Changing Opera Culture in Australia: Vision & Taking Action

An opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down. It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I’ve left the opera house*

French pop singer Sébastien Izambard, Spanish baritone Carlos Marín, American tenor David Miller and Swiss tenor Urs Bühler - Il Divo

The evolution of opera in Europe from its earliest beginnings to its heyday was a passionate pursuit of many people. It changed dramatically as it developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, responding to the times, people’s preferences and earth shattering events. Following World War II in the twentieth century, the son of an Italian émigré from Philadelphia, Mario Lanza (1921-1959) became the most famous tenor in the world, performing operatic music on film to the delight of millions of people. His passion spawned a generation of new singers, including members of the Three Tenors Placido Domingo (1941-) and Jose Carreras (1946-), who together with Luciano Pavarotti generated an even greater interest in opera world wide. They sang among the ancient ruins at Rome on July 7, 1990 – the eve of the FIFA World Cup Final, inspiring another generation of opera trained singers. This included four pop/opera crossover singers, who were united in 2002 by TV executive Simon Colwell to become Il Divo. Colwell certainly knows a good tenor when he hears one, understands what entertainment is all about and, that people really want to hear great voices singing great music.

Every year since 1999 in Australia, an outstanding advocate of music is invited to present The Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address. In 2011 Artistic Director for Opera Australia Mr Lyndon Terracini was invited to honour this, one of Australia’s great international composers. Raising many eyebrows with some remarks Mr. Terracini declared “There is a very passionate small group of people who can sometimes appear to be members of a club who feel that their views are the only opinions of real importance and that presenting what they want to see is the role of “their” opera company. “All of Sydney is talking about it” one of them said to me recently, referring to a particular production that, while being successful artistically, had experienced very poor attendances.

Artistic Director Opera Australia, Lyndon Terracini

I pointed out that only slightly more than 4,000 people had bought tickets for the production that this particular person was referring to and on last count there were a lot more than 4,000 people living in Sydney… “well all of my friends have seen it” was the response… and here you have the fundamental problem…. everyone at my “club” has seen it and bugger those who aren’t members of my club. That sense of patrician entitlement is not only at odds with what we regard as the Australian way of life, but it is also completely at odds with contemporary Australia” said Mr Terracini.

Not wanting people to take your words out of context Mr Terracini I have included a link to Opera Australia and added the address in PDF format at the bottom of this post to be downloaded. Your wake up call will surely embolden many to step up behind you. A neo-Renaissance is surely the way to go for opera, but without the ‘grand manner’ of the baroque perhaps more high-art meets the new hegemony of a fluid, ongoing contemporary society, one that values excellence and actively supports sharing the love around. Your courage, strength, sense of purpose and goal for that of ensuring opera, will be made much more accessible with your ‘Big Bold and Beautiful Program’ to be delivered from 2012 is admirable. How good is it also to know Opera Australia in 2013 will produce German composer, conductor and writer Richard Wagner’s huge operatic and very influential masterpiece, Der Ring des Nibelungen – usually abbreviated to The Ring.

If members of the infamous ‘arts club’ are interested in safeguarding the future of opera in Australia and, if they are genuine, they will step up to help you by challenging themselves first and then getting behind you Mr Terracini. They will dig deep to help you find the way forward and generously sponsor opera’s accessibility to the wider public by relieving the pressure from government. In the future governments will focus much more on health, education, science, technology, urban planning and investment in the environment, while trying to keep a balance with the ever expanding creative industries that they know are transforming everyday life.

Opera reflects the classical maturity of contemporary society while expressing its attitudes and philosophies, its fashions and passions^

The very essence of opera is that the music is integral to the story, not just incidental as in a ‘musical’ or a play with music. Early music operas are different to those produced during the second half of the nineteenth century, a time of working class militancy and organized socialist movements, built on the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. They contrasted greatly with the reality of intense and systematic discrimination between sexes and other cultures. Yet it is often described as a ‘golden age’?

To gain an appreciation for any culture and its art forms people have to be exposed to it, preferably one on one. If that’s not possible education is the next best thing. Perhaps the Renaissance Art Exhibition currently at The National Gallery of Canberra will be timely in helping to inspire and expand interest in the arts, as its advertisers suggest?

Greek philosopher Aristotle believed education about music should be introduced to the very young, because it had the power of forming character. If ever a discipline integrated the unconscious and emotional aspects of the mind with the intellectual and physical movement it would be music. Its choice is deeply personal, particularly with opera. This was reflected beautifully in the reaction of a Pretty Woman (actor Julia Roberts) when she was taken to the opera for the first time. Her whole story was about embracing great change.

At dinner recently with a young woman, who had just graduated music school was an enlightening experience. She let us all know she will be playing in a symphony orchestra soon. She also let me know she had fabulous teachers at university who brought the music alive and make it relevant to our time when I asked her about the music she liked, which included opera. Now she wants to have other young people engage with it as well, so she has become a teacher at a girl’s school, where she will no doubt imbue them with her enthusiasm for all sorts of classical music, because she has the passion and courage of her convictions. Spreading the word is also about the power of one.

If we were being truly multi-cultural in Australia then surely adding Chinese Opera to performances Opera Australia presents, would be a good thing. It would certainly deliver a mark of respect to a people and culture that has contributed much to Australia and her growth.

Inter-cultural conversations and cross -cultural dialogue, whether delivered in words or through music, is all about inventing the future of our global community, one in which we have respect for each other, each other’s ideas, traditions, arts and cultural concerns.

Just as today Western society is being educated about Eastern cultures in their turn the East are embracing knowledge of the West. The Internet has opened up the world invoking great and rapid change, as people in repressed societies find out that while a democratic society might be imperfect in many ways, it does have many benefits.

An all-new National Cultural Policy, currently being put in place by the Australian government, will hopefully be part of informing change. Recently the Australian Minister of the Arts said in an address to the Australian Film, Television and Radio School 2011 Graduation Ceremony

“I am looking to work with these training bodies through our new cultural policy and in particular, the development of the National Schools Curriculum. A curriculum, which places arts as one of the key learning disciplines… because the skills gained across the arts and creative industries are crucial to the innovative and flexible thinking needed in a 21st century economy”.

Innovative and flexible are the key words. Difficult to believe though that the Australian government has taken so long to catch up with what the rest of the western world seems always to have known about the benefits of studying the arts and classics. But there it is.

Diva Divine, American born Greek soprano Maria Callas (1923-1977) who kept the home fires burning as everyone recovered from World War II. Her voice was surely from heaven.

You will have no doubt offended many members of the ‘arts club’ you talk about, Mr Terracini with your words. And you are right. People with this attitude do exist and like to believe they are above everyone else in society. They also seem to believe they are not accountable to it, which is the scariest part. They have done their best to keep opera, one of the great forms of human expression “in house” for a long time. I for one can understand your frustrations and have felt them too, having spent three plus decades of my life hoping they would raise their gaze a little and see out and into the rest of the world.

Understanding why they take the stance they do has always been important to me. Human identity has so many dimensions, including time and place. Music is a key aspect in the formation of identity and community. We remember many of the events of our life by what songs are being sung at the time.

Following World War II European families, including grandmothers, grandfathers, cousins, aunts and uncles were all migrating to America and Australia. The older members kept the stories of their life at home in Europe alive through music, because it reminded them of when they were so happy and times were good. And we cannot blame them they all had a really horrible time.

Music from home became part of their survival mechanism, one they tried to pass on. I know this because I worked with many people who came to Australia in the two decades after the war on social profit committees at Sydney between the 70’s and the 90’s. They told me a great many stories that today most people would not deal with.

Vienna, the interior of the Opera House

Very often some of their children, and definitely their grandchildren were born into this different world and subsequently wanted more. This was about generational change and, appropriate. There had been a considerable shift in thinking from being in ‘survival’ mode during the war to embracing ‘self expression’ in a climate of peace. What their grandchildren and other people wanted out of life post-War was very different. It was hard for many of them to take this on board, having suffered so terribly.

It would be fair to say there is no right way or wrong way of looking at things, just different ideas in different places brought about by different times.

It has been my experience people club together through fear. After all many who migrated lost either some family members, or all of them. So dreadful. They lost their homes, their possessions, country of origin and cultural connections. Wounds like this run very deep and it takes a long time for them to heal. The only thing they could do was to hang on to the music. It was the only thing left that would rest their mind, feed their spirit and nurture their soul. Over the years music from the opera helped them to keep going. So it’s no surprise they wanted to just keep it close.

We also need to remember though that there are a minority of people among the ‘arts club’, who did not have these experiences and patronize everyone else and the public, because they have other fears and agendas.

Sydney Opera House, home for Opera Australia

Today as we move into the second decade of the 21st century the time is ripe for action, because many of these people are better placed to face their fears. It doesn’t mean their fears are not still relevant, but like the rest of us there is a point where they have to come to terms with them or life ceases.

We cannot build a bright future for the next generation on a rocky foundation, one of hurt and anger. However we can build social capital by using our intellectual capital. The last thing we want is to drift slowly into a genteel style of arts poverty in Australia.

Opera Australia as you pointed out receives the biggest grant of money from the state and national governments, and yet only reaches very few people on the scale of things. $20 million dollars of government funds is gleaned from taxes paid by Australian citizens to support it. As you also pointed out in your address, when you took over the opera company audiences for some operas were only reaching 4,000 people.

You were right, this fact is truly a scandal.

Michael Lewis and Jacqueline Mabardi in Opera Australia's Macbeth. Music Composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901). It is a terrific opera, fast paced and full of good tunes. It is faithful to Shakespeare's powerful tragedy, which includes ambition, treachery, madness and mass murder. Pic: Jeff Busby

The ‘creative class’ of the last decade worldwide has transformed everyday life, helping to build and grow community spirit, attracting new investment and contributing much to local and national economies.

This has required technological infrastructure, a diversity of talent and above all, tolerance, persistence and endurance.

I learned to love opera music as a child watching Mario Lanza on the big screen. Many a world famous opera singer said his example was why they wanted to pursue opera as an art form.

Economies thrive when they are driven by inventiveness. But a truly creative society is not merely a game of solitaire any more, it is one played by a team, which requires both energy and awareness.

All types of creative industries increasingly are vital to our success as a national economy, and integral to extending the breadth and depth of our society and its cultural development. And so the funds allocations will change. They must provide the citizens who contribute so much with value for money.

Next year you have said Mr Terracini Opera Australia will play to 500,000 people with a program that will be popular, not populist.

If you expose people to the brilliance of opera singing there will be those who will then beg, borrow or steal to purchase a ticket to experience a real night at the opera.

After all some pay huge sums to see rock stars, you just have to get them to ‘grow’ their taste for other forms of music. Then they will want the real experience, just like that enjoyed by a really Pretty Woman.

Opera is about the people and for the people, all of them. The Operapolitan Team retained by Brisbane City Council (2006-2008) to present music to people in places where they gathered, gained a huge amount of feedback. They told us they really loved opera, but couldn’t afford the high prices to attend or, to buy the posh dresses they felt they had to wear when they went. This was because they were also very aware of the ‘disapproval’ of the so-called ‘arts club’. And it kept them away. It’s not that they did not like opera music, they did and loved it, but they felt (feelings are important) that they and their contribution was not wanted or worse still, not relevant.

It seemed to me at the time very sad that Opera had got away from being about the music of the people and instead become a backdrop for a stage on which others performed for their own benefit and hidden agendas.

Andrew Pryor Tenor, Christian Gante Pianist, Shaun Brown Baritone, Liza Beamish Coloratura performing for Operapolitan 2006 - 2008, an initiative of Brisbane City Council taking Opera to the People in the Queen St Mall, Westfield and Retail First Shopping Centres. The sponsor was Theme and Variations Piano Services, who supplied the Steinway Grand

How good is it to hear you are going to make Sydney Harbour a backdrop for an exciting presentation of La Traviata – that “Pretty Woman’ would be pleased. Change is about enabling and emboldening an expansion of knowledge and ideas about how arts, manufactures, commerce, ideas and music are integral to a cities growth and can contribute to it.

Raising an awareness of how the arts in all their forms will contribute to our very special cultural diversity and can only but benefit society as a whole. Perhaps if we start singing the old Labour political tag tune “It’s Time” to encourage arts ‘patricians’ in Australia to throw open their doors and let the ‘plebeians’ in it may help. If they don’t well, they really could sign the death knell of the music they profess to care about.

Opera is the music of love and life and the last thing we want is that it becomes irrelevant. It is an elite form of art and long should it remain so. No one wants that more than me. But it should never be elitist. In such a progressive society as Australia change is constant and people need to embrace it. There’s a great many Mr Terracini, who would gladly help, as well as give you three cheers for stepping up and taking the lead in changing opera culture in Australia – it is not just all about having the vision, but about taking the action. Go well.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2011


* Maria Callas

^Carolyn McDowall, Operapolitan 2006=2008

Definition of OPERA – Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, 4th edition By Michael Kennedy and Joyce Bourne Copyright © 1996 Oxford University Press By permission of Oxford University Press