HOW Opera - Australian Women in Music Awards Discussion
Yesterday opera makers gathered together to talk about how we can better craft an inclusive and innovative future for Australian opera. I was honoured to host the panel which featured: Cheryl Barker AO, Deborah Cheetham AO, Heather Fairbairn, Dr Jordin Steele, and Lissa Twomey. It was an exciting conversation, one of many to follow as our industry responds to shifts in culture and audience. A number of people have reached out asking for a copy of my opening remarks which provided a rapid-fire introduction to the current national conversation. They are posted below (with a few minor tweaks for clarity and inclusion of references) along with a link to the Facebook livestream.
2019 has seen a national conversation about Australian opera’s lack of inclusivity and innovation. This has come in the wake of a conference called NOW (New Opera Workshop) which was hosted in this city, Brisbane, in April. We’re not going to talk about that conference specifically - I believe only one of our panel members was present. What was important is that for those in attendance this conference galvanised them to speak out about the systemic problems in the opera sector which were exemplified in the conference programming and it’s notable exclusions: particularly women and people of colour. In response, Australian opera makers Sally Blackwood, Liza Lim, Peggy Polias and Bree van Reyk published a list of demands in Arts Hub which you can see on screen. This list has been co-signed by 196 opera creators to date including myself and many of the amazing people who join me on our panel today. These demands are seen as a necessary response to widespread problems in the sector, problems which are substantiated by findings of a National Opera Review published by the Australian Government in 2016. Australian opera is a diverse, innovative and sometimes even a radical domain, but this has not been forming enough of the narrative major opera institutions choose to present, nor the repertoire they program nor the artists or artistic leadership these institutions employ.
Some fast facts to frame today’s conversations:
Australian has five opera companies recognised within the Major Performing Arts Framework who receive national funding with a mandate to "develop and present excellent artistic works and foster a vibrant and sustainable performing arts sector”. These companies are Opera Australia, Opera Queensland, the State Opera of SA, Victorian Opera and West Australian Opera.
There are a range of small-medium sized opera companies operating around Australia receiving significant national and international recognition for artistic excellence. Notably, this year Pinchgut Opera became the first Australian company awarded an International Opera Award.
Globally opera is dominated by the performance of historical works with research showing that approximately 10% of productions presented by the world’s major companies are written by living composers*. In the Australian context the National Opera Review notes an increased narrowing of the repertoire presented in the major Australian companies in the 2009-2015 period (p.8; pp.64-65).
Last year only 5% of classical music works programmed by a sample of major global orchestras were composed by women.
This year at Opera Australia 15% of creative leadership roles (composer, conductor or directors) were performed by women. This was an improvement from 2018 where only 4.7 per cent of creative leadership roles were held by women.
Live Performance Australia’s most recent data shows a 9.5% downtown in opera attendance and a 21.4% decline in operatic ticket sales revenue from the previous year (2017 data).
Australian singers are being offered less principal roles, with performances by non-Australian singers at Opera Australia increasing from 7.2% to 39.6% in 2010-2016 period (pp.58-60).
* This is supported by statistical information from Operabase which tracks global opera productions. For preparation I surveyed the ‘1000 most played titles’ for the 2018/19 season. See also:
Dornic, A., 1994. Opera Performance Survey.
Letts, R., 2014. ‘Australian Orchestras and Opera Companies Programming Australian Works’, in Music in Australian Knowledge Base.
Littlejohn, D., 1992. The Ultimate Art: Essays Around and About Opera, University of California Press.