Making Opera Great...

GO - YVOF Artistic Director Linda Thompson in San Francisco at the Opera America conference:

A conference can do wonders for inspiration and motivation - and, political action: I have found the discussions and insights invigorating, met wonderful, imaginative and driven people. I am re-inspired to find a platform to address the barriers to opera for Australian audiences, and also for many highly-skilled Australian artists. After a jam-packed day spent with General Directors, Marketing Directors, data collectors, organisational change agents, composers, librettists, singers, and conductors etc, I observed a common unspoken thread of a strong American arts-opera-orchestral identity - albeit mostly based in secure institutional (male) artistic leadership - which got me thinking, and researching...

To find: (only in Australia...??!) our government has relaxed Visa requirements for international arts-leadership appointments on the basis of:

“Demand for artistic directors — the arts leaders and human face of the companies — is forecast to grow...[and below, with my emphasis] local expertise is in short supply, an international candidate can introduce developed skills and different experiences and methodologies that assist the companies to advance the sustainability of their operation.”


Posted as a ‘win’ by the Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) body. (7men, 4women, for the record: #keepcallingoutgendercringe...) This raises many questions for me. I am curious to know what the people making these decisions - financially, artistically and philosophically - actually know about artistic activity and leadership beyond the AMPAG in Australia? Are Board members and artistic/music directors of those government/public service companies required to see a certain number of performances beyond those of their own and other flagship (AMPAG) companies to arrive at such statements above? Is it acceptable to government that each ‘sticks to their own’, and is anyone championing gender diversity in artistic appointments (not just in management)? Would those people making decisions about artistic leadership in Australia buy a ticket to a small company performance? Would they travel interstate to see something by an independent company? Does AMPAG as a body realise how easy and relatively inexpensive travel around the world has become, which allows for firsthand experience of global stands and trends to be accessed and used to inform Australian artistic practice? There are certainly more Australians than I who inform their artistic choices through international travel and experiences.

It is clear here, amongst 700 Americans working in, believing in, and championing opera, that the artistic leadership (which results in 'the product') is fundamental to a company’s character and identity. That the artistic product IS the company, and the company is American. And that Opera/Classical Music/Performing Arts in America is for and of its community - as well as being a part of the global community. Those parts are vitally individual, culturally identifiable, and, vitally, those specific cultural identities drive relevance and loyalty. Not to the art form, necessarily. Fundamentally; to the artists, the people and the humanity of their stories.

And yet, here are Australia’s federally funded, championed companies saying we need to (still...) look overseas for leaders. I don't see many non-American leaders in opera here. Our Australian organisations - whom we - as taxpayers and as colleagues, don’t begrudge funding - but increasingly, practising, established, skilled, internationally-experienced artistic professionals who are under-employed cannot help but question our government, board and managements’ myopia. Enough of the cultural cringe - we need to claim our expertise, skill and unique perspectives, and celebrate the artistic product that defines us, as Australians. And shake off the ‘overseas’ is better once and for all. It is not better, actually. It is about identity and authenticity - and filling positions of artistic leadership in our AMPAG with overseas identities is not going to help bridge a gap or break down barriers to attendance: quite the opposite - it adds to the perception of art as being for some, not many.

And then, there is the gender issue - as much of a cringe as the culture one. That 'creative' Australia on the whole still - in 2019 - feels the need to have so many men to steer the ships - as well as essentially legislate to look overseas for our artistic leadership and identity - is bewildering. To say the least.

Here at the Opera America conference, even in 2019, male-dominated/led panels are striking in their imbalance, and ‘air-time’. I am also struck by the very very few female or minority...(or non-American) artistic leaders.

Australian artistic leaders do have the expertise, tools, insight and imagination to lead the way not only artistically, but also politically: in tackling both the gender-minority and ‘everything foreign is better’ mentality. Seems to me, we are lacking a platform - and ministerial advocacy - for broader thinking and conversation beyond our AMPAG companies. We’re not going to stop seeing things of significant value fold - such as the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts swallowed up by a giant street party (without a whimper?) - until we value and elevate - take a risk - on new and/or different Australians in artistic leadership. What is the point of continuing to champion our talented youngsters, if the ceiling lands on their heads mid-career?

It is clear that the lure of the international artistic input holds close the cultural cringe, reinforces the opera/ballet/orchestra/theatre 'for them, not for us' stereotype - and retains a barrier to new audiences. An international arts leader is not a drawcard for the vast majority of people who are not 'in the know'. It is our own identity and authenticity that our 'high' art sets out to mirror, shape, discover, reinforce - and our unique Australian artistic vision needs opportunity to broaden, not be closed in by the old-fashioned lure of the 'international' on the basis of something we are accused of lacking right here. Guest conductors, stage directors, singers, dancers, actors etc.., collaborations, co-productions - by all means. But not artistic leadership/direction. That, as Australians in all our diversity, is surely ours to claim.

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