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15 September, 2008

Crikey letter to Opera Board Chair ...

Monday, 8 September 2008

Letter to Opera Australia

A concerned Opera Australia subscriber writes:

Thursday, 4 September 2008Mr Gordon Fell,Chairman, Opera Australia,Elizabeth St, Surry Hills, 2010

Subject: Performance standards

Dear Mr Fell,

I wish to contribute to the current debate on standards at Opera Australia. We have read strong criticisms by previously employed opera singers and equally powerful letters of support from currently employed artists. Because each of these could be seen as self interested, I believe that it may be more instructive to deal with facts in an unemotional manner.
Major concerns as raised by others and which I share:

The employment of the wife of the musical director as a mezzo-soprano soloist in the company. This is a most unusual but not unique situation. Your Board has a responsibility to subscribers, other artists and funding agencies to ensure that Mrs Hickox has been engaged in a manner which is fair and equitable as well as at arm’s length from her husband (and consistent with his contract). Similar situations in business, politics, or medical practice would normally not permit such an arrangement at all and the spouse would need to seek employment elsewhere…

Guest artists in the past four years, with few exceptions, have been of a lower standard of fame, quality and probably cost (in current dollar terms) than previously. In addition, the guest artists have often been used for small numbers of performances of what might be termed “boutique” or “connoisseur” operas such as Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. While this is not a criticism in itself, it does mean that such guest artists have only been heard in a very small proportion of the performances given by the company.

Each year under former administrations the national company showcased at least one and sometimes three or four very famous singers each year, even if we exclude Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge’s appearances. The names include people who have made significant recordings, memorable performances at the great opera houses of the world and are or were draw-cards of the highest calibre. Such names include Botha, Connell, Jo, Schorg, Mitchell, McIntyre, Cole, Zschau, Marton, Vaness, Glossop, Milnes, Tourangeau, Horne, Pavarotti, Te Kanawa, Loringar, Resnick and Marenzi, a very incomplete list.

A more recent list includes some fine artists, but fewer in number and often of a second or third order in comparison to the above. Several of the artists have been somewhat disappointing such as Rhys Meirion, Richard Berkley Steele and Michael Todd Simpson.
Some recent problems raise questions about how professionally the company is being managed at the moment. Examples that come to mind are:

i) Why did our opera season start with musical and not an opera? An opening night Gala should be an important event in the life of an opera company, its chorus and orchestra. It is also potentially a major fund raiser. This was denied our company this year. This was an artistic decision that many long term subscribers were not happy with.

ii) Why did Orlando start at 7pm and finish at 9.35pm? And why were audiences not informed the reason at the time? Also, why did the advertised and seriously promoted conductor Mr Pinnock not conduct? Why was the audience not informed of these facts and given some reasons at the time? This seems to be the result of last minute decision making and a disregard for inconvenience to subscribers.

iii) Why was Mr Kanen Breen given the roles of Cassio and Arturo recently. He is a comprimario artist. In these two roles he was well out of his fach which is bad for him and bad for the audience. It was most disappointing to learn that the understudy for Edgardo has sung the role of Arturo and would have made an ideal cast member (and probably cost very little to use). Putting Ms Nikolic in the role of Amneris next year is highly questionable when there are more appropriate Australians to do the part. Also, Mr Carbo is obviously inappropriate for the role of Don Alfonso. He should be Guglielmo. These are just a few recent examples of poor or even outlandish casting decisions.

iv) The argument that the company is currently making a profit provides evidence that some of this surplus could have been used to employ at least one top line artist over the past year. There is an argument that this would have resulted in more ticket sales for at least one opera and possibly more subscription sales, further improving the profit line. The drawcard of the Sydney Opera House has proven irresistible to many great artists in the past. Has the OA been on contact with any agents for the great artists of our time such as Fleming, Florez, Hvorostovsky, Blythe, Licitra, Alagna, Georgiou, Netrebko, Dessay, Voigt, Pons, Villazon, Boccelli, Theorin, Pape, Westerbroek, d’Intino, de Niesse, etc?

Many of the “great performances” of recent years have been from artists who will not be singing for much longer (e.g. Connell, O’Neill, Summers, Kenny). The company needs a source of inspiration and that can best come from those with world class reputations.

v) There are many Australian singers currently overseas who should be given the opportunity of working with their national company. For example, why have we not heard Maria Pollicina, one of the best Australian singers of her generation in my view? Could it be that the management is reluctant to showcase singers with true operatic sized voices?

I hope that the board will review what is happening under its stewardship and see to it that there is quality opera in Australia instead of the current creeping mediocrity.

09 September, 2008

Billy Budd opening Wed 24th September. Sydney Opera House.

Dear Colleagues,

This Gala opening demonstrated the best and worst features of Australia’s national opera company.

The performance was exemplary by any standards, including four artists of major international reputation (Tahu Rhodes, Hickox, Armfield and Philip Langridge). Almost their equal in world repute and rising to the operatic occasion were local talents Conal Coad and John Wegner. With more than adequate supporting singers, this was probably the highest standard cast seen in Australia for any opera in a very long time. It is a shame, even a crime, that it was not filmed and broadcast to high definition cinemas around the world for those who enjoy Benjamin Britten’s works. I am personally not a Britten fan but clearly his works are considered masterpieces by the experts.

Billy Budd is a handsome, free-thinking rating who is first lauded then set-up, accused, tried and hanged for mutiny on board an English warship circa 1800. Speculation about gay love, jealousy, morals and Christian themes seem to have taken on a life of their own, well beyond the rather clunky libretto in my view. This production uses an enormous revolving rectangular stage-upon-a-stage. This in turn has two levels, rising hydraulically at limitless angles to create the sense of a ship’s decks in many situations. It moved flawlessly and slow enough not to cause sea sickness.

Despite all of these positive factors, the opera hall was poorly patronised. The back three rows of the stalls and rear 7 rows of the circle had nary a seat filled. The rest of the hall was patchy and after intermission it was even worse.

It is disappointing and demoralising for artists to perform to unfilled houses … so what went wrong? Why is a modern English masterpiece ignored by the Sydney audience, despite a world-class cast? Is seven performances an excessive number? There were 20 or more Carmens and Bohemes this year, but these are for a different ‘mass’ audience. Billy Budd is a 20th century opera with a limited appeal to the average opera-goer. I call it a connoisseur’s opera.

From an artistic standpoint, all companies should occasionally do this sort of work, even though hard, cold economics might argue against it (and one would do My Fair Lady year-round). Yet the decision to do two such operas concurrently is highly questionable. Makropoulos Case is also conducted by Richard Hickox. This is another 20th century ‘boutique’ opera with 6 scheduled performances before an unscheduled return of La Boheme with a ‘house’ cast.

After all the recent adverse publicity on nepotism I was surprised to see the Hickox family name in not one but three places in the program. One hopes that all cast members had open auditions for their roles in this opera to ensure standards and equity for artists.

It is disappointing that Maestro Hickox was overseas the first four operas of this main Sydney season and that he leaves before the end of it (Stephen Mould conducts the final two performances of Makropoulos Case). I understand that Mr Hickox was not even present for the announcement of the new season for 2009. His avowed commitment to Australia would currently seem to be limited to little more than 7 weeks at a time.

2009 promises more of the same with a recycling of some good ‘stable’ singers but without as many of the world’s top artists as in previous seasons. It is the presence of such stars which can ignite that spark where good opera can rise above the ordinary and create emotive and memorable art. Just like films and football, opera needs its stars to rise above the ordinary. A cursory look at any month’s roster from 1990 to 2004 will show numerous ‘greats’. I just pulled out winter of 2000 to find Hagegard, Cole, Prokina, Sylvester, Rootering, Tahu Rhodes, Coad, Ransom, Shelton, Summers, Fritzsch, Auguin, Young. Our local resident ‘stars’ were also of a higher standard than today: Carden, Shanks, Allman, Cillario, etc. It is depressing to think of the decline in numbers of such stars appearing in recent years and this is one of the major criticisms I have of the company. Ten years ago it was rare to have a performance without at least one international ‘star’. Now it happens all the time.

“Life amplified”? Small deal, perhaps, but it is another embarrassment that the company is still using this slogan on its advertising material. Amplification is anathema to grand opera and the slogan should be changed. Why does a quality opera company need a slogan anyway?

Some more good news is that the problem only needs minor adjustments to fix it. We have a good orchestra (although the brass section made some frightful noises at the Billy Budd opening) and chorus. We have the world’s best known opera house. The management needs to get onto the world’s top agents to secure the (expensive) services of some of the top 50 opera singers (their names are no secret) to slot into 2009 season if at all possible, but certainly for 2010 if the company is to survive as a serious purveyor of good opera. And they need to audition local singers fairly and put them on 5 year contracts, just like the management.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Pedestrian Pearlfishers at Sydney Opera House.

The Pearlfishers. Georges Bizet. Sydney Opera House. Thursday, 4th September 2008

Zurga - Michael Lewis
Nadir - Henry Choo
Leila - Leanne Keneally
Nourabad - Shane Lawrencev
Conductor - Emmanuel Joel-Hornak
Director Ann-Margaret Pettersson
Sets - John Conkin

Dear Colleagues,
This Pearlfishers opening was passing pedestrian, never quite reaching ignition temperature in my view. In this engaging and original production Zurga is a British officer, living a flash-back.

Michael Lewis, an artist I admire enormously, seemed to be at his vocal limits on two occasions in the first act, yet his confident professionalism shone through. He is a veteran of three seasons since 2000 but by now the age difference with his on-stage tenor rival is showing.

Henry Choo managed the difficult tessitura of Nadir and his sense of drama made the role ‘work’.

Ms Kenneally also sang competently, even beautifully at times. She was ‘believable’, which is saying something in opera!

Shane Lawrencev played a fine Norabad.

Emmanuel Joel-Hornak conducts the present run - a lot of good music came from the Opera and Ballet orchestra. The chorus was also first rate.

The principal vocal performances would all have been considered grand as understudies but on the night, none really had that ‘star’ quality which is so easy to recognise but so hard to define. The ‘wow’ factor. It seems that Australian audiences are no longer offered ‘stars’ as often as we were in the past.

On looking at the last two outings of this opera in Sydney in my own diary I note further evidence of the depressing decline in standards of the opera company. Last time we heard up-and-coming American tenor Eric Cutler and previously David Miller as Nadir. The former went on the greater things (Chicago Lyric, Covent Garden, the Met, etc) and a recent guest return to Sydney. The latter joined the highly successful international ‘cross-over’ group Il Divo. Past conductors Patrick Summers and Richard Bonynge are both of vast international renown. This is not to denigrate any of the participants in the current 2008 run, but it reflects the company’s current policies of scaling back on international-quality guest artists.

Mr Joel-Hornak has a handsome conducting CV, making one or two fewer international-class artists in the opera on this occasion. The world of opera is a small one and dependable tenors are probably the rarest artists in practice.

The Sydney auditorium on Thursday was far from full with rear rows and side boxes all near empty, making it a marketing disaster. And it is bad for the performers too. Why were these seats not given to students, donors, ‘frequent flyers’ or others? Also bad for performers, I note that including the dress rehearsal, there will have been three performances within 5 days this week, a punishing schedule for any principal singer. The same happens later in the season with a Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (matinee) marathon for the company. It seems that the bottom line is more important than caring for voices which normally requires at least two rest days between “big-sings”.

The opening night audience showed its satisfaction with a large ovation. This is gratifying, especially at a time when subscriptions are being renewed. However, as Nellie Melba knew, this does not prove much about technical and artistic standards (“Sing ‘em muck, it’s all they understand” she once wrote of the Australian audience). Yet one should never underestimate an audience, especially when so many in it could recall the heady ‘Sutherland years’.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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