Lyndon Terracini – Keeping Opera in Australia Active & Alive

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‘Terracini Breaking Boundaries’ announced the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) headline. The story was about the Artistic Director of Opera Australia Lyndon Terracini seeking to engage in a conversation about changing the ‘union’ rules in Australia that restrict the number of international performers coming to sing with our national opera company. ”You can’t have union restrictions like that (10 a year) and expect to play at the highest level,” Terracini said to the SMH reporter. ”No other opera house in the world has that restriction. Not one”. His latest statement went hand in hand with the announcement he will be at the helm of Opera Australia for another five years managing change, which for all arts leaders in a global economy is a skilled balancing act.

How can Lyndon Terracini make opera popular in Australia without it being seen as being populist, while ensuring it remains an elite art form, without it being elitist? If he is to succeed it will require give and take from a great many people. How also, as a responsible leader of a truly international arts company, can you offer true excellence to all your customers when you are unable to dip deeply into the pool of the best talent available?

Director of the MEAA’s Actors Equity section, Sue McCreadie, said in response the Australian ‘union was ”willing to be flexible in special circumstances” ”Our main issue is what opportunities are available,” she said. ”There are a reduced number of roles available to Australian opera principals this year. We’re keen to ensure those principals have sustainable careers.”

Our artists are given a fair go in major centres of the arts and entertainment in the world – Hollywood is a good example, yet we restrict reciprocation? Giving a mate a fair go was a concept of culture this country embraced and built its reputation on over the last 200 + years. As I remember it, Aussies were not afraid of competition in fact thrived on it.

Dame Joan Sutherland and artists of her generation understood their prospects depended on them gaining an international reputation some 50 years ago. They went straight overseas out of school to start getting into the action. They worked hard in many different fields while they sought to not only get a ‘break’ but also hopefully have some ‘luck’. Both go hand in hand no matter how well you plan, or how good you may think you are. Many did not make it.

The Peggy Glanville Hicks Address Lyndon Terracini delivered in 2011 offers us a great insight into his strengths of resolve, and character. It also proved he does have the courage of his convictions. If he believes in what he is saying he will always openly communicate it, pushing boundaries and provoking discussion, at a community level.

This is integral to his role as head of such a revered national institution as Opera Australia, especially if he is focused on keeping the arts and culture in Australia active and alive.

Terracini’s love and passion for music and the theatre is well documented. He has a horror of ‘patrician entitlement’, which he stated in that same address was ‘not only at odds with what we regard as the Australian way of life, but it is also completely at odds with contemporary Australia.’ “I love singers… it’s who I am and who I’ve been for most of my working life…. but…we produce operas for an audience” Terracini also said in the SMH interview.

Therefore in the best interest of his service to the industry as a whole and from both an audience and artist perspective, surely he must offer the very best available if opera as an art form is to remain ‘elite’? So the question is should the choice of artists for Australian Opera only include locally born talent? Or should our national institutions in the performance arts arena be allowed to dip into the pool of global talent as every other company in the world does without restriction? What’s your view?

Many opera goers, according to Terracini, fear the word ‘popular’ because in the way off distant past it had a connotation of being less than good, when today it clearly doesn’t. Without great art both visual and performance becoming popular during the last century, a great deal of it would not have been restored, conserved and preserved for future generations.

Opera was born early in the seventeenth century in the city of Florence and became a public entertainment, from 1637 at Venice. Since then at least until World War 1 last century opera, and its composers remained relevant in Europe because its content and structure continually changed to meet the demands of new audiences.

Terracini noted in that 2011 address that ‘while the rest of the world has changed dramatically, very little in opera has changed since the 19th century…. and in many ways the form has become captive to its own traditions and peculiarly unaware of the changes taking place around it’.

The rise of the Jazz Age and the events that came out of World War 1 and 11 helped change everything albeit gradually, eventually levelling the playing field, which is right and proper if we truly believe in democratic freedoms. It’s been an aspect of social change now for 50 years.

Opera experienced a great revival during the second half of the 1940’s and the 50’s, via the medium of Hollywood musicals and opera companies all over the world began building themselves up again following World War II.

The American born son of Italian emigrants Mario Lanza (1921-1959) inspired a love of opera. He particularly helped children growing up in the 40’s and 50’s to learn about opera and understand its magic and appeal so that they would champion its cause in adulthood.

It expanded both its popularity and audiences in Australia during the 70’s and 80’s as they embraced the idea of patronage and philanthropy.

The Sydney Opera House was conceived in 1957 and completed in 1973, just as opera and its magic was taking hold for a whole new age. Today it is considered a masterpiece of international modernist architecture, that has become a world class performing arts centre and a symbol of our nation.

Opera is an art form that should have always prospered by being accessible to everyone. It has entered difficult times during the last decade and while the GFC has had an impact, it is more likely to do with its hijacking by a ‘club’ of people who have wanted to keep it exclusive.

Before taking up his post with Opera Australia Lyndon Terracini was managing the Queensland and Brisbane Festivals in the decade from 2000 – 2009 that included both the city and the state’s 150th celebrations.

Brisbane’s Lord Mayor at the time Campbell Newman initiated Operapolitan, where great songs from Opera were presented in major shopping malls and in the open air of the Queen Street Mall on a regular basis free to all members of the community. He wanted everyone to have an opportunity to know about and enjoy this great arts medium.

Opera was also integral to the festivals that Mr Terracini managed.

If we are being objective and as a nation intending to become an integral aspect of leading world culture in the rest of the 21st century and beyond, as well as remaining culturally relevant, then our artists, just like our athletes have had to in the past fifty years, need to re-learn how to compete cleverly and on a much bigger scale and our government bodies have to learn to support them in a community arena.

And it will be very hard. Only those with exceptional talent and lots of connections will survive in the future and that’s a reality.

So in the pursuit of excellence in all our art forms how do we balance controversy with change? The last thing we need is for artistic companies to be closing and putting more people out of work. They are often the very people who inspire others in society to keep on going through their performances.

Being open and honest, as most people tell you they want you to be, often just doesn’t work with those keeping the local status quo. They have their jobs and reputations to consider, which is fair enough.

However if they are running management services protecting the interests of their clients in a global market today they have to scour the horizon for work for them internationally.

If they don’t they will be unable to continue to feed themselves and their clients and remain in the game.

It’s not just about the singers either.

The administrative staff, designers and the creative crew who bring performance art to life are equally as important. One cannot operate successfully without the other. Then there is the flow on to other external trades who build and transport the scenery, make and repair the costumes, design and implement the makeup and hair and those who cater to the company. There are a lot of people involved.

All those people rely on us keeping art performances of a high standard in play so that they have jobs too.

Clearly Lyndon Terracini is a man focused on growing an appreciation for opera performance and for celebrating beautiful and thought provoking works that help us to knowledge aspects of our cultural heritage.

In 2012 he achieved his aim to ‘democratize’ opera for thousands of people with innovative performances both inside and outside the opera house. The company played to more people than ever before in its history.

In the meanwhile hundreds of opera and musician hopefuls pour in and out of Conservatorium of Music establishments annually in all Australian states, with parents paying huge fees and supporting their offspring financially as they endeavour to burst onto a world of reduced opportunities in the arts.

It’s very hard to be in Mr Terracini’s shoes I am sure.

However he has been well chosen by Opera Australia’s board to manage both controversy and change and like all arts professionals must seek to offer a quality product that meets, anticipates and exceeds the needs of their target market.

He has to ensure that all his clients receive full value for their money as well as very best of service on offer by remaining highly service-oriented. That is the modern corporate reality.

As far as organisation is concerned Lyndon Terracini must provide an environment conducive to realising the maximum potential of those his company works with professionally and personally.

He has to recognize and reward the contribution of individuals who work for the company and to promote an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual respect.

To do that he has to communicate openly and honestly within his own organisation and with everyone else.

As far as industry goes he is developing and managing sustainable strategic alliances with industry and individuals for Opera Australia’s mutual benefit. He is doing that with regard to the physical, social and economic environments of both Australia’s local and global community so that he can conduct business both ethically, and professionally

To my mind he seems to be doing it all, and very well.

Parents of modern day Australia are certainly not doing their children seeking a career in the performance arts any favours by letting them roam around with stars in their eyes. They need to step back and let them get a taste of living out of a suitcase; often in cheap digs where reality has to be suspended in some respects if you want to keep your head in the right place and focus on what you want to achieve. If they cannot do it they will not make the cut.

They have to learn how to manage through experience gained in an atmosphere surrounding performance, as well as how best to deal with internal institutional hierarchical politics. While most people on the surface may seem to love you, they also want you to ‘break a leg’ in more ways than one. It’s only through experience; by failing and picking themselves up when they fall that in the end they will succeed.

They should also understand too that their life may not be anything like what they originally envisioned or planned. But there it is as the King said to Amadeus in the movie of the same name.

Those entering the operatic arts arena need to have to have a goal, know how to stick to it and to adjust when things don’t go quite according to plan. Most importantly they need to understand being in the arts world is a life long giving and learning process. Its deeply emotional.

Before they embark on the journey they should have also sorted out for themselves clearly what their goals, values and priorities are, and what line they are willing to cross morally and succeed on both a social and cultural level.

Lyndon Terracini observed in that landmark address of his in 2011 that “… the making of great art is our primary goal and we will do everything we possibly can to achieve that objective and to present the most interesting repertoire possible.

There are exciting prospects ahead for opera in Australia. To capitalize on them both communication and open consultation will be a continuing process as Mr. Terracini and his team re-imagine what opera performance will be about for the new age. So now it is up to us to respond and let both the union and Mr. Terracini know your views. To my mind he should be able to choose the leaders of OA’s ensemble casts without restriction.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013

Download Lyndon Terracini – Peggy Glanville Hicks Address 2011

1 Comment

  • Hoffmann says:

    I doubt that there is anyone, audience or artist alike, who love opera, who don’t want it to be popular. But the concept of what opera is and can be are what fundamentally separate Mr Terracini’s ideas from those of most opera fans. Mr Terracini believes, as can be judged from his plans for Opera Australia, that for opera to be popular, you have to change opera into something popular, i.e. cutting operas down in size, translating them into English and amplifying the orchestra and, if necessary, the singers. The company has done musicals and operettas as part of its seasons for many years, but when you have 2 amplified operetta/musicals in one season coming to a total of 11 weeks solid in Sydney alone this leaves less room for opera. The problem with this approach is that the resulting opera is no longer opera. Likewise if you import foreign singers to sing roles that can be cast with outstanding Australian singers rather than hiring the Australian singers, is the company still Opera Australia and the opera it produces still “Australian”?

    The hundreds of hard-working Australians who built Opera Australia out of the small group of devoted musicians and singers who started the company in 1956 to commemorate the bicentenary of Mozart’s birth have cherished the family nature of the company. A group of talented and devoted singers, musicians and artists supported each other and built an international standard opera company within 50 years. Yes, guest artists are always welcome and the artists, who moved to Australia from across the world to work with and support the company, have made very valuable contributions to the company will continue to do so into the future. But Mr Terracini has gone beyond this and has actively eliminated some singers who had established careers in Australia, driving them out of our theatres and either into retirement or overseas. The same can be said of his actions with the orchestras under OA’s control as well as the other departments of OA.

    I think the fundamental questions that need to be asked are do we want an international opera company or do we want a truly international standard Australian opera company? Do we want more people coming to performances or do we want more people to fall in love with the beauty that is opera? Unfortunately Mr Terracini seems to believe that more tickets sold the better for the company. He seems less interested in building a strong future for the company out of the pioneering work of those who came before.

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