In 1956 the curtain went up on four Mozart operas for the very first season of the Australian Opera Company (as the company was then known), touring to Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne, Hobart and Sydney. The Mozart season attracted a huge popular audience that responded warmly to an Australian-made company. From this successful first season grew the reality of a truly national opera organisation, made up of a permanent ensemble of Australian artists bringing outstanding performances to as broad an audience as possible.
Opera Australia is Australia's national opera company. It hires the Opera Theatre at the Sydney Opera House and the State Theatre at the Arts Centre in Melbourne for its performances. Day-to-day operations take place at the Opera Centre in Sydney's Surry Hills. The Opera Centre is home to the administration, set and costume manufacturing, storage and rehearsal studios.
The Sydney Opera House is the property of the NSW State Government, administered by the Sydney Opera House Trust. The Victorian Arts Centre Trust is a statutory authority of the Victorian State Government in the Arts Portfolio, Arts Victoria.
Opera Australia is funded through a mixture of private and public funds. Most of the Company's income is earned. Government grants account for around 30% of its income with the remainder coming from ticket sales, donations and corporate sponsors.
Opera Australia performs 11 months a year, from January to March in Sydney (Summer season), March to May in Melbourne (Autumn Season), from June to November in Sydney (Winter Season), and November and December in Melbourne (Spring Season).
Oz Opera, Opera Australia's touring arm, presents a fully-staged tour each year, going to a wide range of regional centres. Oz Opera also presents two schools productions each year, which visit primary schools across NSW and Victoria.
Opera Australia is a non-profit company limited by guarantee. It has an elected Board of Directors, chaired by Ziggy Switkowski. Chief Executive, Adrian Collette, heads the senior management team. This team is responsible directly to the Board.
Opera Australia is an ensemble company; it permanently engages a group of principals, chorus, and orchestra members. As well as the group of permanently engaged principals, the opera company draws from a pool of Australian-based guest artists and also uses a small number of international guest artists.
Many international opera companies, particularly companies in the United States, are stagione companies, which engage both principal artists and chorus members for individual operas. Their format is to present single operas consecutively: they may present eight to ten performances of a particular opera, and then ten days later begin performances of another opera.
Opera Australia presents a series of operas in repertory; i.e. on alternate nights. The international companies with performance models closest to our own are the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the English National Opera and the Welsh National Opera which also maintain permanent artistic ensembles.
The biggest difference between an operatic voice and the kind of voice you hear in most contemporary music is that in opera the voice is unamplified. The sound you hear in an opera theatre comes to you direct, not via a loudspeaker or p.a. system.
Opera singers train for many years to make their voices resonant enough to be heard over an orchestra, and to reach the back seats of a two thousand-seat theatre. They also train to be able to meet the demands of the repertoire, ranging from simple ballads to highly ornate displays of virtuosity.
Opera Australia employs a total of about 1300 people each year – around 360 permanent and seasonal staff and up to 1000 or more on a casual basis.
As well as providing employment for permanent principals, chorus and orchestra members, and locally-based and overseas guest artists, there is also a permanent artistic administration staff which manages casting, planning, scheduling and artistic liaison.
Opera Australia also employs a significant artistic support staff. The music staff includes the repetiteurs (voice coaches and pianists for rehearsals), language coaches and the people who schedule the entire performance year.
Production support includes the resident directors, who work as assistant directors when the productions are new. They then have the responsibility of reviving and maintaining these productions in subsequent years. There are librarians who cope with the enormous year-round requirements for orchestral music, scores and libretti.
There are set building and wardrobe staff who build and maintain the production, and specialist milliners and wig-makers, along with the backstage staff who physically get the opera on stage each night. There are box office and marketing staff, special event and development staff (responsible for fundraising from the private sector) communications and public relations, program production, financial planning and accounting staff, all dedicated to maintaining the smooth operation of Australia's national opera company.
There are regular guided tours of the Opera Centre in Surry Hills, where our team of milliners, wig makers, cobblers, costumiers, designers, carpenters, model makers, scenic artists, choreographers, repertoire and language coaches, stage hands, stage managers, directors, musicians and conductors, not to mention singers, prepare the works you see at the Sydney Opera House or the Arts Centre.
The choice of operas and who will perform them is the responsibility of the Chief Executive and the Artistic Director but this is balanced within the disciplines of budget demands, artistic schedules and marketing needs, and in this context, the final responsibility lies with the Chief Executive. There are many factors which must be taken into account. Funds are available for four new productions per year and with clever management these funds can be stretched to five or even six. We can achieve this by embarking on a co-production with a state company, or by selecting an opera which has comparatively minimal set and costume requirements, with vastly lower production costs than a standard repertory work.
We try to maintain a diverse repertoire which spans pre-Baroque operas to twentieth and twenty-first century compositions (with an emphasis on new Australian works). Normally in each year, we would present a new production of one of the popular operas such as La bohème, Carmen, La traviata, Il trovatore or Aida. Sometimes this will be an opera that is not presently part of our repertoire; sometimes it will be a re-examination or a new production of an opera which may be visually out-dated, or simply falling to pieces.
Every third year we hope to do a new Australian piece. The rest of the new productions are carefully balanced to extend in each year the experience of both our artists and our audience.
If, for instance, the major new popular piece for a season is an Italian opera, then we would probably not add another Italian piece. If it were French, we may add a Rossini or a Donizetti or an early Verdi or something that would not quite fit into the absolutely popular category. Finally, the revivals are balanced again around the total season. We try to achieve a balance of national styles so that our repertoire includes, Italian, German, French, English, American, Russian and Slavic opera. We also try to find a balance in terms of the centuries of composition. If possible, there should be something from the eighteenth century. There are usually a number of operas from the nineteenth century and some works, Australian, American or European, from the twentieth or twenty-first centuries.
It is important to try to find a balance between comedy and tragedy – to avoid having corpses on the stage at the end of every opera. This affects the balance of the use of the artists. To some extent, an opera company's singers can divide into two groups. There are the dramatic voices who sing Wagner and Puccini and Verdi - the heavy end of the repertoire - and then there are the ensemble singers who will sing Mozart and Rossini and perform in operetta, as well as taking smaller roles in other pieces. While there is a certain amount of cross-over between those two groups, which is artistically very stimulating, it would be wrong to have a repertoire that had four or five very heavy dramatic pieces and did not use the other performers, and equally wrong to have an abundance of light comic pieces.
Anyone and everyone!
The statistics tell us that approximately 50% of our audiences are in the 36-55 age bracket, 20% are 35 or under and 30% are 56 years or over.
However, on any given night at the opera there will be people ranging from young to old, dressed up, dressed down, from the city and from overseas.
Opera Australia begins preparation for its future seasons about three to four years in advance. This process involves casting, production costs, touring plans and anticipated income to ensure that each year will be viable both artistically and financially.
Work on a new production begins many months before it is due to open; the design and production team may commence more than two years before the opening night, while soloists learning a part will take a similar lead-up time. Singers, while rehearsing and performing one or more works, will be receiving individual coaching and tuition in a new role months before the main rehearsal period.
The formal rehearsal period for a new production of average size is generally five to six weeks. The first week is concentrated on music calls, and the remaining time production calls, starting with piano accompaniment, and then orchestra, and on to the final dress rehearsal which is usually held two or three days prior to opening night.
The cost varies greatly depending on the nature of the production and the number of sets changes it requires. Obviously, an opera needing just one set with minimal chorus numbers will cost far less to build and costume than an opera which requires three sets and three or more changes of costume for principals and chorus. The difference in cost between mounting a production of Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring with its modest requirements and the elaborate needs of Wagner's The Mastersingers of Nuremberg can be over $750,000.
Additionally, the length of a work will affect its actual performance costs. Meistersingers, which is over six hours in duration, involved two full calls for orchestra and technical crew for each performance, as well as requiring twice the number of people than an average size production of a popular Verdi work.
In general terms, the average new opera production will cost between $400,000 and $500,000 to stage and the costs are amortised over the expected life of the production. The "life" of a production varies according to its relative popularity, with more popular productions remaining longer in the company's repertoire.
Opera Australia is a repertory company and it creates an opera production capable of being revived over a life-span of ten to twenty years.
In between revivals, the costumes are stored at the Opera Centre in Surry Hills, while sets and props are kept in storage in Alexandria. Sixty productions are held in current repertoire by Opera Australia. Complete productions can be hired out to the Australian state-based opera companies, or to overseas companies. When a production is finally judged to be ready to be replaced, it can be sold to another company or its component parts can be used for new productions. What may have been a glittering ball-gown some 15 years ago may become beggar's rags for a new production.