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Singing us to sleep: why Australian opera needs to take more risks

Australian opera, at the largest scale, is increasingly complicit in its own stagnation – and it’s the opera makers of tomorrow who will lose the most, writes Maxim Boon.

As the last notes ring out into the auditorium and the final curtain falls, the audience dutifully begins its applause. During the three hours that have elapsed we’ve seen the hushed passions of a forbidden love affair, an arranged marriage thrust upon a vulnerable woman, a brutal murder committed by a mentally deranged bride, and a desperate suicide-by-sword – all set against the epic vistas of an ancient baronial castle.

And yet, I can’t help but feel underwhelmed. I’m not disappointed per se, or particularly unimpressed. In fact, I don’t feel discernibly moved in any direction. What I feel is best described as ‘meh’.

In many respects what I’ve just witnessed – the opening night of Victorian Opera’s Lucia Di Lammermoor, directed by Cameron Menzies – qualifies as a success. Starring one of the world’s great Lucias, Australian coloratura star Jessica Pratt, performing alongside some superbly talented local voices, it’s a production packed with first-rate singing. The great stone pillars, gothic arches and august pageantry of the 17th-century costumes have been lifted from John Copley’s treasured staging, first mounted by Opera Australia in the late 1970s with La Stupenda herself, Dame Joan Sutherland, in the title role. Musically, visually and historically, the calibre of this production’s constituent elements should have made for a knock-out combination. So why did this staging leave me cold?

A timely coincidence might suggest an answer. Some 17,000km away in London, a new production of Donizetti’s bloody tragedy provoked a far more complex response from its audience when it opened at the Royal Opera House in April. Explicit content warnings promising gratuitous sex and violence generated buzz in the media and raised the hackles of tradition-minded subscribers ahead of its opening, and indeed the reception for this bold interpretation was just as polarised.

With an innovative split-down-the-middle set, offering views of the more grisly goings-on usually kept off-stage, firebrand director Katie Mitchell’s production showcased a quality that seems in short supply at the major presenters of opera in Australia: a brave willingness to challenge an audience.

Through an exploration of a “strong feminist agenda”, Mitchell sought to elevate her Lucia (performed by another great bastion of the role, Diana Damrau) from victim to heroine. Instead of a manipulated ingénue whose sanity is sacrificed for the selfish wants of her family, this character became something far more incendiary: a sexually mature and emotionally potent woman desperately raging against her male-dominated world. Lucia’s infamous mad scene – the defining achievement of any production of this opera – was reframed as a moment of furious brutality; a psychotic break rather than brittle unravelling.

Of course, not everyone connected with Mitchell’s reading of this story, and a cacophony of both cheers and jeers from the opening night crowd was reported by critics. What seems clear, however, is that it was never Mitchell’s aim to satisfy everyone, nor was it her intention to be consummately vindicated. Some of her experiments were rewarding while other gambles failed to deliver, but crucially this production dared to discover uncharted territory in a work so familiar and ubiquitous that it would be easy to assume that all its mysteries had been exhausted.

Back in Australia, Menzies’ traditional Lucia was arguably less flawed, but it also took far fewer risks, a safe, inoffensive but ultimately toothless production that in its eagerness to merely please shied away from more affecting statements.

The importance of searching for new ground in the stalwarts of the operatic canon seems particularly urgent given the level of conservatism present, not only in Australian seasons, but on the billing of opera companies around the world. According to a recent analysis of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s programming, of the approximately 24,000 performances staged at the Met in the past 100 years, the average year of composition of its productions has remained almost unchanged throughout that period: about 1,870. New Yorkers are watching the same operas now as they were a century ago – and Australia’s major companies are reflecting the same trend.

In Australia at least, this programming time warp invariably has its root in the economics of the arts. Australia’s arts sector is mired in one of the most financially turbulent environments since the establishment of the Australia Council in the late 1960s, and the stakes of poor programming choices have never been higher. As one of the most expensive art forms, opera is particularly sensitive to financial instability and so the pressure to return to the tried-and-true is understandably intense.

It’s unsurprising that fear has become the most compelling artistic imperative in an economic climate where an inability to find an audience is more or less a death sentence. When even the nation’s most heavily subsidised company fails to record a profit, as was the case for Opera Australia in its last tabled annual report, it follows that challenging an audience becomes a low priority.

There are, thankfully, some heartening examples of cultural leadership from companies prepared to champion new work, particularly on more intimate scales. Sydney Chamber Opera has cultivated an almost unrivalled reputation for sharply realised and insightfully commissioned new works, while Melbourne’s Chamber Made Opera celebrates the bold, experimental pioneers on the bleeding-edge of the art form. Victorian Opera is perhaps the most committed advocate of the new among Australia’s larger companies, presenting Paul Grabowsky and Steve Vizard’s excellent new chamber opera, Banquet of Secrets, earlier this season, and Iain Grandage and Alison Croggon’s award-winning adaptation of Tim Winton’s The Riders in 2014.

State Opera of South Australia has also made a welcome addition to Australia’s operatic canon recently with George Palmer’s setting of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, while Kate Miller Heidke’s The Rabbits, co-commissioned by Opera Australia and Perth’s Barking Gecko Theatre, has proven to be a national hit during its premiere season tour.

Despite these examples of successful blue-sky programming, the anxieties that have largely reined in the spectrum of works presented by many of Australia’s largest opera companies appears to be seeping ever deeper into the art form’s foundations.

Ad nauseam revivals of well-worn and arguably worn out productions (Julie Taymor’s Magic Flute, perennially programmed by Opera Australia, is a prime example), and the increasing presence of artistically inert yet financially barnstorming musical theatre speaks to a growing reliance on lazy, easy-win programming that seems almost brazen in its cynicism. The fact that 2017’s Handa Opera on the Harbour will be a restaging of 2013’s production of Carmen, instead of a new production as in previous years, adds to the evidence that Australian opera, at the largest scale, is increasingly complicit in its own stagnation.

This isn’t to say that opera companies should do away with the traditional or historically informed in favour of gritty, unpopular modernism. Opera can be tradition-minded, it can also be entertaining escapism, but it should never be perfunctory.

Ultimately, the biggest losers of this stale safety bias will be Australia’s opera makers of tomorrow. When a culture of predictability and drab conservatism finally atrophies the expectations of the opera-going public, artists attempting to escape from that trope will likely be met with hostility. Is it any wonder that a visionary director like Barrie Kosky, formerly championed by Opera Australia and other major Aussie presenters, is now glaringly absent from our Opera Houses? Are future artists of his ilk destined to follow suit and seek gainful employment in Europe?

If the variety of operas on offer has to remain so intractably limited, it seems vital that those executing these favoured few be prepared to take risks, push boundaries and rattle the cages. If, as data from the Met suggests, time really is standing still for opera programmers, it raises the question: in another century will we still be content with the same works that have persisted for the previous 200 years?

First published 4 June 2016, for The Guardian Australia.