The report into Australia’s opera companies recommends increased funding and a cap on international singers.

The findings of former Arts Minister George Brandis’ National Opera Review have been released on Tuesday by Arts Minister Mitch Fifield to a general chorus of approval from within the industry. The review was “aimed at promoting the financial viability, artistic vibrancy and accessibility” of Australia’s four Major Opera Companies: Opera Australia (OA), Opera Queensland (OQ), State Opera of South Australia (SOSA) and West Australian Opera (WAO).

Stefan Vinke as Siegfriend with The Rhinemaidens in Opera Australia’s 2013 production of The Ring Cycle. Photo by Jeff Busby

The comprehensive Report contains 118 recommendations to Governments, which it says “should be regarded as an integrated package”. These include an increase in funding of $24.1 million over four years, an appropriate balance between the numbers of Australian and international singers employed, the elevation of Victorian Opera to Major Performing Arts (MPA) status, and a package to help Opera Queensland achieve financial stability in order to retain its MPA status.

The Report also recommends that Opera Australia’s long-run musicals should not receive public funding, describing this as “a significant conclusion of the Review.” The opera companies, meanwhile, will be required to increase the number of productions annually, as well as the employment opportunities for Australian singers, with proposed financial penalties of up to $200,000 if targets are not met.

Noting a reduction in the number of productions in response to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), particularly at OA and OQ, resulting in a decline in employment opportunities for Australian singers, the Report finds that the impact on Australia’s community of established singers has been “profound” – a situation compounded by an increase in the number of international artists performing at OA. “This was one of the most serious and widespread issues raise with the Review during its extensive consultations,” it says.

Opera Australia’s reduction in the number of mainstage productions and performances, and longer runs of frequently revived productions such as La Bohème and The Magic Flute have had unintended consequences. “Audience numbers for mainstage opera have declined and employment opportunities for artists have significantly decreased,” says the Report. “The Review considers that such a situation is not sustainable. To that end, it recommends that core funding should be provided for a defined number of mainstage productions.”

It recommends that OQ, SOSA and WAO should offer a minimum of three mainstage productions annually, while OA should increase its programme to 11 productions in Sydney and seven in Melbourne. “The variety, balance and scale of such productions also need to be enhanced and appropriate funding provided for that outcome,” says the Report, recommending the establishment of an Innovation Fund worth $1.2 million to fund the development of new works, co-operation with festivals, and digital technologies.

Opera Australia has had considerable success broadening and expanding its audience with Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH) and musicals staged with commercial producer John Frost such as My Fair Lady, The King and I, Anything Goes and South Pacific. However, the Report finds that many musicals offer limited opportunities for operatic artists. On top of that, several mainstage opera productions at the Sydney Opera House have been displaced by musicals, reducing the number of roles and performance opportunities for classically trained opera singers.

Anna O’Byrne and Mark Vincent in My Fair Lady, produced by Opera Australia and John Frost. Photo by Jeff Busby

Noting the number of commercial musicals being staged in Australia, the Report recommends that OA’s long-run musicals should not receive public funding. “This is not to suggest that Opera Australia should not continue to stage musicals on a purely commercial basis,” it adds.

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, Opera Australia’s Chief Executive Craig Hassall said in response: “OA has never allocated government funding to musicals – never have, never will.” Instead, he said, the Company has been able to put money from musicals towards its opera productions, particularly less mainstream work. Disentangling budgets, however, cannot be easy, particularly if the musicals are rehearsed at OA premises and draw on other Company resources.

The perceived declining employment opportunities for Australian operas singers is an issue that was “raised extensively” during the Review’s public consultations. Between 2010 and 2015, the total number of on-stage performances by singers in leading roles, featured and supporting roles in OA’s Sydney mainstage productions declined by 476 or 30 per cent. In Melbourne, the reduction was 191 performances or 40 per cent.

Meanwhile, there has been an increasing use of international artists. While the other three companies employ relatively few, OA has increased the number of non-Australian principal singers in leading roles from 10 in 2009 to 19 in 2015. In 2016, this figure has grown to 29, with some performing in more than one production.

The Report acknowledges that the programming of internationally acclaimed singers is “attractive to audiences.” However, it says: “Against this background, many experienced singers claim they cannot maintain ‘artistic match fitness’ with only erratic performance opportunities available. Stakeholders have also provided information to the Panel of experienced Australian singers leaving the profession, relocating overseas, retiring early or changing career paths.”

“Various explanations have been offered for this change. One reason provided is that Australian singers do not have the vocal and dramatic qualities necessary to fulfil particular roles. While this may apply to certain specialist roles, Opera Australia often casts Australian singers in the same season as an imported artist for more standard lyric repertoire.”

The Report suggests that each major opera company should report annually to the relevant funding agencies on the number of roles and performances by Australian and non-Australian artists employed, and that Government funding agencies should assess whether an appropriate balance is being struck between the career developments of Australian artists and the employment of non-Australian artists. Agencies should, it says, be allowed to impose a penalty of up to $200,000 against a company’s core funding if they do not achieve an appropriate balance. “A trigger for conversation in relation to an appropriate balance in relation to the per cent of performances by Australian singers in leading mainstage roles might be set at 80 per cent,” suggests the Report.

In an OA statement responding to the Final Report, Lyndon Terracini welcomes its recommendations. “The strong suggestion that Opera Australia present more works and greater diversity of repertoire across the year is enthusiastically welcomed by me, particularly as this will mean more opportunities for Australian artists. I am particularly pleased about the focus on innovation and new technology, as this is an area that I have been keen to advance within Opera Australia. It also chimes with my views on what constitutes a 21st century opera company,” he says. Asked by Limelight about the proposed ratio of Australian to international singers and whether he felt 80 per cent was an appropriate figure, he would not be drawn saying that he wouldn’t be making any specific comments at this time.

The Report goes on to argue that “it is possible for each Major Opera Company to frame its repertoire partly in response to the availability and talent of Australia’s most established singers,” while rather ambiguously acknowledging that artistic programming is up to each company. Controversially the Review recommends that repertoire and choice of singers be discussed with funding bodies to ensure a broader mix of repertoire and more opportunities for Australian artists.

The four opera companies will be relieved to see that the Report describes government funding as “essential” to the long-term sustainability of the Major Opera Companies. “Without such support, the companies’ ongoing viability cannot be assured,” it says. The Report recommends an increase in ongoing funding for the Major Opera Companies of $2.509 million in 2015 dollars, as well as additional annual funding of $1.5 million to support shared productions through the Opera Conference.

Opera Queensland’s 2016 production of The Barber of Seville. Photo by Steve Henry

The Report also recommends “a structural adjustment package” for OQ worth $1 million over three years, funded equally by the Federal and Queensland Governments. This is designed to restore the Company’s balance sheet. In return, OQ – which is currently in breach of the financial criteria to be part of the MPA – would need to raise $0.5 million to match the amounts provided by each Government. A further $1.3 million in funding would be provided to OQ over three years to help it make the transition to a more sustainable operating model, reduce its overheads, and increase its private sector support.

Speaking to Limelight, Opera Queensland’s General Manager, Russell Mitchell, says he welcomes the recommendations of the Report and “the initial support they have identified for us to build out reserves and to provide some structural adjustments to the Company as well.”

“The Company has been under notice about its financial position for some time, for a couple of years at least, that it needs to improve its sustainability in order to remain a Major Performing Arts company. And we have turned the financial performance of the Company around. We achieved a significant surplus last year, we’re heading towards another surplus this year – nothing like as large as last year’s but a surplus nonetheless – and we’re budgeting for a surplus next year. Those budgets have been subject to review not only by our board but the funding agencies,” says Mitchell.

“It has been highlighted in the press that this Report is putting us on notice. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We’ve been on notice for some time and we have been doing something about improving our situation. We see the opportunity presented by the Report as acknowledging that. If we hadn’t been able to do what we’ve achieved over the last few years by now, I don’t think Opera Queensland would have even been featured in the National Opera Review,” adds Mitchell.

The Report recommends that OQ looks at sharing services with Queensland Symphony Orchestra. “It’s something we’d certainly explore,” says Mitchell. “I spoke to my colleague at the QSO last night. He’d only just seen that proposal but we will commence a conversation about that fairly soon.”

Meanwhile, Andrew Snell, Managing Director of Victorian Opera, has also welcomed the recommendations of the Review. The Company, formed 11 years ago, currently meets all the criteria for MPA status except for receiving Federal funding. That will change in 2017 with the Australia Council allocating four-year funding to the Company.

In a VO statement, Snell says: “We broadly support wide-ranging increased funding to all companies. The recommended approach for opera companies to develop new works and embrace both innovation and technology, with proposed funding to be made available for such work and development, complements Victorian Opera’s existing long-term strategic approach to programming. With the Review only just released, we will provide a full statement once we have fully analysed all recommendations and their impact on Victorian Opera; this is in particular regard to the company financially, its resources and its ability to best serve Victoria’s audiences.”

Fifield’s office has also welcomed the findings of the Review and had said that the Government will give “careful consideration to the recommendations before providing a response.” Given recent funding cuts to the Australia Council, and the resulting cuts to 62 small to medium scale arts organisations in May, there are fears in some sectors that increased funding for opera could come at the cost of other arts organisations.

Speaking to The Australian, Nugent said that the increase in funding should be additional money for the arts and not come from the existing arts budget. “This is not just ‘give us more government money,” she said. “There is a significant obligation on them as well. We hope this Report will be seen as a very balanced approach.”

The Review panel was led by Helen Nugent, Chair of the Board of the National Portrait Gallery, and the architect of the Major Performing Arts Framework. Joining her were Reserve Bank board member Kathryn Fagg, former OA Artistic Director Moffatt Oxenbould, and concert promoter Andrew McKinnon.