to refer to the expensive and comparatively unpopular major performing arts companies that take up most of our arts budget as “mainstream” and to much of the music theatre, cabaret, and “other live music” that Australians attend and value in much greater numbers as the “fringe.”

The very fact that we are undertaking surveys of Australian culture where the most popular activity is what the organisation undertaking the survey categorises and lumps in together as “other” is as good an example as any the entire funding system has become tone deaf to the nuances and diversity of a dynamic living contemporary culture.

It may once have been enough to divide the music world into categories like orchestras, opera, cabaret and “other” but the reality is that the culture has moved on but the language and logic of the bureaucracy hasn’t moved with it.


For fear of opening myself up no another round of suggestions that i’m personally  “bitter”, “contemptuous” and “disgusted” – all explanations I’ve heard recently for why I write and talk about these issues, i am going to risk providing a little personal context here.

I have been working “professionally” in the arts for about fifteen years. Those inverted commas are deliberate.

Almost all of that time has been on the slow track – often away from the major cities and almost always away from the 19th century and earlier artforms that provide the fixed immutable frame of reference for what does and doesn’t constitute “art”.

In all that time I have never worked on a project where there was a budget to actually pay the artists. The biggest subsidisers and sponsors of the arts in Australia are the artists. Contrary to popular perceptions most work day jobs and many work several to keep up what they do.

Far from the perception that they are pampered in my experience most artists are amongst the hardest working people that i know. They need to be. If they’re not they don’t last and the support systems to nurture them are few and far between.

Personally, ike most artists I have worked most of that time for scrappy if any pay in the arts while making an actual living from a variety of high and low profile full and part time day jobs – recently I’ve found writing provocative articles about the parlous state of arts and cultural priorities seems to fit the bill.

There are countless examples of the two-track art world but I can speak best from my own experience and there is a great example this very weekend.

While the Festival of Dangerous Ideas takes place in Sydney up the road in Newcastle the annual This Is Not Art Festival is on. You may or may not know about it but TINA is Australia’s largest media arts festival and last I looked it was Newcastle’s largest annual tourism event.

I founded the festival and ran for the first five years from 1998 to 2002 – I’m pleased to see that now that it is in it’s twelfth year it still brings together thousands of Australia’s and the worlds most talented young artists, media makers, and DIY creatives. I’m also pleased that most are mostly undeterred by the fact that that they are unfunded and obsessed enough to persevere and do it anyway.

Also in Newcastle this weekend the Renew Newcastle project – another a project that i am proud to have been involved in starting – will be hosting a series of showcase events.

I’m not sure if you know about that one either. There are about 150 empty buildings in the two main streets of Newcastle and over the last few years Renew Newcastle has taken over more than of them 30 of them and made them available to nearly 60 artists, creative businesses, and community groups to incubate their initiatives. It has succeeded not only as an arts project, as a community project but it has been responsible for a significant economic as well as cultural revival in dead parts of Newcastle’s city centre.

Contrary to any suggestion that i am “bitter” both of those projects have given me a satisfaction and passion that i suspect few others have had the privilege to experience. But pursuing them has been incredibly hard. They’ve cost me a fortune.

If you work on the fast track or only follow the art world through the prism of the Major Performing Arts Companies and major arts centres it may surprise you that lovely lovely lovely people at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas are paying me more to speak at the today than I earned in all my five years of running TINA or the first full year of establishing Renew Newcastle.

It will pay me more to write an essay and give a speech than any of those 60 projects that have helped revive Newcastle have received in financial support this year.

It will pay me more than many of the coordinators and critical staff of This Is Not Art will earn in for their work over the course of this full year.

It will pay more than I have paid almost all of the artists in any of the two thousand or so events, sessions, broadcasts, workshops, performances, exhibitions and events that I have organised in the last 15 years.

This is not to say that my hosts at the Sydney Opera House are being excessively generous, they are simply paying a decent rate commensurate with the time it has taken me to prepare and travel.

Very few artists get that and very few arts organisations are in any position to do that.

Of course, if you are from the slow track of the two-track art world, absolutely none of this will surprise you. Australia’s 44,000 professional artists earn a median income of just $7,000 a year from their creative work.

Many simply internalise the idea that there is no support.

Many routinely turn down career opportunities for the lack of a few thousand dollars, a program to apply to and a set of guidelines that fit them.

I have seen many phenomenally talented artists down the years who simply have given up or emigrated because from there is no funding, little recognition and – probably most galling of all – no policy support based on the 21st century reality of their work lives.

In 2010 the overwhelming majority of artists are simply out of sync with an archaic, top-heavy trickle down funding system based on the fundamental misunderstanding that culture comes not from the bottom up activities of the many but from privileged and well resourced position of the few.


As I said at the beginning this is not an argument against Opera.

It is not a question about the talent, dedication, commitment or quality of Australia’s opera performers, directors, the craftspeople and the people who work behind the scenes.

Defenders of the status quo take every opportunity to remind me that this shouldn’t be an either or argument and they’re right.

We don’t need to throw out our history, our major companies and our current support systems in order to support the work of living artists.

We don’t need to destroy our orchestras and opera companies. But neither can we improve it without a frank acknowledgement that the status quo is – as best as I can sum it up – shithouse, misguided and confused.

At the most basic level we are operating from assumptions about what culture is, where it comes from and who makes it that are hopelessly broken and out of date.

Let’s take it then as a starting premise that it isn’t an either or proposition, That isn’t opera and orchestras v. the rest of the creativity community. We can get there from here when the policy makers, administrators and leaders of the major companies begin seriously acknowledging the problems and limitations of the current system.

If we are going to have both we need to stop pretending that there isn’t a problem here or that some artists are incredibly worthy while the overwhelming majority aren’t worth a jot.

We need to commit to the idea of some kind of parity between the major companies and the many living, breathing original Australian artists across all forms that feed from the scraps from the table.

If we can commit ourselves to supporting Australia’s living artists in the same way that we honour the fine works of the great dead ones it need not be oppositional.

I will gladly begin by recognising that Opera has just as much claim to public support as everyone else and recognising that people working in Australia’s major performing arts companies have the same right to support as do artists in other fields.

I would ask that they in turn follow that argument through to its logical conclusion.

From there i would hope that would allow us to begin to make a genuine case to the whole of the Australian public for a well resourced policy and funding system that reflects all their values and not just a subset of them.

I believe that if we can reflect back to the public a system that embraces and supports the best of all of all their cultures and subcultures both old and new it will help not hinder the long term legitimacy of ALL arts funding and allow us to grow the resources both cash and in kind that we put into the pool to foster Australian creativity.

That is not an argument against opera but one for the very legitimacy of arts funding and cultural policy in Australia.

In the long term that may be crucial not just to the artists that are currently excluded but to keep the fat ladies to singing a little longer.

Similar Posts:

Tags:   · · · · · · · · 7 Comments

  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter

Leave A Comment

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 HT Oct 6, 2010 at 4:47 pm


  • 2 john walker Oct 7, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    Regarding policy

    There are an awful lot of artists . Because its often simply a self description here are no limits to the potential rate of growth of the supply of applicants for funding.
    Spreading the money out to everybody could end in everybody getting a fair share of ,sod all.

    Public Policy/Strategy is always about where to focus finite resources– essentially it must always about who dos not get funded .

    Is there such a thing as a classification – ‘artist’ ?
    And if so; Is there some intrinsic reason why ‘artists’ as a whole class should have special treatment ?
    ( The various attempts over the past 30 years to establish ‘externalities’ have never been very convincing)

    Can we really support all of them to an adequate degree out of the same public purse as that which pays for hospitals?

    Or is Arts policy itself , intrinsically little more than an arbitrary distribution of recognition – a question of power.

    What alternative system of determining who dos not get a share of the always limited resources have you in mind?

  • […] assume it’s due to historical inertia, the heritage effect. Marcus Westbury again had much to say about this recently at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, in a speech titled […]

  • 4 john walker Oct 13, 2010 at 11:51 am

    Actually audiences tend to be fairly conservative for a pretty good reason.
    Things that are both new and any good are fairly rare.

    Lucia di Lanamore is one of the sexeist things ever sung, get a copy of Paul Coxs Man of Flowers.

  • […] weekend I was privately gloating. After my recent Festival of Dangerous Ideas talk (which you can read here or watch here) I couldn’t resist noting the milestones of which major national arts organisations […]

  • […] I’ve also managed to work the state and plight of Newcastle into pretty much every platform i’ve been given from the first episode of Not Quite Art, through to essays i’ve written, and most recently even worked it in at the Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. […]

  • 7 David Osborne Jul 21, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    I’d have to add that the results of the “more bums on seats” survey contain some pretty dodgy figures. 1 in 10 Australians attended classical music concerts in the previous year- What was that saying about damn lies and statistics?