18 September, 2010

Twilight of the opera?

Melbourne Herald Sun, 18 September 2010

Stand at the back of the State Theatre during an Opera Australia performance and your eyes will be dazzled by a sea of white - the heads of the 2000 audience members. Any colour variations come from the frequent bald pates and the ladies' expensive hair dyes.

Quite obviously this audience has a use-by date and it's not that far away. Who will come to the opera, ballet or symphony orchestra when they are gone?

Roy Morgan Research keeps a constant watch on these "heritage arts" in their surveys, most recently in July. As always they found that the biggest group in the audience was aged over 50, and less than a third were under 35. Over the quarter-year, the arts drew an audience of half a million, as opposed to 9 million who went to the movies.

When your audience is so rigidly divided, how do you build a market? It's not like there is a lack of choice. Opera alone has its big Opera Australia, plus four active Melbourne companies. With four percent of the population attending, in fact we have a higher participation rate than the UK or US.

But that leaves 96 per cent who rarely go - or have never been at all. Can they be won over?

Oz Opera is a Melbourne-based touring company that takes opera to country towns and schools, demonstrating that there is nothing to be scared of and you might even enjoy yourself. Melbourne Opera and Victorian Opera also evangelise so there is no excuse for not peeking or being frightened off by the regal Arts Centre.

But there has not been much encouragement from our leaders. Both John Howard and Kevin Rudd thought "culture" was yogurt in the fridge, and both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott rarely raise their sights above the sporting field.

The arts community wistfully recall the days of Whitlam, Keating and our own Jeff Kennett who were always there to raise the curtain. But this week's events have cheered them up enormously.

The appointment of Simon Crean as Arts Minister was heartily welcomed. As Greg Hocking, artistic director of Melbourne Opera, happily pointed out, the new boss is a genuine fan. The portfolio also goes back into the PM's department, which will give it much more clout.

Mind you, the minister still has to earn his stripes. Richard Gill, the charismatic conductor who heads Victorian Opera, voiced their thoughts. "To paraphrase Sting - every move you make, the arts community will be watching you."

It has just been announced that Melbourne will get the equivalent of the opera Olympics in 2013 - Wagner's The Ring Cycle, a $15 million production played over four nights for a total of 15 hours. This always attracts excitement and brings an audience from around the world. But be warned that it's not recommended for newcomers to opera.

It will play just three performances, only in Melbourne - because we have one of the world's biggest stages to accommodate the epic.

While Opera Australia struggles to break even with government grants of $18 million, Greg Hocking's Melbourne Opera receives no subsidy at all, but still puts out three professional productions a year.

Right now he is conducting a double bill, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, at the Athenaeum. Tickets are as low as $25 each. "We don't have elaborate sets, we spend the money to make sure the singing is superb."

Hocking does not worry about the age factor, either. "All the years I have gone to performances, all over the world, the audience has always had grey hair. Opera is something you get to when you are older, it's something you grow into."

No comments: