Opera Australia – should they get more taxpayer funding? 46



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A few years ago Graeme Samuel was concurrently Chairman of Opera Australia and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

Wearing his first hat, he was never shy about asking for more taxpayers’ cash so that Opera Australia could stage musicals written by long-dead foreigners but, while wearing his second hat, he lectured farmers about standing on their own two feet, not asking for subsidies and not whingeing about cheap imports.

Presumably, he never appreciated the irony.

Just before 2016 kicked in, Opera Australia Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini – Mr Samuel’s spiritual successor to be sure – made an impassioned plea for more taxpayer funding to preserve what he was pleased to refer as our “cultural heritage” which, he said, “should be supported in a much more aggressive way through government”. Yes, their annual grant of $25 million from the Federal Government is nowhere near enough.

Sadly, Opera Australia only managed to generate 85% of its revenue last year including large dollops of donations from corporate Australia. Well that’s their money so they can do what they like with it.

So off I went to the Opera Australia website to see what of our wonderful “cultural heritage” Opera Australia has lined up for its lucky Sydney audiences in 2016. Incidentally, Opera Australia very rarely ventures outside of the Opera House and then it is usually only for limited seasons in Melbourne.

Highlights of their program include “Carmen” sung in Italian by, not surprisingly, the Italian composer Bizet who died in 1875, “Cosi Fan Tutti” sung in Italian by Mozart who died in 1791 as well as “La Boheme” and “The Barber of Seville” also sung in Italian by the Italian composer Puccini who died in 1924.

Opera Australia will venture to Melbourne to stage the four-part “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (The Ring Cycle) sung in German by the German composer Wagner who died in 1883.

Now I have no doubt that these distinguished composers were men of talent. However, I am somewhat at a loss to understand why they necessarily are part of our “cultural heritage”. Try as I may, I haven’t unearthed the slightest shred of evidence that they even knew about Australia.

Even with corporate donations and the Federal Government $25 million, seat prices in Sydney range from a very modest $330 to a paltry $44. The Ring Cycle in Melbourne – all four performances – cost a trifling $2,150 to a miserly $1,100. These performances don’t begin until late November so you have lots of time to save up, which is handy.

Happily, Opera Australia is touring twenty regional centres including Hobart and Canberra which might be a bit miffed at being so described but, at least they are getting the show, “The Marriage of Figaro” by Mozart. So, while Albury, Burnie, Dubbo and Wagga Wagga, among others, get the show, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Darwin get nothing at all.

And what is extra nice is that it will be sung in English, presumably because people who live in these far-flung hamlets are – let’s face it – hicks who aren’t as sophisticated as Sydney and Melbourne audiences which can truly appreciate Opera as it was written in the original tongue. Then again, it could be because at each and every stop, the chorus will be made up of local kiddies who may not have a full command of the Italian language.

There is a blurry line between opera and stage musicals although one thing is certain – stage musicals don’t rely on government grants and corporate donations. No doubt opera buffs would turn their noses up at shows like “The Phantom of the Opera”, “Cats”, “Les Miserables”, “The Lion King” and “Mamma Mia” but they made buckets of money simply because they provided entertainment that people actually liked.

The seats weren’t necessarily cheap but they have always been filled.

It seems that musicians and singers engaged by Opera Australia are far more precious creatures than musicians and singers who, presumably, lower themselves to these sorts of shows. And it follows that while a show written in Italian, French or German a good long time ago is part of our “cultural heritage” , a show written in English in the last thirty or so years is certainly not.

The 19th Italian composer Rossini once observed, “How wonderful opera would be if there were no singers” which is a bit rich – but has some undeniable truth – given that he wrote thirty-nine operas.

And who better could I summon to, in effect, reply to Opera Australia’s lament that some people and governments are just not as appreciative as they might be but Noel Coward who said, “People are wrong when they say opera is not what it used to be. It is what it used to be. That is what’s wrong with it.”


What do you think? Should Opera Australia receive more money?

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Russell Grenning

Russell Grenning is a Brisbane-based former journalist and retired political adviser who began his career with the ABC in 1968 in Brisbane and subsequently worked on the Brisbane afternoon daily, "The Telegraph" and later as a columnist for "The Courier Mail" and "The Australian". He worked for a string of senior Ministers in the Federal, Victorian and Queensland Governments as well as in senior executive public relations positions, including Assistant Federal Director, Public Relations, for Australia Post, Public Relations Manager for the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Principal Adviser, Corporate Relations, for the Queensland Law Society.

  1. To refer to a ‘modest’ $330 per ticket indicates the writer is out of touch with ordinary Australians. Also opera is a ‘high culture’ medium enjoyed mainly by the intelligentsia, many of whom are financially comfortable. So further taxpayer funding is not appropriate.

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  2. At this stage of the game, the Opera House should be paying for itself, it is an attraction for overseas visitors and is featured in many adds about Australia, They should start charging the people who use it in adds ad they could give the money to Opera Australia.

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    • The Opera House is a seperate entity Libbi but I agree fully with you. Opera is an entertainment and should stand or fall on the ability to pull an audience and generated ticket sales. All entertainers know if you don’t give the audience what they want at the price their willing to pay you starve Opera Australia is so singularly unsuccessful they can’t survive without the taxpayer propping them up.

    • Tim if they charged for advertising for the Opera house they could give the money to the entertainers like Opera Australia..sounds right? yes no?

    • I don’t know for sure Libbi but I would be very surprised if the Opera House Trust doesn’t have some form of cost for the commercial use of the image.

  3. Haha…maybe consider not spending so much money on stupid fireworks and laser beams on that icon instead…by now it should be making money. Bad mangement i say.

  4. For a start Bizet was French, not Italian. Brian, come down and go to the Opera Hous for a performance. The audience is certainly NOT the intelligentsia of Sydney. Its peopled by all walks and income brackets. It is not an attraction for overseas visitors any more than the Louvre is there for the enjoyment of tourists.

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    • I have sat through enough operas to know they are not my favourite form of entertainment! And my reference to ‘intelligentsia’ was the politest form I could find! 😉

    • You missed the quote from the article – Noel Coward said, “People are wrong when they say opera is not what it used to be. It is what it used to be. That is what’s wrong with it!”

    • OK, so its not your ‘thing’. I love it. 🙂 but the writer of this article annoyed me. He sounds like the sort of idiot who decries everything not splodged with tomatoe sauce and served with beer.

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      • I am not an idiot, thank you very much. I don’t like tomato sauce and I hardly drink beer anymore. In fact, I like the opera and have been to several at the Opera House and thoroughly enjoyed them. The whole point of my piece was that opera, like every other form of entertainment, should be self-sustaining even if it means higher ticket prices for all. Perhaps you don’t believe in that principle.

    • I know what I like, but I would never suggest that that is definitive. If we all like the same things, life would be boring and venues totally overcrowded!

  5. The (Oprah) house is a commercial entity and should be treated as such. I as a member of the pensioners fan club wouldn’t mind a slice of the $25M, in fact I think it (the $) should go to the age pensioners (excluding the dumb A–se lollies who have a penchant for squandering our hard earned dollars. Bah humbug you twits in Parliament

  6. Libbi, you are confusing the Opera House which is one business, with Opera Australia which is a completley separate entity and performs in the Opera House – like the ballet company and the symphony orchestra does.

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    • Trish the Opera House is a building that gets world wide Publicity, if they want more funding for Opera Australia who preforms in the Opera House then they need to charge more for advertising the building..not charge taxpayers but since I posted that turns out the article was not fact it is just satyr..cheers

  7. I’m an opera lover and go to as many performances as I can afford but I agree that more money for health, education and police is vital. Why can’t we have both as they do in many European countries? And don’t forget the Sydney Opera House is a huge tourist drawcard because it is such an iconic building which, along with the bridge and Uluru, almost defines Australia to overseas travellers.

  8. NO never whilst,health education,farmers and vets need looking after never give tax payers dosh to the opera, or any of the arts.

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