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Opera Australia adds smugness to injury

In response to an international outcry about its decision to lay off opera singers for up to three months in order to stage commercial musicals, the antipodean opera company has published a belated statement on its website.

Instead of admitting error and agreeing to respect the legal and moral rights of its artists, the company attacks the media for misrepresenting its position and asks for privacy so that it can chop the legs off singers without further interference. We have seldom seen a more smug, image-centred corporate response to a burgeoning artistic crisis. Opera Australia is recognised as one of the few opera companies in the world that is bucking the trend of decline…., it maintains. Oh, yeah?

Read for yourselves:

australia opera



Opera Australia would like to thank everyone who has expressed interest in the future of the company and its artists. 

Opera Australia is in a period of transition as it implements new strategies to ensure its viability into the future. Happily, the transition has so far proved successful and Opera Australia is recognised as one of the few opera companies in the world that is bucking the trend of decline and increasing both its audience and the amount of work it creates for artists. Nevertheless, as with many arts companies, its position remains financially precarious. 
Opera Australia has put before the minority of principal singers who have been engaged on 52 week contracts a proposal to undertake more flexible employment arrangements. It is regrettable that this has been partially reported in the media. We think it appropriate to continue to discuss the proposals directly with the singers affected and their agents and union, before responding publicly to questions about any new arrangements. 
Opera Australia  is continually working to respond to its audiences and improve its financial position. It is true that this change is challenging for the company and artists involved and we thank all of the company’s supporters for their concern.   
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  1. Classic HR obfuscation when management of an organisation has been caught out! The invocation of privacy is not about the singers, but rather that of the OA management.

  2. I recently sent this to the Chair of Opera Australian Board.

    Mr David Mortimer
    Opera Australia
    PO Box 291
    Strawberry Hills NSW 2012

    11 May 2013

    Dear Mr Mortimer

    I write to you concerning the reported decision to stand down ensemble singers in 2014.

    I have been a subscriber to Opera Australia (and the Australian Opera) since the 1970s. I attended my first operas at the Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown.

    When I make my choice of operas each year I usually favour new or rarely performed works or new productions of more regularly performed operas. I have little interest in ‘top of the pops’ operas, although I understand why these are performed. The income they generate allows scope for new productions of potentially less popular operas.

    Nor do I have any objection, in principle, to initiatives like Opera on the Harbour. I attended Carmen this year and enjoyed it. Moreover, I do not object to opera companies mounting productions of American musicals per se. I grew up on musicals and have performed in them in both concert form and in full productions. The production of South Pacific in 2012 was a delight. Nevertheless, musicals are not the ‘core business’ of opera companies.

    Musical theatre can, however, generate valuable income that can be used to cross subsidise less popular opera and operetta productions. There can be little objection to occasional productions of musicals if they are extras, rather than substitutes, for opera productions.

    One of the great strengths of Opera Australia is its ensemble of singers who perform principal roles. Its other great singing strength is the chorus. OA has, of necessity, maintained an ensemble structure in order to provide cover for principal roles, as well as being a significant means of developing singers and providing an – albeit limited – career structure in Australia. For relative job security singers accept lower pay than they may otherwise earn as freelance artists. Thus to make decisions that render that group ‘redundant’ for part of a calendar year is neither artistically defensible, nor an efficient use of resources. The revival of the Falstaff production this year was testament to the standards that apply in the current ensemble. It was not the work of a ‘B’ team.

    As well as being an opera devotee and supporter I have spent much of my working life either as a participant in (on both sides of bargaining table), a teacher of, and a researcher in employment relations. It seems to me that the decision to stand down the ensemble singers is a clear breach of custom and practice within the organisation, and indeed may be inconsistent with the relevant enterprise agreement. Artistic companies in general and artistic directors, in particular, are not exempt from employment law, nor from established norms of good employment practice. By necessity artistic companies are flexible in their employment practices as a consequence of insecure funding, but OA has had significant increases in income recently. It is not unreasonable, then, to make artistic decisions that enhance the strengths of the company, as well as enabling new ventures.

    I am aware that I may be one of the 5000 people who allegedly think they ‘own’ opera in Australia. I support efforts to widen the opera audience, but not at the expense of opera itself and the career opportunities of opera singers. In the last two years I have particularly enjoyed productions of Salome, the Masked Ball, Falstaff and Orpheus of the Underworld. I will be, moreover, be attending the Ring Cycle later this year. All of these were worthy artistic endeavours. It is not possible, however, to develop opera by not doing opera.

    I, therefore, I request that the Board of the company review these reported decisions in the context of a discussion of the overall strategy of the company.

    I remain an enthusiastic supporter of opera as well as an advocate of good employment practices within the company.

    Yours sincerely

    (Dr) John Michael O’Brien

  3. Elisa Wilson says:

    John O’Brien, just quoted you ” It is not possible, however, to develop opera by not doing opera.” This cuts to the kernel of truth, and thank you for being so succinct and honest.

  4. David Hardie says:

    One of the sad things about all this is that while Opera Australia will promote their opera productions as ‘a thrilling version’, ‘stark, monumental staging’ and a ‘compelling production’ this notion of innovation does not extend to them doing anything innovative with these musicals.

    ‘South Pacific’ was marketed on the strength of it having TV stars in the main roles, and as a production was a white-bread, middle of the road production.

    It seems that ‘The King and I’, a musical that is now so passé that even community repertory theatre companies rarely perform it, will be given the same treatment. Big TV stars used for marketing and a mundane (albeit well executed) production.

  5. Conductor says:

    Mr Obrien, I couldn’t agree more with you.

    New audiences are not created through staging musicals and getting fans of musicals to come.
    They are created through education programmes and reduced prices for young people. The innovation of $60 youth tickets are hardly a bargain when one can get rush tickets at the Met Opera for $20 (Rush tickets at OA are $50 and even company members have to pay $40 to see a performance).
    As long as the company thinks it’s simply a business things will keep going south.
    They must remember that their first responsibility is to serve the music, then the public and only then the business. I know many supporters who have in recent times left OA for their wrong ordering of the above and their lack of programmes for children and youth.
    It’s very sad… The only full time opera company in the country is such a mess. Not to mention the other problems of acoustics and the pit which are not being addressed or spoken of in at least ten years. But then again, if your focus is musicals: who cares?

  6. Is it appropriate that a government funded opera company be giving work to Lisa McCune and such when talented singers are being constantly overlooked? Leading Australian operatic artists are being starved out of the industry while the Opera Australia call sheets are full of the names of soap actors and mediocre internationals. Shame on OA.

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