Public spaces, private dreaming

At West Australian Opera we are delighted with the success of this year’s Opera in the Park. It attracted the largest attendance on record, with the first performance of La bohème in the Park since the event began twenty-six years ago. I love Opera in the Park, and since I took up the artistic directorship of the Company, I have led each year’s event. It’s not just the opportunity to flaunt our wares to a large and appreciative crowd, in Perth and throughout the State; it’s also the quality of experience which is created by the open air, the warmth of a summer evening by the Swan, the sunset and the skyscape, the noise from other events nearby, and the chance to eat, drink and move about while experiencing the full-scale emotions of music theatre.

The combination of picnicking and opera is a winner, as Glyndebourne and English country house opera have shown for some time. And, although they might appear to be an unlikely pairing, this is mainly because opera environments – over the last one hundred and fifty years – have taken on the nature of the church and the lecture hall. This is a trend I personally oppose. Not just because I spent more time in church as a child than I would wish on anyone, including current choristers! – but importantly, because I think it is a category error.

For most of opera’s history since the seventeenth century, the theatre has been a place of pleasure, raffish unrespectability and transgression. The orchestra stalls in earlier centuries were open spaces (like the Royal Albert Hall still is during the Proms), where patrons walked about and socialised. The boxes, on the other hand, were usually privately-rented (and the Albert Hall still retains this system), where patrons could entertain, play cards, eat and drink in small receiving rooms set back from public view, and indeed on occasion frolic with persons of ill-repute in the semi-dark. In the eighteenth century, diaries record that persons of status spent most evenings in the theatre. But they did not do so as if they were going to school; they would include the theatre in their social calendar, between paying social calls to their friends, eating out, and other forms of entertainment. Often patrons would come to their box in time to hear the famous aria of the opera, and leave for an hour or so before returning for the ballet. No-one was confined to the theatre for the duration; it was a part of life, not removed or made sacred.

When Wagner built his theatre in Bayreuth, he instituted a very different model for the opera experience. He reverted to a classical amphitheatre, with famously uncomfortable wooden seats, an invisible orchestra under the stage, and – most importantly – reduced lighting. The result of all these changes was to make the experience immersive; recalling perhaps both a womb and a temple. Wagner wanted to engineer continuous dreaming and, with single acts of his operas far exceeding most normal theatre evenings in length, this state of rapture/submission was a profoundly different experience of opera.

I would be fascinated to have been in Bayreuth in 1880 or so, apart from anything else to see how much people talked during the performances. Today it seems to us like sacrilege to talk during a show, but that’s just a modern fashion. The trend of imposing respectability and control became a mania at the turn of the twentieth century. House lights went dark during the performance, silence was imposed, coming and going was deterred, and the atmosphere became church-like. It’s no accident that this sacerdotalism increased in the theatre at the very time that Nietszche declared God was dead – it was as if the hunger for sacredness, submission and abnegation was transferred from the church to the theatre. Unfortunately, this served some operatic repertoire very badly. It may have been good for Wagner, but the Italian bel canto operas were composed specifically for the ebb and flow of audience attention. To sit through pages of recitative (which were never written to be listened to with rapt attention) made these operas seem ridiculous, and as someone who conducts so much of that repertoire, I regret that loss. Now we have a situation where, far from being a pleasure palace, the concert hall is a place of silent rebuke to those who have the temerity to applaud between the movements of a symphony. I want to shake those shushers by the shoulders, and show them Mozart’s letters, where he expresses his delight at the noise of appreciation from Parisian audiences; or Bellini’s letters, where he will say very specifically “the act two duet failed [i.e. was met with stony silence], but the cabaletta of the soprano in the third was demanded to be repeated twice”.

I would love to free His Majesty’s Theatre from the fashion for theatrical solemnity, at least on occasion. It’s a gorgeous space, with all the elements (a gently-angled stalls floor, boxes, foyers and rooms) in place to recapture earlier styles. Imagine performances of Rossini with promenades and seatless stalls – or Pagliacci with picnic blankets and Italian ice refreshments. There’s so much pleasure to be had, of so many different varieties. The transformation of the theatre into a church is not all bad, but it definitely affects how welcoming, inclusive and fun we can be. And for that reason Opera in the Park will continue to hold a very special place in both our hearts and, we hope, in our offering.

Until next time


Happy New Season

Welcome to 2018! I’m so happy that, for the first time, WAO Opera in the Park audiences can experience on February 3 what MAY just be the perfect opera: Puccini’s La bohème. As an introduction to opera for first-timers, Bohème is right up there with Carmen (coming later in 2018) and Madama Butterfly – heart-stopping tunes, cast-iron dramaturgy and rip-roaring emotion.

For those who want to arrive prepared, I’ve created a Q&A below. It’s a much better experience when you can come to a Opera in the Park not only with your picnic and your glad rags on, but with a bit of context.

Who wrote it?

Giacomo Puccini is the composer, and Bohème was his first great success. In fact there was a battle over the rights; the composer Leoncavallo was already writing a Bohème opera, and Puccini (slightly sneakily) jumped in with his own (and far more successful) version. Bohème was the foundation for Puccini’s further commissions and his starry success, as the most profitable opera composer of the twentieth and (so far) twenty-first centuries.

The libretto (text) has two official author credits, but in fact at least six people (including Puccini himself) wrangled it into shape, from the novella by Murger. It’s amazing that such a chaotic process resulted in such perfection. Apparently Puccini could compose at a table in the early hours, surrounded by a group of card-playing and drinking buddies. Sounds a bit like Bohème itself…

What’s the story?

A group of card-playing and drinking buddies, all pecunious young artists, scrape a meagre living in Paris. A poet and a painter meet two girls, with whom they have tempestuous affairs. They can’t live together, can’t live without each other. It ends badly.

Who are the characters?

Rodolfo – a struggling wannabe poet (Paul O’Neill, tenor)

Mimì – a piece-worker seamstress (Elena Perroni, soprano)

Marcello – a painter (James Clayton, baritone)

Musetta – a singer (Rachelle Durkin, soprano)

Schaunard – a musician (Mark Alderson, baritone)

Colline – a philosopher (Paull Anthony Keightley, bass)

What about the tunes?

Unless you are totally tone-deaf you will have heard the wonderful music of Bohème infused into popular culture, even if you’ve never seen the opera. RentMoulin Rouge and many pop songs have drawn on the music Puccini wrote. Here are some Spotify tasters for you:

The Waltz Song (Musetta)

Act One love duet (Mimì and Rodolfo)

Che gelida manina (Rodolfo)

Who are the artists for Opera in the Park?

I’ve listed the names of the principal artists above, next to their character names. Opera in the Park is our annual party, and our casting policy (WA, national and international artists, in that order where possible) is on full display this year. Alongside audience favourites Paul O’Neill, Rachelle Durkin and James Clayton, we’re delighted to welcome Elena Perroni to WA Opera for the first time. Resident in the States, Elena was born and bred in Perth, and this is her Australian début. We’re excited about presenting her to Opera in the Park audiences.

Bohème will be directed by Stuart Maunder, a long-time friend of WAO and currently General Director of New Zealand Opera. After our collaboration on last season’s Tosca, I’m delighted to welcome back Stuart as my partner in crime on this production. I will be conducting, as I have for each Opera in the Park since I began as Artistic Director. My last Bohème was ten years ago, in Sweden, with a rather famous but very difficult German director. This time I know there’ll be more sweetness and light!

A quirky fact to impress your date

Puccini savagely cut the original libretto, removing some important plot points. In the completed version, Rodolfo seems irrationally jealous in Act III; this is because in the cut section, Mimì had danced with someone else at a party. What the story loses in coherence it more than makes up for in pace and direction – something I would take over tedium any day.

I welcome you to Opera in the Park, in its place as the portal to our 2018 season. I look forward to a wonderful starry night, and to a rewarding year spent in your company.

Until next time

When subsidy subsides

For my final post in 2017 I am sharing the text of a lecture, given last month by my friend and colleague Nick Schlieper. Nick is one of Australia’s leading lighting designers, and we have worked together for twenty years. He has a distinguished international career, and his Parsons Lecture is a State of the Nation reflection on subsidy and governance. It has so much of value – both interesting and provocative –  that I want to share it as widely as possible.

Happy holidays!

Until next time


Nick Schlieper


We missed the bus.
Subsidised theatre stopped being subsidised and we didn’t really notice.
To the point where we now need to find a new term for it.
“Not for profit” unfortunately sounds a bit like a charity, but if we’re not careful, then that’s exactly what we’ll be.
A worthy cause.
To be patronised.
Occasionally and only when it suits.
We didn’t look the other way, as that implies an active decision, a choice. We’ve just never been a very politically engaged bunch. We tend to be too busy making theatre and simply surviving, to have time, energy or inclination to step back and ponder the bigger picture.
I don’t intend to offer any grand solutions – would that it were so easy. Rather, I hope to provoke a conversation, because if we don’t start talking about this really bloody soon, then we’ll miss the bus again, in which case I can’t help but be very pessimistic about the future of what we think of as subsidised, or let’s call it non- commercial, theatre in this country. Because the reality is that we are approaching the post-subsidy age – arguably, we’ve embarked on it already and if we, as theatre makers, don’t start talking about this amongst ourselves, then we’ll be in even less of a position to influence the shape of our companies in the future.
I intend to mainly talk about the so-called mainstream companies. The “establishment” if you will. But all of this applies, in even greater measure, to the so- called Small To Medium companies. A common and very patronising view of these, casts them as “breeding grounds” or “traineeship companies” whereas in fact, they often produce vastly more interesting work and frequently end up being the developmental engines that keep the bigger companies honest. That drive the continued evolution of the form. What I’m talking about potentially has even more disastrous consequences for these companies.
Governments are quick to claim that subsidy levels have not fallen. That’s not true, even just on pure numbers. Between 2012 and 2015, combined federal and State core funding for theatre fell by 8.6 million dollars to 57 million. In the same period, funding for Opera and Music Theatre fell by 7.9 million dollars to 47.4 million. And this doesn’t even begin to take into account inflation and overall rising costs. Nor does it factor in the things that some of this money is tied to: some companies are obliged to return large proportions of these grants in the form of theatre rental, others give almost all of it back in payroll tax. And then there’s that Kafka-esque creation of the Hawke government, the perversely titled “Efficiency Dividend” which according to the 2016 budget was forecast to save, ie take back, no less than $1.4 Billion in subsidy over just 3 years. The declining percentage of actual running costs covered by subsidy says it all. To take just the two biggest examples: STC’s subsidy in 1980 covered 47% of costs, by 1996, that had plummeted to a little over 9% and it now represents a measly 6.9% of the company’s running costs. The tale at MTC is much the same – as of this year, their subsidy represents just 8% of turnover.
And lest these sound like vast sums of money that we’re receiving, consider that conservative estimates suggest that the final cost of that marvellous development, the WestConnex, are expected to be in the realms of 1 Billion dollars per kilometre of concrete. By way of contrast, our biggest companies like STC, MTC and Belvoir, each receive around $2.5 million per year. Peanuts in the scheme of things.
To put all this in perspective, it’s necessary to examine how important the role of the arts in general and theatre in particular, is perceived to be in this country. I’d have thought it’s a given, that most thinking people would automatically rate a healthy, robust cultural life as one of the principal markers in differentiating a civilised society from a bunch of people who, through some historical fluke, happen to find themselves living in the same place. But is this really the case in Australia?
One way of measuring this is through statistics published regularly by the Australia Council. These surveys tell us for instance that in 2014: 89% of people surveyed thought that “The Arts should be an important part of the education of every Australian”, 85 % thought that “The Arts make for a richer and more meaningful life” and even more encouragingly, 79% thought that “The Arts should receive public
funding”. So far, so good. A 2013 Ozco survey found that in the prior year, “94% of Australians participated in the arts”, however on further examination, this figure is shown to include “via reading” (we’re not told what they were reading) which came in at “almost 90%” Other versions of these good news surveys were found to have included “renting a DVD” or “attending a cinema” as evidence of participating in the arts. Again, there is no elaboration on what kind of DVD or what sort of films. Similarly, the OZco’s bullish claim that “almost 8 million Australians are involved in creating art” is soberingly put into perspective when the survey goes on to say that “creative participation was done as a hobby by most of those involved” Great!. And here’s another brilliant feel-good statistic courtesy of the Australia Council, headlined “Australian households spend $6.5 Billion a year on arts-related activities” which unfortunately then goes on to say that “this spending is related to receptive enjoyment of the arts at home’ such as listening to music (57%) while attending arts events, comes in at a mere 21%.
In fact, between 2009 and 2013, Ozco numbers show that the attendance at “Theatre and Dance” actually dropped from 40% to 38% and as these numbers would include musicals, ballet, dance and opera, I suspect that the “subsidised theatre only” number would make sobering reading indeed. Even in the supposed theatre capitals of Sydney and Melbourne, many suggest it’s a good chunk below 10% of the population who actually turn up.
The perceived importance of the arts is also revealed by the almost total lack of genuine interest shown by both major political parties. The Liberal party almost went into the 2016 election without an Arts policy at all! They finally scrabbled together a bit of a one, a week out from the election – and yet a cursory scan of their published policies includes specific funding allocations for any number of road-building projects as well as earth-shatteringly important things such as “tackling mobile phone black spots”. Labor did release an Arts Policy, but so much of its rhetoric is devoted to attacking the Liberal’s lacklustre performance in this area (a rather easy target, given the obscene antics of Mr Brandis) that it’s entirely devoid of any vision for, or apparent understanding of, the vital role that the arts play in any civilised society. Traditionally, both parties have bundled together the arts portfolio with other domains – rarely has it been a stand alone ministry with a seat in Cabinet. Is it safe to assume that this level of political disinterest reflects the society that elects these people?
Yet another way of measuring our relevance is by way of contrast with other countries. The usual, if extreme yardstick here is Germany, that country where artists of all kinds are forced to daily wade through waist-deep subsidies, en route to their all expenses paid, luxury studios. Poor dears!
Apart from the frequent exxagerations on this subject, there is a fundamental misunderstanding at work here. Far from being some well meaning, misguided airy fairy waste of public money, German subsidy levels for all things art, are based on two fundamental premises, neither of which I suspect are shared by a large number of Australians. One is philosophical – the long-held German belief in that country’s central role as a land of thinkers and poets. The other is purely pragmatic as evidenced by its giving rise to the term Kultur-Politik. This can be seen as a practical solution to re-building a destroyed country post-war, which in drawing on its natural human resources, was a great deal easier and quicker to achieve, than recreating overnight, a whole industrial complex. The first is evidenced by the instant post-war rush of people to theatres, often performing in makeshift semi-ruins to audiences that were practically starving; the second by the fact that as early as 1966, when the Foreign Minister Willy Brandt proposed his “Three Pillars” foreign policy for Germany’s continued rebuilding, these pillars were: SECURITY, INTERNATIONAL TRADE and KULTURPOLITIK. Hard to imagine that concept being uttered by an Australian politician of any stripe, let alone an Australian electorate rushing to vote for that politician. There are other examples of this thinking around the world, it’s hardly a purely German phenomenon. The Canadian, Singaporean and South Korean governments have all, in recent years, exponentially increased their funding for the arts. Is such a thing thinkable here? I’d argue that it’s not – at least not in the continued climate of minimal importance accorded the arts in our education system. This is another key difference to the German example. In that country, kids grow up going to the theatre as a perfectly normal part of everyday life. Partly, because their parents do and partly because it’s taught that way in their schools. We have neither that tradition, nor that educational approach. We’re all about education towards getting a job. If indeed it ever existed here, the concept of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, the idea that being conversant with what we quaintly used to call “the humanities” has long been subsumed by the need to pump out fodder for the “service economy”.
All of the above makes me think that any substantial increase in arts subsidy in this country is currently, at best, highly unlikely.
So where does this leave us? What are our options for survival, in a Post-Subsidy world? Our three current alternative income streams are well established and familiar, but all three are at the very least, inherently flawed and in many ways downright dangerous. I refer of course to those other three pillars: Box Office, Corporate Sponsorship and Private Philanthropy.
The risks entailed in excessive reliance on box office are obvious. In essence, it’s actively deleterious to the whole idea of developing an art form, in that the tacit contract with the vast majority of your audience is one of continuity and predictability. They keep buying tickets and turning up, because they know what they’re going to get. In this way, you end up not serving, but rather servicing, your audience, as opposed to leading them to new pastures. What must eventually happen when you depend on an audience for your survival is stagnation, because it hamstrings your ability to lead from the front. The tail ends up wagging the dog. Audience driven theatre is by definition conservative. In the long term, this has to lead to stasis in any art form. This dilemma is epitomised by the subscription model. Your regular subscribers get to “know” your work (or at least think they do) and as long as they continue to like it, they’ll keep stumping up. By implication, if you change the nature of your work and start serving up different fare, they will in all likelihood, vote with their feet and go elsewhere.
The victory of subsidised theatre over the now virtually non-existent commercial straight theatre that occurred here in the 80’s, is an illustration of this. Lest you fondly imagine that some kind of audience mass- revelation or taste transplant caused punters to desert the offerings of Wilton Morley et al in droves and decamp to their nearest state theatre company, think again. It had a lot more to do with the fact that those state theatre companies were suddenly offering what had previously been considered commercial fare and being subsidised, were able to do so more cheaply. This period just happened to coincide with the spreading realisation that subsidy levels were no longer adequate to offset anything more than very small box office losses.

Classical opera and ballet also evidences this. Both forms still revolve almost entirely around very small pools of standard rep or mainstream works. Every now and then, a company will stick its neck right out there and radically programme a modern work (which generally means it was composed only ONE hundred years ago) only to then watch dejectedly, as their loyal subscribers sit that one out. The same applies to vaguely contemporary realisations of this sacred repertoire. I must hold some sort of record by now, for working on productions for Opera Australia that have seen only one season of 6 or so performances, before being ignominiously retired to the great warehouse in the sky.
For this very reason, many companies around the world are now pondering moving away from this model, but when you’ve got a shitload of tickets to sell every year AND your very survival depends on selling a massive percentage of them, the risk factor is enormous! It also curtails a company’s ability to forward plan and when this occurs, the first casualty are always the artists and by extension, the art.
As to corporate sponsorship, all the indications are that it’s already had its day. The amounts of income from this source flatlined several years ago and show no signs of improving. I think the reasons for this are fairly clear. Corporations used to regard arts sponsorship as an investment in the kind of advertising that money can’t buy. They derived considerable kudos by association and were able to parade as “good corporate citizens”. But they’re only interested if your work is perceived by them to align with their “core values” (which is unlikely at best) and mostly, their contributions are easily financed from the petty cash tin.
There was a time for instance, when Esso contributed sizeable sums to Opera Australia – presumably because they saw this as a way to counter their public perception, which was already a bit on the nose. A classic example of an industry trying to offset its dubious public persona by association with a perceived higher cause.
But to be fair; we took their money. In fact we took it just as fast as they could hand it over! AND, tarts that we are, we sold ourselves very cheaply. Imagine my amazement when I discovered that the company who was billed above the title of one opera as “Generously sponsored by” had kicked in a mere 200 grand. – this at a time when that production cost 3⁄4 million to make!
But the less meaningful our role in society becomes and the more we’re perceived as elite or a niche-market luxury only, the less likely we are to be interesting or useful to corporates.
Nowadays, a large percentage of corporate sponsorship takes the form of “sponsorship-in-kind” usually in the realms of pro bono legal advice or management and financial consultancies, so technically speaking, they’re not even giving us any cash! In return, we become “client entertainment” or “networking” opportunities for these companies. Pathetic, really.

Private philanthropy is THE great growth area for arts funding. Since 2001, it’s increased by over 300%. We’re all terribly excited about it! So I’m going to talk about it quite a lot.
The principal problem here is also pretty obvious. As soon as you’re using someone’s own money to make any form of art, you give that person the moral right to have a say in what that art is. It’s as simple as that. The minute you use that money to make something they disapprove of, disagree with, are offended by, or just simply don’t like, then they have absolutely every right to withhold that money. My first personal experience of this was back in the mid-80’s. Production sponsor comes to opening night and is horrified to discover that his money has been used to stage a slightly controversial production of an opera. The very next morning, he submits a list of changes to the company’s General Manager with the full expectation that they all be implemented before the second performance. What an arsehole, I hear you say, (I did at the time) but in a way, isn’t it his damn good right?
We unquestioningly spend squillions on the Australia Council, in order to keep us at “arms length” from the political whims of the government of the day, when they dispense their largesse, but this is of course nebulous, public money. At the moment where this money is coming from an identifiable individual’s private pocket, doesn’t that person have a right to decide what is made with that money? Purely morally, I’d have thought they do and I see this as the single greatest problem with our increased dependency on private philanthropy. There are a few notable exceptions in this country, people who genuinely just wish to help further the art form, but even they choose which company they will support very carefully – and why shouldn’t they, it’s their money!
There are many other, less obvious spin-offs. The increased amount of time, money and other resources that companies are having to devote to chasing these funds are massive. Flick through the administrative positions listed in subsidised companies twenty years ago and you’ll find a relatively small number of jobs with titles along the lines of “Development” or “Sponsorship”. (My personal favourite has always been Director of Individual Giving!) Do the same exercise now and you’ll find that without exception, such titles outnumber those under the heading “Artistic”; often by a country mile. Furthermore, the people that do these jobs, come from the real- world economy, because that’s where we’re needing to get them from if they’re any good at it. Meanwhile, we who produce the “product”, we who actually make the theatre, continue to more or less happily subsist within our cottage industry economy, because that’s all we’ve ever known. This imbalance of sheer numbers, both human and financial, will I believe, over time lead to some kind of breaking point.
Another sometimes overlooked side-effect is the make-up of boards. It’s long been perceived wisdom, that the members of a theatre company’s board need to include a money person and a legal person. Much the same as any other not-for-profit organisation. Over time, this grew to include a fund-raising person. Now in addition to these, all board members are not only expected to BE well connected fundraisers, they’re expected to personally contribute, out of their own pockets and via their

friends – a bit of a quandary if you’re the token “artist” on a board. What hope, under these circumstances, of more theatremakers ever getting a seat at the table that in many ways, determines the nature, or at least the viability, of a company? Bear in mind that these are the same people who choose the company’s next artistic director…
Also not to be underestimated is the sheer amount of time and energy devoted to identifying, wooing and finally landing prospective donors. Alone the discussions around which donors should be invited to which productions – in other words, which show will they like and more importantly, which they won’t, take up enormous amounts of time and resources. In all this, the idea that a board is a group of like- minded people who might actively support the ideals of an arts company becomes somewhat illusory.
Meanwhile, the more we become reliant on a small number of wealthy donors, the more disconnected we become from the wider audience, to the point where we’ll end up being an indulgence. A plaything afforded themselves by the very rich. Until such time, of course, as the stock market next goes south…
So all three alternatives to greater subsidy are less than palatable. Even at current subsidy levels, there are already obvious effects on the theatre landscape.
These include:
Increasingly conservative programming and “balanced” seasons in order to not lose or alienate too sizeable a chunk of your audience. Nothing new about the principle – there’s always been a balance in programming between comedies and tragedies; easier entertainments and more thought-provoking works; big/expensive and small /cheaper shows. But the decline towards cautious programming is of necessity increasing apace.
Smaller cast sizes. Six is now generally considered a big cast for a new work. A whole generation of Australian writers has grown up in and been constrained by, this environment, otherwise their plays simply won’t get on. The deleterious effect this has had on Australian playwriting, arguably at the very time where a whole new generation of Australian writers were starting to hit their straps, is showing. Any form of bigger canvas in our theatre has virtually disappeared.
Parochialism in casting – both of performers and production teams. Ridiculous budgetary hoops are jumped through by companies, just to “import” a single actor, director or designer from interstate. This, in the context of a country whose talent pool is of necessity fairly small in any given centre, means an even further restriction on companies being able to choose the best horse for any given course. It also serves to increase a sense of internal stagnation, as the opportunites for all to work with a wider range of colleagues is reduced. This does nothing to broaden peoples horizons or ensure a fruitful cross-fertilization of differences in approach. It’s also led to some pretty shonky practices in terms of companies leaning on people to “consider themselves Melbourne-based for this production” all in order to save on the dreaded Living Allowance. I’m not suggesting that any company is being rapacious in doing this – merely that it amply illustrates the tightness of the budgets that all are forced to work within.
Another effect is the increasing incidence of Co-Productions. In principle, there is again nothing new about this and there are instances where this can be a beneficial thing, particularly for companies based in smaller cities. However in the vast majority of cases, there is no shared philosophical thinking underpinning co- productions at all – they are simply about companies having to get into bed with each other in order to be able to produce a years worth of work. They are predominately marriages of convenience, not co-operation. The landscape of opera in this country is a salient example of where this can lead. All four state opera companies, used to produce their own annual seasons in addition to hosting performances by the national company. Throughout the late 80’s and into the 90’s, as burgeoning costs began to bite, the Co-Pro was increasingly seen as THE FINANCIAL solution and was enthusiastically embraced by most companies. In effect, it proved to THE FINAL Solution. Within a mere decade or so, this has led to a situation where all of Australia gets to see only one version of any given opera at a time, because that’s the only production of that piece in existence. It just does the national rounds. I worked on a production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore which opened in Adelaide in 1999. Initially a co-production between State Opera of South Australia and W.A Opera, it has since been revived on numerous occasions in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane and to my knowledge, remains – 18 years and counting, the ONLY production of this bog-standard mainstream work to have been produced in Australia. Now I’m perfectly proud of this production, although none of us like being publicly reminded of where our work and our taste was at, 18 years ago, but the fact that it remains the only production of this work available to the entire country is scandalous and surely the fastest way to ensure stagnation of an artform that’s imaginable! This is but one of many such examples and is a direct result of the need for companies to pool their meagre resources in order to survive. Lest you think this situation is unique to the cost-heavy business of producing opera, the last 5 years have seen an unprecedented increase in the number of co- productions between Australia’s theatre companies. We’re well down that track.
A further side- effect of the co-pro survival model, is an instant shrinkage of employment opportunities for all theatremakers. Ergo, an even smaller pool of companies to make work in and even more reduced opportunities to ply our trade, hone our craft – AND earn a living! It also leads to a greater sense of commodification of productions, because they are no longer the exclusive property of the originating company. Instead of any given production being thought of as a piece of work, handmade for its moment in time and place, the tendency becomes to think of productions as an “asset” a re-cyclable commodity, to be hawked around to the highest bidder, often shoehorned into totally inappropriate or unsympathetic spaces. Do whatever you need with it – as long as we continue to re-coup our investment. This is hardly in the spirit of good theatre making and it actively undermines the individual identity of companies. Rather than each company having its own clear cut image as a maker of theatre, it further serves to create an environment in which all companies are seen to be merely presenters, rather than originators, of distinctive works. This sense of sameness or lack of individuality leads to a vastly blander canvas. Meanwhile, a smaller pool of artists are engaged in making a smaller pool of new works – a steady erosion of the art form and evidence that the business model is broken. We’ll soon be running on empty.
A further side effect of the lack of money is increasing cannibalisation between companies and institutions, namely our culture palaces. Recent governments have displayed interest in funding institutions, rather than the art that these are intended to house. However, once you’ve built a Sydney Opera House, you have to constantly fill the thing with stuff, but partly because of its well known shortcomings as a venue, any companies that can, will be quick to present their work elsewhere, leaving the venue short of product. That venue then has to finance the production, or usually purchase, of its “own” work to fill the gaps. They partly fund this, by overcharging their major (subsidised) hirers outrageously. Technicians are routinely charged out at double the wages they actually receive and it’s often cheaper to hire in equipment at commercial rates, than it is to use the gear that supposedly comes with the venue – such are the hidden costs. This sets up a cycle where government gives a subsidy to a producing company, which then pays a whack of that back to a venue, which has in turn been subsidised by the same government. A classic picture of a cash-starved industry turning on itself.
Who will run such companies in the future? The less theatre companies are seen as subsidised or publicly funded entities, the greater the pressure becomes to see them being administered by “safe pairs of hands”, aka “responsible business people” as they are no longer playing with nebulous public money, but peoples own hard- earned cash. This is not a conspiracy theory. Since the 80’s, there has been a steady trend towards the currently ubiquitous “Co-CEO” model. It is truly ironic, that people from the corporate world that I’ve discussed this with, find that principle “scary” or at best “unwieldy”, but that’s the way it’s rapidly gone. How much longer will it be before our arts companies are no longer run by artists? Unless we are all vigilant on this score, I believe it will be not too long at all and I further believe this would be the end of theatre as a true art form, in this country.
I’ve said why I think the likelihood of an increase in subsidy is slim and indeed, perceived wisdom has it so. There will be many shaking their heads patronisingly over these words But unfortunately it’s the only sustainable option. Only with greater levels of subsidy, can we continue to rise above the level of light entertainment. None of the alternative sources of funding are viable, without its underpinning. Have you ever wondered why a country the size of the U.S produces such a minute amount of good theatre? A virtual absence of public subsidy and an attendant dependency on private philanthropy would go a very long way towards an answer.

So the question becomes, how do we turn the anti-subsidy trend around? Every year that we continue to survive and manage to make work and raise our own money to do so, has further strengthened the hand of a political class that don’t actually want to fund us. Every opportunity we miss to make our case, reassures them that we don’t really need the money anyway and that we’ll go quietly. The longer we continue to just go with the flow and adapt to circumstances, as is our wont, the deeper the hole we dig for ourselves. We may in fact find that there simply aren’t enough Australians who want us either – at least not enough to pay for us. Therefore we need to become better and more strident advocates for subsidy and for our theatre. All of us, not just the leaders of our companies, need to be much more vocal about this. Many of those who run companies or sit on their boards are scared to speak out, fearing retribution by governments and their funding bodies, but I believe this is a risk we simply must take.
And we must take it together. And we must do it now.
Lest we miss this bus too.
Thanks for listening.

© Nick Schlieper, November 2017.
The text of this address may be reproduced in full. Any amendments, alterations or edits must be approved by the author in writing prior to publication.

The rehearsal room: a place of safety and challenge

This month, in preparation for West Australian Opera’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor (which opens at His Majesty’s Theatre on October 26), we released a teaser video, with various interviews and shots of the rehearsal room environment.

This video has received a lot of interest, and led us to a conversation in WAO offices last week about just how interesting people find the idea of the rehearsal room. So this month I am writing about that.

Partly it’s mysterious – the rehearsal room is where ‘The Process’ takes place, before it becomes public. But there are also issues – of confidentiality, privacy, and the need for exploration in a place of safety – which would make a public process difficult if not impossible.

I have had both wonderful and horrible experiences in the rehearsal room throughout my career. I’ve been shouted at, shut up, shut out, had trees thrown on top of me (yes, really), witnessed tears, shouting matches, and long power struggles in a toxic atmosphere of mutual disdain. On the other hand I have been overcome with joy and emotion, held my breath with tension and delight, even felt that I was getting to the heart of being alive. It’s an atmosphere of extremes, as you can see – but equally it can also sometimes feel like turning up for work and doing an stock inventory.

On the surface, a rehearsal room is the space in which people rehearse – that is, prepare and repeat – a work before it gets on to the stage. And, on the surface, that’s exactly what happens: people learn, memorise, bed down their physical memories of movement and narrative, stand at the right point and say or sing the right words and music – in the right order!

Much more interesting, for both performers and I think outsiders, are the deep processes which happen in parallel. To enable exploration, risk-taking and stretching possibilities, one thing above all else is necessary: trust. It is the stage manager’s role to ensure that people are physically safe and protected, without the risk to them of danger or accident. And it’s the director’s (and conductor’s) responsibility to create an environment in which trust is the norm. This is all too rare, sadly. But it’s something I always try now to create in the rehearsal room, and it’s something on which Matt Barclay, director for this revival of Lucia, and I absolutely agree. So many performers feel hectored, undermined, criticised, or dismissed by a succession of creative directors that I’m surprised they find it in themselves to keep going.

With Matt and me, it helps that we’re both Australian. When international guest artists – whether performers or creatives – come to an Australian rehearsal room for the first time, they often remark on the amount of laughter in the room. I have a theory about this: that Australians are unusually good at having fun AND being serious about the work simultaneously. It’s as if a mild strain of larrikinism infects the workplace, and this infection makes Australian performers particularly good at risk-taking, kissing the joy as it flies, and resisting mindless repetition. Which is all to the good in my view. Sometimes artists from other countries, where focus can only be expressed through being solemn, find this aspect of Australian working practice difficult to understand, if not downright discombobulating. But put a room of Australian artists together and you can pretty much guarantee there will be laughter, teasing and jokes, as well as energy and focus. That’s one of the many reasons I still enjoy working in Australia.

For visitors to the rehearsal space, it’s important to understand that performers are like Schrödinger’s cat. There’s no such thing as a neutral presence in a rehearsal room. Every presence, every action, every word, either increases the sum of trust in the room or diminishes it. (It’s the same for conducting, actually: every beat, instruction or request which has no relevance, intention or connection with the sound undermines the musicians’ faith in the conductor just that tiny bit more; but every relevant, intent, connected action can have the opposite effect.)

Until next time

Paull-Anthony Keightley

This month I wanted to feature  Wesfarmers Arts Young Artist, bass baritone Paull-Anthony Keightley, who has won the 2017 Opera Foundation Deutsche Oper Berlin Award. This will see Paull-Anthony contracted as a member of the Deutsche Oper Berlin for a period of 10 months in the  2018-2019 season. We’re delighted that our faith in Paull-Anthony, and our belief in his gifts and talent, has been recognised in such a visible way, and we wish him all the best as he graduates from the Westarmers Arts Young Artist programme.

Following on from our Mentored Artist Sam Roberts Smith, who won the same award last year, we are on a roll!


After my interview with Paull-Anthony last week, a further important success has come his way. Last Saturday, he was awarded second prize in the Sutherland Bonynge Bel Canto Award, which took place in Sydney. We congratulate Paull-Anthony on this further triumph!

I asked Paull-Anthony a few questions which I thought would interest readers of this blog.


Congratulations! First of all, tell our readers a little about the award you have won. Thank you, Brad – I’m still pinching myself. The award comes from The Opera Foundation for Young Australians and sees me join the full-time ensemble of the Deutsche Opera Berlin for the 2018/19 Season. The Opera Foundation also assists me with flights, accommodation and through the Goethe-Institut Australia, an intensive German language course. I will be performing in multiple roles over the season at this stage including Doctor Grenvil in La Traviata, 5th Jew in Salome, the Captain in Eugene Onegin and Sciarrone in Tosca, which I sang earlier this year with WAO.

You’ve been a Young Artist and Bendat Scholar with us for two years. We’ve loved having you on our team. What have been the memorable experiences for you in your time here? Where do I start? Singing barefoot during a long table dinner on Broome’s Cable Beach, Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Wade Kernot teaming up to teach me “how to be a bass” before the IFAC Handa Australian Singing Competition and making my professional solo debut – these are just a few that jump to mind. What has helped me the most has been the opportunity to develop my skills in a safe supportive environment. Each year I have used the Bendat Scholarship to fund my singing lessons with Gregory Yurisich AM. His remarkable international career means his knowledge of the art form and the industry is infinite. I owe so much to him. I have also worked very closely with our Head of Music, Thomas Johnson. When I have found myself flustered, frustrated or confused he’s been able to point me in the right direction with careful consideration and endless kindness. I am very lucky to have Greg, Thomas and yourself as my musical mentors along with many of the WAO visiting artists who have freely given their time to share their stories and expertise with me.

The jump to a major European opera house is a big step forward. Now the news is sinking in, what do you hope to gain from your time at the Deutsche Oper? I’m honestly not sure what to expect! All I know is that the singers will be incredible, the productions will be breath-taking and the work will be intense. Ultimately, I want to be a working singer, so I hope this experience can better equip me with the necessary skills to do so.

You’re friends with our very own Sam Roberts Smith, who is this year’s Deutsche Oper winner, and who’s just starting his season there. Two young WAO artists in a row as Deutsche Oper winners is a spectacular result for us – will Sam be someone you can draw on as you prepare for the move? I am very fortunate to have dear Sam as a colleague and friend. For almost a year we have been discussing the logistics of him moving to the other side of the world, his repertoire for the 2017/18 season and his daily quest to master the German language. So, when I was named a finalist in the competition, I realised I could have to think about all these things for myself. From that moment (and long before) Sam has been a major support, therefore sharing the news with him was very special. I know the next 12 months will be a great journey for both of us, and despite the task being daunting, I will do my best to fill his very, very large shoes.

What has being a WAO Young Artist meant for you, Paull-Anthony? The opportunities WAO have offered me while a Wesfarmers Young Artist have been wonderful, but it is the people who have made it special. The performers, creatives, sponsors, technical, artistic and administrative staff have all taught me countless lessons. Every time I walk through the stage door at His Majesty’s a goofy grin appears on my face – I am very thankful to be a part of such a supportive company.


Until next time

Reflecting on The Merry Widow

Our recent season of The Merry Widow was a triumphant success. We sold out our last two performances, enjoyed excellent reviews, and achieved over 100% of our box office projected budget.

Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon’s production, with designs by Michael Scott-Mitchell, costumes by Jennifer Irwin, a new translation by Justin Fleming, and conducted by Vanessa Scammell, was a wonderful experience. Glamorous and stylish, it kept a beating heart of emotion and passion at its core. One comment we heard a lot of from audience members was “I didn’t know it was a love story before I saw this!”. And for me this was the production’s greatest success: it re-connected with the humanity and storytelling of an operetta which is sometimes presented in a very superficial way. We have been inundated with requests to bring this production back to Perth in the future. So stay tuned!

At West Australian Opera, our mission is to tell stories through the power of the singing voice. This wonderful production was a fine example of how to do that. Significant Company debuts included Vanessa as conductor, and as Hanna our much-loved colleague Taryn Fiebig. Although a WA native, this was Taryn’s first time with the Company, after significant success elsewhere, and it was a delight to have her with us. There are so many artists I would like to mention, but here I will simply pay tribute to Michael Loney, who as Njegus frankly stole Act Three with imperturbable aplomb.

What could we have done better? Well, an issue for some in the audience was occasional inaudibility of the text, coupled with a lack of surtitles. This audience feedback on the desirability of surtitles, even for opera sung in English, has been very welcome for our future planning, and for our opera in English next year (yes, really!) we will have surtitles.

Speaking of which, we are excited about our 2018 Season launch, which is planned for October 27. Our 50th anniversary season this year has been full of good things, and our final production in October – Lucia di Lammermoor – promises to be a celebration of our history and future, united in one experience. If you haven’t bought your tickets yet, I urge you to do so – our box office trend means that the Sold Out sign may well be going up for this production as well.

Until next time

Bouquets and Brickbats

I have been sharing my thoughts with you in this blog for coming up to three years – the length of my initial contract as Artistic Director at West Australian Opera. And I am very grateful for all the feedback I have received from you, my readers, in that time.

This blog is more in the nature of an open door than a sermon! I am open to your opinions about hits and misses in the time I have been Artistic Director. I have advocated my choices with as much clarity as I could, and have made certain veiled processes hopefully just that bit clearer. What this blog has not – yet – permitted is to hear from YOU in the comments section: to answer your questions in the open, respond where I can to your criticism, to hear your suggestions for improvements, and to again explain WHY certain decisions are taken, to share with you as fully as I can the constraints and challenges involved in leading an opera company.

So please – let me hear from you! Courtesy and openness are all I ask for in this exchange, and I will extend the same qualities in return. I look forward to hearing from you.

Until next time