​Democratising opera

Opera should be as accessible and popular as sport, according to Lyndon Terracini, artistic director of Opera Australia.‘I think it’s incumbent on us if we’re accepting subsidy that we try to play to as many people as possible, in as many places as possible, at the highest level possible.’

​Democratising opera


Much contemporary opera he believes is written by largely academic composers for friends and critics.

‘They’re not writing with an audience in mind.

‘I’m surprised when sometimes a small group of people whinge because we’re playingLa Bohème orCarmen.

‘Well, the bottom line is that there are tens of thousands of people buying tickets to it. We’ve sold more tickets this summer season than any other summer season in the company’s entire history.’

‘It’s about being very selective and ensuring that we can find composers and writers who, when they create a work, will have an audience.’

He cites composer Elena Kats Chernin and writer Joanna Murray Smith as creators of classics of the future.

Singer-songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke was also written up recently inThe Australian as writing a children’s opera for Opera Australia which will be staged next year.

Engaging music and a great story are not the only ingredients necessary to bring in the punters.

Changing the location can also be a big boost to accessibility. Most of the state opera companies hold outdoor concerts, and Opera Australia’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour has found new audiences.

‘It has democratised the art form,’ Terracini said. ‘In the first year, we sold 41,000 tickets in 3 weeks and 61 per cent of those people had never been to opera before.

‘And last year when we presented Carmen, 44 per cent of those people who bought the tickets had never been to the opera. Our survey has found that 28 per cent of the people who do buy tickets to Handa then go on to buy tickets to something we’re doing in the Opera House.’

Translation has also proven to be a great leveller. Surtitles have made a huge difference to the accessibility of opera, but some operas lend themselves to translation, and to being performed in the dominant language of the location.

‘It’s easy to forget when people imbue The Magic Flute with so much pomposity and religiosity, that Mozart and Schikaneder [librettist Emanuel Schikaneder] wrote it as a show and they did it in a suburban theatre in Vienna’, Terracini said.

‘At the Opera House in Vienna at the time, all the operas were done in Italian but they decided to doThe Flute in a dialect that the Viennese people spoke. They ran 100 shows straight – and the public loved it.’

Terracini believes the translation should be integrated into the work, not just sit as a dry add-on.

He said it’s important to be imaginative and creative when doing those translations so they’re not a literal English translation.

‘For example, The Magic Flute is a comedy—and if it’s not funny, it’s a long night in the theatre.’

Ticket prices are often cited as a major barrier to accessibility—although big pop concerts can be much more expensive.

If we had a 2000-seat theatre, as opposed to the Joan Sutherland theatre (at the Sydney Opera House) which seats about 1300, Terracini believes Opera Australia could bring ticket prices down.

‘But we’re selling at 94 per cent capacity at the moment, so we can’t sell any more tickets than we currently are,’ he said.

Collaborations and co-productions can help bring down costs, especially for state companies.

The roles of the national and state companies are carved out at The Opera Conference, the national partnership of professional opera companies in Australia.

‘It’s important not to invade other companies’ space,’ Terracini says.

The company is planning a big production next year that will involve collaboration with State Opera of South Australia and Opera Queensland. Details to come.

Terracini takes opera to the people, not just through tours, but also through the community choirs project which he began a few years ago in Western Sydney.

‘We sent the former chorus master out to teach everyone in small groups over a number of months—and then we brought everyone together at the Opera House—400 people had a whole day with orchestra and soloists.

‘It was a tremendously emotional day.’

The company repeated the experience in Melbourne during The Ring Festival last year, and atThe Magic Flute at the Gold Coast in May this year, ‘we’ve got a community choir that’s the chorus—they auditioned, and we’ll be teaching them how to sing’. (Opera on the Beach will be held on May 9, 10 and 11.)

By all accounts, opera seems to be pretty healthy in Australia, though the skilful aligning of old work, new work, creative location and collaboration.