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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 ..