In 2006, when I took on the reins of the newly established Victorian Opera, I asked myself several questions some of which were: how will this company be different from the other opera companies in this country and city; how will we be distinctive; and how will we make the company truly part of wider Australian community?
These questions are obliquely implied in Marcus Westbury’s closing remarks in Monday’s Canvas essentially dealing with Lyndon Terracini’s appointment to Opera Australia. He writes: ‘We should perhaps ask the unaskable about the cultural traditions Australians actually value and how we might best support and resource them.’
Marcus Westbury is a voice of conscience. It is fortunate for us that he is prepared to say what he says. Apart from an oblique reference to education, I believe Westbury has hit the mark. My considered view in response to Westbury, is that Victorian Opera is establishing itself as a part of the culture which Australians value by virtue of the ways in which it addresses the problems Westbury so succinctly describes.
Victorian Opera has numbers of strands within its artistic program each one of which, I believe, has an impact on changing the ways in which opera is perceived by responding to the community in fresh ways.
In 2006 I had a very inspiring conversation with Bangarra’s Stephen Page which led subsequently to his role as the director of Victorian Opera’s production of Orpheus in 2007, using aspects of indigenous culture within the production. I believe this was the first time an indigenous director had been used to direct an opera of this nature. More of this work is in the pipeline.
VO’s contribution to the creative influence within Australia is manifest in the number of Australian works it has performed and commissioned. At the end of 2010 it will have commissioned and performed five new chamber operas and one existing Australian work. The concept of commissioning new work is vital to the lifeblood of opera. Audiences respond to the new work in a variety of ways but our research tells us that audiences are happy to see new work in balance with other repertoire. Thirteen sell-out performances of Through the Looking Glass, a Victorian Opera/Malthouse Theatre collaboration tells a powerful story.
Our community outreach program involves the establishment of regional hubs in Victoria where the needs of a particular community or region are assessed, followed up by visits and support activity from Victorian Opera. We also run an event called Sing Your Own Opera at which 500 people from all over the state sing an opera. This has become a highlight of our calendar. What is the cultural significance of this event you might ask? I would respond by saying that communities are on the verge of losing the joy of singing. Schools are on the verge of losing the joy of singing. Opera is about singing. Unless we restore this concept of singing as a way to music education we can seriously think about closing opera companies within ten years.
Victorian Opera has two Youth Opera companies; one for children aged between 7 and 18 and one for 18 to 25 year-olds. Unless children experience music in the making, that is by doing, they remain forever passive and soon lose interest. This is where I take issue with Marcus Westbury. In Canvas earlier this month, he wrote about the Federal Government’s call for information which might be used to form a cultural policy, applauding the government for this action. I will also join the applause if this quest for cultural policies is under-pinned by serious education in the arts. Most people are aware that the Arts are to be included in the National Curriculum. How are they to be included? How are they to be taught? These two vital questions are the product of Westbury’s unaskable question referred to earlier. If, as far as music goes, it ends up that it is perceived as children lip-synching to the transient noise of an ephemeral pop star coming from a backing-track, then we are lost.
As far as Lyndon Terracini’s appointment to Opera Australia goes I welcome him warmly. It is refreshing to have a colleague who understands opera and who is prepared to tackle some serious issues. Victorian Opera has a special and distinctive mission. Our size enables us to be fleet of foot whilst developing the art form through strong performances, artist and audience development especially in the fields of community outreach, commissioning new work here and abroad and our education program.
Thank you Marcus Westbury for your vigilance and for keeping us honest.
I would, however, like to take you on head-to-head on education. Our education program is opera education for its own sake. If it translates into attendances in the short, medium or long-term then that is a happy result but it is not a principal aim.
In other words, children learn science for its own sake not necessarily to become scientists. But education in this country is another story for another day.
As Published in the Age on 25 November 2009