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Opera: the Musical

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imagesOpera and music theatre have always had a slightly uncomfortable relationship. They’re obviously related, but are they parent and child, cousins or siblings? Pinning down real differences between the two is difficult.

Opera, of course, is serious, like Otello and Tosca. Except when it’s not. Like The Barber of Seville or The Love of Three Oranges.

Musicals are funny and/or uplifting, of course. Like My Fair Lady or Anything Goes. Except when they’re not. Like Les Miz and Sweeney Todd.

images-3When it comes down to it, what is opera if not music-in-a-theatre? You can argue about the specific ingredients, the artistic intention and ambition but in the end it’s a bit like arguing over who has the best chocolate cake recipe. As long as they contain chocolate, they’re all good, and they’re all chocolate cake.

So why the angst bubbling to the surface in the wake of the National Opera Review about Opera Australia’s growing dependence on staging works (aka opera) usually classified as traditional musicals (aka opera)? I think in classifying shows as operas or musicals, high art, low art, music theatre or popera, we might be missing the point.

Personally, I don’t care what our MPAG companies put on, as long as they are GOOD. Bottom line. Of all the criteria, of all the key performance indicators, ‘artistic vibrancy’ is the clincher. And without wishing to get bogged down in definitions, for me artistic vibrancy means performance which is original, intelligent, coherent, possibly confronting, definitely affecting, hopefully life-changing. It’s a lot to ask, which is why my personal KPIs also include diversity and risk. Because you actually can’t hit all those marks without trying quite a few different things, and you can’t try different things without failing from time to time.

Where I’m going with this is that in response to a difficult financial situation — and let’s face it, finances are always difficult in opera — the larger opera companies in Australia have chosen a narrow, risk-averse artistic direction which is eroding artistic vibrancy. And that reduced artistic vibrancy erodes relevance and reduced relevance erodes audience appeal, which erodes audiences.

The stats contained in the National Opera Review corroborate this view.

But what about Opera Australia’s artistic director, Lyndon Terracini, and his claim that audiences don’t like contemporary opera and, by implication, audiences don’t really like anything challenging. It’s a view he expressed at the start of his artistic directorship, when he gave the Peggy Glanville Hicks lecture in 2011. His logical conclusion is that Australia’s national opera company must give audiences more of what they want.

I have two problems with this: first, the notion that audiences should be given what they want and, second, Lyndon Terracini’s opinion of what that is.

Sir William Glock, founder of Dartington International Summer School of Music, BBC Controller of Music from 1959-1972, and artistic director of London’s Promenade Concerts from 1960-1973, had firm (and not universally popular) views about giving audiences what they want. In a documentary on Dartington Summer School made for Channel 4 in 1988 he says, “If you try to give the public what it wants you invariably fall below its understanding and its appetites. I have always believed that. Aim to be a few yards out to sea.”

Aim to be a few yards out to sea.

Think about it. Coming from a besuited grey beard with a plummy English accent, you expect something patronising or paternalistic but it is anything but. His point is that making assumptions about what people like is where you get into trouble. And that’s where mainstream opera in Australia is heading now. Big trouble.

images-2Opera Australia has chosen a double or quits trajectory, investing heavily in what it believes audiences want: the experience, the glamour, the romance, the occasion. Marketing materials emphasize the aspirational nature of opera-going. Starry-eyed audience members, champagne, a once-in-a-lifetime experience… The experiences on offer are expensive, but worth it. And there are plenty of ‘beginner’ offerings if you are worried about it being boring. In fact, they’re mostly ‘beginner’ or re-runs or ‘event theatre’ (to quote OA’s 2016 brochure). It doesn’t matter whether they are musicals or operas: they all conform to a slavishly traditional, outdated, never-really-existed concept of golden-age music theatre.

Again, two problems.

First, if you’re only going to go to one Opera Australia production in your life and the most-hyped, biggest budget, most opera-y thing on is a musical or a traditionally-staged war-horse, then that’s probably what you’ll invest your hard-earned cash in. You’ll go to a musical or, if you really want to push the boat out, HOSH. Either way, it’ll confirm all your preconceptions of opera and you’ll tick the box: Experience Opera TICK.

Second, if opera is, as Opera Australia tells us, so bloody special, so extraordinary, and so expensive then how does anyone justify making it a regular part of their lives? Why would you go more than once, if at all?

Michael Volpe, artistic director of Holland Park Opera in London:

For opera and the arts in general to flourish as we would like… we should avoid dumbing it down or sexing it up, trying to appeal to what we think are “modern” likes and dislikes; if we try to meet them on their terms or mould opera into something we think will appeal, we will lose. We shouldn’t be running scared of our shadow…

Above all, we must not try to make opera extraordinary – we need to make it ordinary.

Opera. Ordinary. Imagine that. Not frocked to the max, crackling with gold, Kardashian-themed wonderfests, but just another way to tell a story and, when done well, a cracking good one.

It’s idealistic, and Volpe acknowledges as much, but I still find his logic attractive. Not least because my long and torrid relationship with opera began with some distinctly ordinary experiences. A cut down Marriage of Figaro at Fairfield Halls in Croydon. Jenufa in a tiny Glasgow theatre, with an upright piano and no set to speak of. More recently, Christie Whelan Brown’s fabulous Britney Spears: the Cabaret (written and directed by Dean Bryant). Or Sydney Chamber Opera’s Fly Away Peter(Opera Australia also does some great shows like this for its regional touring).

Yes, I’d like to see cheap tickets to improve access and more education initiatives. But beyond that, I’d love to see broader repertoire and less glitz. More ideas, fewer gimmicks. Less assumptions about what audiences will like, and more creativity, more enthusiasm for making live performances to inspire. Not always big, bold, beautiful. Sometimes small, subtle, perhaps even ugly. More to the point, not all the same.

That’s what I’ll be submitting as my response to the National Opera Review. What about you?

Author: harryfiddler

Harriet Cunningham – aka @harryfiddler — is a freelance writer based in Sydney. Harriet wrote her first novel, about a runaway cat, at the age of 7. In the forty year gap between novel 1 and novel 2 she moved from London to Edinburgh to Sydney, ran an opera company, played violin on the opera house stage and sailed from Gove to Darwin. She is now a music critic and writer, best known as the critic who got banned by Opera Australia. She still hangs out at the Sydney Opera House, is still trying to get that novel published, and still plays the violin.

4 thoughts on “Opera: the Musical

  1. Give em what they want? Remember the Edsel.

    • Sorry! A bit obscure for you youngsters. In the 1950s Ford Motors wanted to win market share, so they built a car based on what their customers said they wanted. Sales were such a disaster that ever since the word Edsel has been, in the US, synonymous with “flop”. From The New Yorker 3 Dec 1960: ‘…the Edsel’s flop could be attributed to Ford company executives who had been “listening too long to the motivation research people” & who, in their efforts to turn out a car that would satisfy customers sexual fantasies & the like, had failed to supply reasonable & practical transportation, thereby neglecting “the reality principle”.’
      Now there’s a PhD idea: The reality principle as applied to opera programming.

  2. Wow. Faskinating. And very revealing. PhD, anyone?

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