The National Opera Review and the national psyche

Beyond the scope of the National Opera Review is a critical analysis of the prominence, relevance and influence of the operatic artform on the Australian culture. And yet, when the Review does touch on the Australian culture, its pronouncements are illuminating, belying a characterisation of our culture that would be radically unfamiliar to Indigenous, regional, suburban, remote and culturally diverse Australia – unfamiliar, that is, to the majority of us.

The National Opera Review is several years in the making, and was due for release back in March. Its purpose is “to make recommendations aimed at promoting the financial viability, artistic vibrancy and accessibility of Australia’s four Major Opera Companies” Opera Australia, Opera Queensland, State Opera of South Australia, and West Australian Opera. In September 2015, a progress document was released in the form of a discussion paper, and the final report released this week presents 118 recommendations.

While many of the recommendations have impacts beyond opera, the Review’s narrow scope precludes detailed interrogation of such impacts, and the authors have been careful to articulate them well. In doing so, they offer unexpected insights into their cultural assumptions – assumptions that do a great deal to explain the disproportionate prominence given to opera in national arts policy direction given its staggeringly disproportionate funding in relation to shrinking audiences and to the arts more broadly.

The Review’s authors propose in their framing letter to the Minister that “the iconic Sydney Opera House might be a physical manifestation of the role opera plays in the national psyche”. It might be – but it isn’t. To the extent that we can characterise it, the national psyche is complex, curious, anti-elite, anti-entitlement, and unreconciled with its foundational Indigenous culture. Despite more of us attending cultural rather than sporting events across any given year, the majority of Australians aren’t interested in opera, and the majority of visitors to the Sydney Opera House do not attend an opera.

To redress dwindling audiences, we are told, Opera Australia undertook “bold strategic initiatives… in staging long-run musicals and introducing Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH), which is now regarded as an integral part of the city’s, and potentially the nation’s, cultural life.” Are we to believe that an opera experience offering Sydneysiders a new view of their harbour is of national significance? This is an unrecognisable image of the Australian culture.

A $1.2m innovation fund is proposed to encourage productive new collaborations in the digital and festival spaces. Wouldn’t it make more sense to offer those funds to digital and festival specialists whose expertise could then be directed towards any potential fit with opera? Or to look closely at the Australian opera leaders in these fields and support their work, given such excellent work is already being made by Chamber Made Opera, Present Tense and Aphids, for example?

“[O]ne of the strongest recurring themes from public consultations,” notes the Review, “was the need to secure future audiences through education programmes in schools.” If a new generation of Australians is to embrace artistic expression and participation, we need well-integrated and comprehensive arts and education programs – grounded in Indigenous culture and reflective of cultural diversity – rather than acculturation to one artform. Then we can all stand back and beam with pride at the invigoration of the Australian culture.

Astoundingly, the Review also recommends modestly increasing the budget of the Australia Council “to acquire staff with the requisite skills to engage with the Major Opera Companies in the way envisaged,” as well as recommending that there be a dedicated Major Performing Arts board member on the Australia Council board. Such moves could only serve to entrench further a mandated imposition of opera’s prominence, relevance and influence, rather than expecting as taxpayers do that the Australia Council board and staff would remain equally responsible to all artforms and all Australians.

What if every artform were afforded this level of respectful analysis? What if every artform were afforded this level of funding? We are told that opera is expensive, but all artforms would thrive were they invested in with the highest quality in mind. Imagine the impact on the Australian culture if Ilbijerri Theatre were funded to support a full-time, year-round, paid ensemble, with verbatim theatre in schools and theatres across the country. Imagine the grounded, articulate and visionary next generation we would foster. Imagine the impact on the Australian culture if Express Media were funded to support a full-time, year-round, paid Editorial Committee. Many of its alumni dominate the Australian literary scene; such a move would propel our literature in brilliant ways.

Touring is also addressed by the Review, recommending that Opera Australia is funded specifically to tour its productions. Currently, no Australian arts company is funded to tour. Not even touring companies, who apply for precarious project funds to tour shows – and only after having their artistic vibrancy and viability rigorously tested by peers in an industry marketplace. National touring, especially to regional and remote places, is not about cultural imposition; it’s a collaboration between artists, producers, venues and local communities. Tours such as Mother by Daniel Keene with Noni Hazlehurst have a transformative impact when they tour regional towns because the work is a real and recognisable reflection of our culture, our stories.

Opera is not core to the national psyche – a fact that decades of disproportionate subsidy have been unable to disprove. Giving it yet another $23m across four years is unconscionable while the institutions that do frame the national psyche, such as the National Library of Australia and National Gallery of Australia, are cutting essential services after forced cuts. In the current funding environment with companies of demonstrable excellence unable to be supported, to increase subsidies to underperforming companies with already quarantined funds is insupportable. Given that this has consistently been the outcome of past such reviews, an increase seems disappointingly inevitable… but at what cost to the Australian culture?

Let’s be confident enough to examine opera alongside the full diversity of Australia’s creative work, subsiding it on the investment model on which every other artform is fostered. Only then can we truly understand what inspires the Australian psyche.

 
IMAGE: The Gesture Project by Nathan Gray as part of the St Arnaud Street Museum.