Andrew's Opera was previously published at

15 April, 2009

Crikey commentary on languishing opera company.

Opera Australia in shifty AGM lock-down

Our national opera company continues to behave like a naughty adolescent instead of the mature adult of 50 which it is. For the past few years one rule after another has been broken and nobody is holding the present management to account.

Uniquely, this year’s OA Annual General Meeting will be in Melbourne. No problem with that, but by the time it was announced, it was too late for Victorian subscribers to register. Also, many others from interstate will be unable to attend due to the awkward timing of 3pm on “Easter” Thursday April 9.

For the first time in a decade I did not received a notice about the AGM. I called the company to be told that I am no longer a voting “member”, despite fulfilling the simple criteria of contributing $160 to the company in a given year. I donate a modest sum each year and have two subscriptions. It may be that I did not tick the appropriate box or filled out the right form with my subscription or donations. Whatever, other subscribers and supporters may have done likewise. I now have the application forms but it is too late to register for this year’s meeting. Touché!

I discussed this matter with a current company insider. He also found it particularly odd, especially for a company supposedly open to public scrutiny and currently in the process of finding new artistic and musical administrators.

One wonders if holding a meeting away from head office at short notice on the Easter break is a sign of a “closed shop”. From various blogs and talk-back radio we know that there are some opera subscribers who are still keen to attend the AGM and possibly propose motions from the floor. Good luck, I say!

Back to the stage: like marathon runners, opera singers and their teachers have long held that sufficient rest is needed to recuperate from a “big sing” for their own health and vocal longevity. Most of the great operatic roles are in this category and famous singers of history would rarely do more than two such performances per week. To assist with the bottom line, Opera Australia has obliged singers to perform with just one day’s break on many occasions in the past few seasons. Some instances were of a Thursday evening performance and then a Saturday matinee, making even less than 48 hours between shows, a risk to tension and tonsil alike.

The company’s “Mission Statement” makes it clear that the company is to be involved (only) in opera and opera singers, purveying “opera of excellence that excites audiences and develops and sustains the art form in Australia”. For this it receives substantial government funding both State and Federal. There is no mention of musical comedy in the Mission Statement.

The Sydney opera gala opening for 2008 was My Fair Lady which ran for one of the longest seasons ever (in three different theatres!). The show did not employ many opera singers, nor did it fulfil the obligations of the mission statement. While the company does Gilbert and Sullivan operettas every few years at the end of the season, we now find musical comedy as a major activity, clearly at the expense of mainstream opera. Other companies perform high quality musical comedies but there are few alternative providers of opera. Tax payers might well ask where their funds are going. While the company justifies this by box office receipts, they could also install poker machines in the Green Room with the same outcome to profits.

The final paragraph of the company’s Mission Statement says that they will: “Be rigorous in self-examination and open to informed, outside evaluation of both our successes and failures”. I can see no sign of this from management or board.

Until there is a catharsis, absolution and re-statement of intention from management I for one will remain sceptical about this board deciding on the new musical and artistic administrators. It is more like a war cabinet, delightful and open individually perhaps, but secretive and closed to its public as a board.

One wishes the company well in the search for new leadership. There is still much to admire aboard this rudderless ship. One guide from this perplexed subscriber might be that rather than a profit, this company needs a prophet to lead it out of its current woes. An open discussion at a well attended AGM would do no harm either.

Dr Byrne runs an addiction clinic in Redfern, NSW.