Surviving the perfect storm – why I have faith in opera’s future

If the San Diego Opera board's decision to close up shop after 49 years ever seemed like a strategy to "exit with dignity" rather than spiral into bankruptcy as a result of opera's global troubles, it sure didn’t turn out that way. From the moment news of the vote for closure began to leak to a stunned then outraged global arts community, the San Diego affair has been a painful and wholly avoidable public relations fiasco. For weeks the media has reported wildly undignified scenes - pre-show booing of the CEO, mass resignations of board members, vilifications online and in public - which have kept San Diego Opera in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Eleventh hour negotiations and passionate Town Hall gatherings of grass roots supporters offer hope that under refreshed leadership, a new company may rise from the ashes, as more than 21,000 signatories to the rescue appeal say they want. If it does, it will be a very different incarnation of the wounded beast now struggling for life.

This terribly sad end to a once-great institution serves as a cautionary tale for opera companies worldwide. The San Diego Opera board and management had known for years that the company's operations were unsustainable. Despite noting "an irrefutable decline in appetite for grand opera" in their city, the company refused to modify its approach. Rather than change direction to seek new audiences, the board voted to close the company down. No consultation with the community, company members or artists; no tooth-and-nail public fight for the art form; no warning. Defending the board's decision, (now former) chair Karen Cohn's tone was defiant: "We are about world-class grand opera. For 49 years...that is what our subscribers enjoyed and what our philanthropists supported. Neither audience was particularly in the market for alternative or radically new programming."

Wow.

Needless to say, those remaining at San Diego Opera are now exploring alternative and radically new programming.

Those of us who envisage a sustainable, vibrant future for opera - have been putting into place our evolution strategies for some time. Far from being a museum art form, opera is showing us right now that it resists standing still. Having evolved over centuries, opera's challenge to us in 2014 is to keep it transforming, adapting to audience appetites, to innovation, to new ideas, environments and challenges.

For exactly that reason, two years ago OperaQ began the journey of re-imagining the role of opera in contemporary Australia with the development of A New Design for Opera Queensland, our Strategic Plan 2012-2017. It's a plan to build new audiences by diversifying, improving and modernising the offering of Queensland's 30 year old state company. It's a plan to better live up to our name by balancing our work in Metropolitan Brisbane with an ambitious program of dynamic opera experiences across Regional Queensland. And it's a plan to empower as many people as possible to explore creative expression through music and drama. It's a plan for adventure, risk-taking, boldness and curiosity. And for excellence, benchmarked at world standards, for all lovers of great music, theatre and opera.

Put simply, it's a hearts-and-minds campaign. For centuries, for people from all walks of life all over the world, opera has been an expression of the human condition unlike any other art form, and that's what we want for our audiences in 2014 and beyond. A great opera experience - intimate or grand, traditional or unconventional - can have a powerful effect. Dramatic ideas fused with music can inexplicably tug at the emotions, seize the imagination, inspire, overwhelm and seduce. But my gut (ok, and the global decline in opera subscriptions) is telling me that in the quest to sex itself up, to dumb itself down, to compete with the mega-event spectacle scramble for tourist dollars, opera is in danger of losing some of its meaning to audiences, its raw connective power.

Opera can be re-imagined a thousand ways: recently in Sydney as tourism mega-events with wow-factor designed for economic returns or festival moments with fashion or contemporary dance gurus, in Hobart as a charming chamber-scale festival and in metropolitan Melbourne’s stylish Ring Cycle celebrations. Opera has always been about spectacle and showing off, and I'm a girl who loves a bit of bling and sparkle. But I also believe that unless opera also means something to people, unless it really captures their hearts and minds, opera has no future.

We want to be here in 20, 30 years and beyond, so that's what we're focused on at OperaQ.

The centrepiece example of our hearts and minds campaign is undoubtedly Project Puccini, born from two years of planning with local arts centres and councils in eight regional centres across Queensland. When we put the word out in February that we'd be auditioning for local singers to participate in our new touring production of La bohème, the response was immediate and extraordinary - we knew that we'd tapped into something far deeper than a local love of singing. From Mount Isa to the Gold Coast, people were telling us directly how music and singing enriches their lives, what it means to be part of this project. In auditions across the state nearly 800 adults and children sang their hearts out - people from all walks of life. Some with amazing voices, some who couldn't hold a tune, all there for the love and adventure of it.

And it's just going to get better for the 384 final participants. Over the next three months we'll help them develop their drama, musical and language skills (La bohème is sung in Italian). They'll each be fitted for a period costume especially designed for their character in Helpmann Award-winning director Craig Ilott’s production, set in 1913. They'll have studio and stage rehearsals with La bohème’s assistant director and on the big night they'll be performing alongside a first rate team of OperaQ principal artists, accompanied by players from Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Guy Noble. Best of all, their family and friends will be in the audience cheering them on in Rockhampton or Mackay, or Ipswich. Each participant will have had a great opera adventure, and OperaQ will have made hundreds of real connections across the vast Queensland landscape.

Evolving the way we engage with communities in regional Queensland is a huge and thrilling challenge, but it's far from our biggest. The true danger-zone for every opera company in the world is the regular main stage season that was once our lifeblood. We've all experienced declining subscriptions for main stage opera over the last 10 years, with the expectation of further declines to come. Like big hair and shoulder pads, subscriptions to grand opera will never again reach the fashionable heights they did in the 80s.

At OperaQ, presenting masterworks of scale has been a cornerstone of the company's work for decades and will play a role in our future. Traditional grand opera in the Lyric Theatre - big voices, big productions, Queensland Symphony Orchestra in the pit and the mighty Opera Queensland Chorus in full flight - can be a thrilling experience. But opera on a grand scale is hugely expensive and utterly unsustainable if the auditorium is only half-full for most of the season. We cannot allow this pattern to continue.

Many of our staunchest, most devoted opera lovers enjoy the “traditional” experience, sitting in their regular seats, well-known repertoire, pretty costumes, and handsome scenery. These valued long-term audience members are OperaQ family, and we want them with us on our new adventures. Opera means a great deal to them, it's been a big part of their life. Over the next few months we'll involve our subscribers in an exchange of dialogue about their company's future. We may lose some of our most nostalgic subscribers along the way. But our job is to ensure that opera has a future, and that means change.

I became Artistic Director of Opera Queensland in 2012, following two very stimulating periods directing two of Australia's largest international arts festivals. Curating festivals means embracing constant change. Festivals demand creative responses to opportunities and challenges, to keep up with the demands of festival audiences who expect a program full of new ideas every year, to be exposed to a variety of experiences and levels of comfort. I want to embrace that festival-like spirit of adventure in opera.

Already we’ve begun to diversify our offering of opera experiences with alternative venues and programming that features partnerships with likeminded creative teams. Last year audiences discovered that QPAC’s Concert Hall was the ideal theatre for a staging of Bach’s great oratorio St Matthew Passion with Brisbane’s very fine Camerata of St John's, and in September it will become an opera theatre for the Australian Premiere of Philip Glass’s latest opera The Perfect American - a spectacular international co-production with Brisbane Festival. ABANDON, our fusion of contemporary dance and Handel arias, made with Townsville’s excellent Dancenorth, was featured at the World Theatre Festival at Brisbane Powerhouse in February. Next year we’ll launch our Playhouse season, introducing our audiences to a welcoming new venue for medium-scale opera repertoire and lighter fare. In our future I see site-specific and chamber-scale projects, pop-up events in unusual places, special festival adventures and yes, grand opera too.

I'm optimistic that's the way forward for OperaQ: a festival-like portfolio of music theatre experiences for a range of different audiences, from spectacular grand opera to quirky, experimental adventures. I'm optimistic that there's a future for opera in this country, because I have faith in the brilliance, ingenuity, energy and passion of Australian artists. I have faith in this extraordinary 400 year old art form to evolve yet again in the digital age. And I have faith in Australian audiences to respond to those qualities, to embrace new ideas and adventure.

Opera is caught in a perfect storm - the forces we're fighting in Brisbane are much the same as they are in America: "the slowly declining role of subscriptions....the lack of bankable stars, the marginalization of the classical arts in education and the mass media, the plethora of competing entertainment forms and opportunities ... that compete for the time and attention of people who could be going to the opera." (David Gockley, General Director, San Francisco Opera)

Even so, we have no intention of taking OperaQ down the San Diego road. The public response to Project Puccini and ABANDON and pre-sales for The Perfect American already tell us we're on the right track with our new design to meet the challenges and opportunities of our times. We believe great music enriches us, individually and as a community. We believe a vibrant arts scene is the lifeblood of a progressive society. We believe Queensland audiences deserve an opera company of the highest standard, a company that serves the whole of Queensland, and that opera must flourish for future generations to experience. We're stepping up to our responsibility to our communities, to our artists and, as this generation's custodians of an extraordinarily enduring art form, we are excited about the dynamic role our company can play in contemporary Queensland.

 

Lindy Hume, Artistic Director, Opera Queensland