October 2008

Essays

Gideon Haigh

La travesty

Opera Australia’s troubles

At Opera Australia, they call him God. Bruce Martin need only say hello and you know why: his massive bass-baritone voice almost seems equipped with its own echo. Martin's latest role will reverberate, too. Its audience is his old employer. "Everybody thinks public money is being spent with the best interests of the public in mind," he says sonorously. "They don't expect all this money, and this organisation, to be used for the personal benefit of a few people." 

When Martin retired in January, after a 45-year career, it was with all passion spent. The voice of Wagner's Hans Sachs and Wotan was as rich as ever, but so tinged with bitterness that he declined a formal farewell. He would not be speaking now, save for the public airing of complaints by the mezzo-soprano Fiona Janes that the country's biggest and most heavily subsidised arts company is sliding into "an abyss of mediocrity" under its English music director, Richard Hickox - complaints OA dismissed, portraying Janes as a lone diva disgruntled by a lack of work. Martin says otherwise: that OA's culture is in crisis. "It's a culture desperate for everyone to say how well everyone is doing. That desperation is forcing people to cut ethical corners ... The board are not interested in what she has to say. They simply want her to be quiet. What's happened with Fiona is an affront to the Australian idea of a fair go."

Sitting a little uneasily in his office at OA's sprawling, lived-in headquarters in Elizabeth Street, in Sydney's Surry Hills, CEO Adrian Collette says he's used to disagreement. "It's a terrible, subjective world," he says mildly, citing a recent day when David Malouf, a board member, rang to recount why the previous night's performance of Don Giovanni was the worst opera experience of his life; then how Jim Sharman rang soon after to say it was the most relevant theatre in town. A personable, experienced executive, himself a former chorister, Collete has survived earlier storms, including the defenestration of maestra Simone Young, which was the stuff of unwanted front pages six years ago. "Everything is open to debate," he now insists. That claim is about to be tested.


The ACCC chairman, Graeme Samuel, commented recently that anyone thinking corporate politics tough should try opera politics. He ought to know. It was Samuel who, as chairman of the Australian Opera, 12 years ago engineered the company's merger with the penurious Victorian State Opera, begetting Opera Australia. He remains widely unforgiven: the perceived inferiority of OA's Melbourne productions, in cast and staging, is an abiding southern fixation. More importantly, the merger yoked OA to a debt of operatic proportions: a decade ago, its bottom line showed a $6.5-million deficiency. For the same reason that many deem opera the greatest of art forms - combining the disciplines of music, singing, conducting, acting and stagecraft - it will always be among the most expensive; and that, in Australia, means government-dependent. OA is actually less dependent than most foreign opera companies, generating more than two-thirds of its own revenue. But that grant - last year, $22 million - exists to compensate for a general lack of corporate or private philanthropy here. "Donating to opera is not a feel-good thing in Australia," observes the former OA marketing manager Sonja Chalmers.

OA is also unusual among international companies in being its country's only source of full-time employment for opera singers. While the state companies offer only casual engagements, OA provides about 70 full-time positions: 20 principals, 50 choristers. Others take their chances; foreign guest artists, of course, are a local's opportunity forgone, traditionally justified on grounds that superior visitors lift the overall standard of performances. For veterans like Bruce Martin, this has unpleasant associations.

When I started, music in Australia was run by the ABC, who held "Celebrity Concerts" for which they imported everyone: as a local singer, you were automatically locked out. They even had two fee scales, and the lowest rung for imports was still higher than the highest for locals regardless of their standards. Were these the greatest artists? Well, some were good, but mainly they were has-beens and would-bes whose only distinction was coming from "over there" - that mythical place where everything is so much better.

Since a fabled, foreigner-full 1973 production of Tannhäuser, there have been restrictions on the number of principals the flagship opera company may import. Under the Foreign Artists Agreement of the early '90s, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance consented to ten a year.

For many, the last vestiges of cultural cringe vanished with the rise of Sydney-born Simone Young: a world-class interpreter, in particular, of the German Romantic repertoire. OA's decision not to renew Young's contract - her uncompromising perfectionism was said to be unaffordable - did her little harm: she has flourished in Germany, where the hard-to-please English critic Norman Lebrecht saw her recently. "Simone Young today is a far more convincing and effervescent conductor than she ever was in Sydney," he reports. "What this indicates is that she had no freedom of artistic planning and very little joy in the job she undertook, for the best national motives, at Opera Australia. Not for the first time, Sydney's loss is Europe's gain." But it left an anxiety at OA to demonstrate that excellence did not hinge on Young alone: its chair at the time, Rowena Danziger, promised that Young's successor would be of "similar character". Enter Richard Hickox.

The 60-year-old Hickox is what Lebrecht calls "a good middle-order English conductor" who came to opera late after making his name in choral and orchestral music: he had not, for instance, conducted Carmen before starting at OA. Says a former English music administrator who has worked with Hickox: "He's very competent, very professional, a fantastically shallow interpreter of music, and I was totally mystified as to why he got the [OA] job." His reputation is also that of the career-building international conductor par excellence, filling his conducting diary with an eye on his resume. How do Young and Hickox compare? "Young was an enfant terrible and a political neophyte who was done like a dinner," explains a music-industry executive. "Hickox plays the game brilliantly."

One conductor, interviewed for the music director's job five years ago, explained this genus to OA's board. David Stanhope, a répétiteur with Young in the 1980s, had conducted 150 OA performances and become a successful composer: he wrote the fireworks music and arranged the anthem for the Sydney Olympics. He wanted to remain in Australia. "I'm not an operator, which you have to be," says the unassuming Stanhope. "I don't have the gall. So my pitch was that I would be resident, and constantly available. I told them that they should be wary of appointing an international conductor who was building his career. Those kinds of conductors are interested always in the next thing they might be doing, getting to know the people who might help them."

Hickox has proven expectedly peripatetic. He is conducting only 16% of OA's main stage performances this year and next. In the meantime, Stanhope has not conducted at OA since Hickox's arrival. Stanhope's letter to Hickox seeking an explanation went unanswered; OA's head of music, Stephen Mould, finally advised that Stanhope could expect no engagements "in the foreseeable future". Is Stanhope disgruntled? "Of course," he laughs. "I'm on the shelf. And people have said that Richard wouldn't have me because I'm a threat to him. Actually, I don't think that; in fact, I think he's a good conductor. But I've begun to wonder if the reason I'm not conducting is because there's nothing in it for Richard." And Stanhope's is just one of a host of mysterious disappearances from OA during Hickox's reign.


Hickox's appointment extricated OA from a tight spot. Says Melbourne Opera's founding director, Greg Hocking: "Simone's leaving was such an international scandal that they were lucky to get anyone." Over time, reservations have developed. For all his surface charm, Hickox prefers the company of guest-artist friends Cheryl Barker and Peter Coleman-Wright, godparents of his children, and under pressure is apt to carp about the general rubbishness of things Australian. Professionally, his practice of arriving, simultaneously rehearsing two operas, conducting a handful of performances and then jetting off seems to leave him perennially overstretched and overtired. OA insists that Hickox collaborates in casting with Collette and the executive producer, Stuart Maunder, but nobody doubts the Englishman's is the loudest voice - and that's a problem. "He's the person in Australia who decides whether you have a serious singing career in Australia," says one who has worked with Hickox. "If he falls asleep in Act II or leaves early because he's jet-lagged, there goes your big chance."

Above all, the company's direction has been quietly shifting. As OA's artistic director from 1984 to 1999, Moffatt Oxenbould attracted his share of critics, but his philosophy was unambiguous: he considered the available Australian voices and programmed accordingly. The mezzo-soprano Kirsti Harms says, "Our generation of singers flourished because Moffatt felt a moral obligation to cast Australian singers and chose operas that showed them to advantage." The emphasis now falls on programming. Operas are selected primarily for box-office appeal; vocal gaps are then plugged. The evolution of OA subscription brochures repays study. In Young's first year, she loomed large on the cover, and each principal singer was given a head shot within; since Hickox's arrival, the cover has been a bland abstract, the operas are represented by production stills and the artists are reduced to tiny names. OA's slogan is now "Life Amplified" - incongruous, given that opera exists to celebrate the unenhanced human voice. But the thrust is clear. Just as Cameron Mackintosh stripped West End billboards of performers' names because "the show is the star", OA is selling not so much opera tout court as an opera experience. Its current chairman, Gordon Fell, explains simply: "Our market research indicates that singers don't sell opera - only a few household names."

Opera's fixed costs are high, its variable costs are few, and of these only payments to artists are significant. It would be economically rational to exploit OA's monopoly on full-time singing employment to drive performance fees down, using cheaper, younger artists; this you could euphemise as supporting new talent. OA denies it is doing so, although Collette does admit to having placed a cap on fees; he also admits to mistakes in casting inadequate foreign artists. Others insist that there has been significant downward pressure on terms and conditions under Hickox, and that the artistic administrator, Ian McCahon, acts as "a one-man razor gang". And little opera knowledge is needed to enjoy the quirkiness of a Cavalleria Rusticana programmed next year in which the Turridu will be more than 20 years older than his mother.

To be fair, Hickox is part of trends rather than shaping them. Opera purists complain often of the contemporary overemphasis on looks relative to sound, that the busty soprano with the power voice trades at a discount to the comely but limited lyric mezzo even if the latter is ‘overparted' (singing a role beyond her). It's also true that Hickox has enjoyed critical favour here, chiefly for operas familiar to him. Where he has been extending his repertoire, however, odd things have a habit of happening.

Late last year, for example, Hickox was preparing an ill-starred season of Tannhäuser, his first Wagner opera. First the male tenor, the Australian Glenn Winslade - suffering the long-term effects of an injury sustained when his costume caught fire during a Rienzi in Vienna - was succeeded by Hickox's English friend Richard Berkeley-Steele. Then Bernadette Cullen, easily the cast's most distinguished Wagnerian, was replaced at the last moment by the Serbian soprano Milijana Nikolic, 15 years her junior. A vague rumour circulated that Cullen had experienced what is known as a ‘loss of facility'; others say that a prickly Hickox had steadily undermined her in rehearsal. Whatever transpired, Cullen and OA confidentially settled a wrongful-dismissal suit. But the dispute ramified: Cullen is the partner of Fiona Janes.

Janes is an improbable dissident. Her first job was as a teenage secretary at the Australian Opera typing subtitles and contracts; having taken singing lessons secretly, she went initially unnoticed in the Shell Aria, a competition for young singers. "Who's the next contestant, Fiona?" asked the judge Joan Carden, seeing her. "Er, I am," said Janes shyly. Winning the state final, she was awarded a young-artist scholarship. "I love OA," she says. "It's done a lot for me. And I care about it." Does OA return the care? Since Hickox's arrival, work for a highly successful singer has dwindled inexplicably.

While rehearsing the role of Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni in October last year, she sought an explanation. Through her manager, she was informed that Hickox had "nothing to say" and that to meet would be "embarrassing" - to whom was unspecified. She emailed Collette to complain: in 20 years at OA, she had always been able to obtain a meeting with the music director. An audience was granted. Roles were discussed. Two a year? Verdi or Wagner? But no work followed. Then it was announced that Hickox's contract, on the board's fiat and apparently without any intracompany consultation, had been extended until 2012.

A challenge facing disgruntled singers is that they are perceived as just that - highly strung, artistic temperaments or, as Bruce Martin jokes, "people with resonating chambers for brains". One effect of Australian opera's semi-professionalism, though, has been generally more rounded singers: Kirsti Harms is a lawyer; soprano Elizabeth Whitehouse worked at the UN; tenors Anson Austin and Michael Saunders are engineers, Graeme Macfarlane an accountant, John Pringle a chemist. These are intelligent, capable people: it is only the media's habit of reducing stories to clichés that turns every opera dispute into - yes - an opera, featuring histrionic divas, pampered egos and high-Cs. Rather than throw a tantrum, Janes carefully combed OA's programs for the past decade and found that she wasn't the only singer missing out. In 2001, OA's season featured 24 over-40 female principal singers; in 2004, the last year before Hickox, there were 18; in 2008, there are six. Increasingly dismayed, she emailed Hickox one last time, on 13 March, asking which roles he anticipated her singing. After four weeks came a carefully worded reply: as casting involved a "huge number of issues", "many complicated factors" and a "large team of people", he really couldn't be sure. It wasn't so much the gist of Hickox's message that irked Janes; it was what she took to be the condescending waffle.

Four days later, Janes posted each OA director a copy of a 3700-word letter. It was clear, she said, that older singers with "big voices" were doomed at OA; Hickox preferred younger, cheaper, more decorative performers, plus certain British friends: "I believe the careers of some of our finest singers are being sabotaged because of this man's desire to boost the careers of his overseas mates, his ageist, sexist agendas and his desire to have cheap, pretty young men and women grace the operatic stage even if they are not vocally right for the roles." The most sensitive allegations concerned Hickox's wife, Pamela Stephen, a mezzo then debuting as Carmen in Melbourne after appearances in OA's Tales of Hoffman and Julius Caesar. Others had already wondered whether a music director's wife should not be like Caesar's: above suspicion. Hickox describes his wife as "an immensely talented singer with an international reputation".  Stephen, says Dr Andrew Byrne, a Sydney clinician who writes a well-informed opera blog, has a "pleasant but relatively small voice", is "a very long way from being a top international artist", and "if she had played Carmen in Sydney, there would have been an outcry." Whatever the case, as Norman Lebrecht observes, "There is ... always a problem when a music director gives his wife plum roles, especially when she is not getting those roles as of right elsewhere."

Janes' letter was not discussed by the board until its meeting on 22 May, when the matter devolved to a sub-committee of Fell, Danziger and Tim McFarlane, of the Really Useful Group (the entertainment company established by Andrew Lloyd Webber). This was also the day of the annual meeting in Surry Hills' Joan Sutherland Rehearsal Room, where Collette, in response to a question about the absence of familiar names in the program, replied airily that they were either "retired, unavailable or older". The remark annoyed several listeners - one in particular.

Diana Heath, of Darling Point, is not just another operagoer. She has a lifetime's involvement with the company and its antecedents. She was the founding member of its friends council, 36 years ago, and has been a generous benefactor: she commissioned decorative music stands that are still used by the orchestra, for example, and paid for La Stupenda's nightly bouquets during her 1990 farewell season of Les Huguenots. Impressed initially with Hickox, she had steadily lost faith - unknowingly, for many of the same reasons as Janes. After Cullen's last-minute replacement in Tannhäuser, she was furious: "I ripped up my very expensive tickets and threw them in the bin." The climax in a catalogue of disappointments was Carmen: under Hickox's baton, the orchestra was muffled, the singing poor, and the obligatory horses and donkeys smacked of deliberate distraction, while the artists who had made OA seemed to have vanished. She left at interval to compose a letter to Gordon Fell:

It is my belief that artistic/musical standards within the Opera Company are being compromised and the Company is languishing in a second-rate milieu ... Young singers are being thrust into roles they are not ready for. I do not blame them for chancing their voices in a full performance, I believe the musical director should be more careful when casting and not ask young singers to strain the voices we will need in the future. The young learn when older, tried and true artists are part of the ensemble and show the skills they have honed over many years. I do not believe that Mr Hickox's wife should take on roles which she is not equipped to perform adequately. Nepotism is not good, particularly when it comes at the expense of other better qualified performers.

At the time of the annual meeting, she had been waiting a fortnight for a reply. Fell is a busy man; rich, too, although some investors in his Rubicon Asset Management, whose listed investment trusts recently revealed combined losses of $545 million, aren't as rich as they were. She eventually waited ten weeks, and by that time even an audience with Collette was insufficient to propitiate her: she resigned as a patron. In fact, she left OA's headquarters so annoyed that she could not "go home and be domestic", and instead visited a fashion-designer friend. When she told him where she had been, he rolled his eyes: "Opera Australia? I can't tell you how terrible they are." Fiona Janes was about to learn how widely this view was held.


The board sub-committee - after taking advice from the lawyer James Pomeroy, of Gilbert & Tobin - decided to sidestep every matter subjectively disputable and ask Opera Australia's HR manager, Vernon Winley, for an "empirical" evaluation of Janes' letter. This took a while. Not until 12 August was Janes invited to Fell's Edgecliff offices - at 3.30 pm the next day. She actually had work scheduled; the meeting was deferred a week. In preparation, Janes circulated an email among 20 performers, retired performers, patrons and subscribers: she was meeting the board; did anyone else have matters to raise?

As her invitation fanned out, scores of letters and many more emails came from everywhere: singers, musicians, conductors, composers, opera lovers, Opera House staff. From one veteran subscriber: "The new subscription brochure ... talks about ‘the future of opera' and ‘the next generation'. What happened to the present generation?" From a top vocal coach: "The operatic craft is a gift passed down from artist to artist. This tradition is currently lacking in the company's structure and it is conspicuous on stage at almost every performance." From one of Australian opera's greatest names: "Greetings to you and you are a brave girl." One recipient was particularly important - the anonymous one who forwarded Janes' solicitation to Bryce Hallett, a conscientious arts writer for the Sydney Morning Herald. OA has since deplored Jane's "going public"; in fact, somebody went public for her.

Janes' two-hour meeting with Fell, Danziger and McFarlane proceeded cordially enough. OA tabled figures compiled by Winley that they claimed refuted her contentions. Imported singers under Hickox had undertaken just 3.9% of principal performances, they said - somewhat disingenuously, given that this was simply an observance of the Foreign Artists Agreement, and that Pamela Stephen (because of her husband's visa) and Miljiana Nickolic (the partner of local boy Rosario La Spina) count as Australians. Janes tabled her sheaf of letters - 27 signed, 11 unsigned - to which the sub-committee promised to respond with a "forensic examination".

The media's brief interest soon waned. Because the Sydney Morning Herald had deemed the story worthy, the Australian deemed it not. "Wake me when it's over," yawned its arts-editor emeritus, Deborah Jones. When a 23 August letter signed by six singers appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald praising Hickox as "one of the most successful conductors in the world", nobody questioned its enigmatic provenance. Asked if OA personnel were its instigators, Collette said first: "Absolutely not." Then: "I can't know it to be absolutely certain ..." Finally, asked if he had spoken to any of the artists concerned: "I'm in contact with artists all the time ... There isn't a day I'm not. Some of them were artists in that letter. And ... but ... we would not do that ... It would be against our principles to lobby artists to say anything." Yet it is believed that Hickox solicited a signature from Emma Matthews and Coleman-Wright from La Spina.

The fuss also flushed out key allies. Diana Heath made contact, then Kirsti Harms. Simone Young cast Harms as OA's last Madama Butterfly, to critical acclaim; her image is used in OA's promotion of the forthcoming revival. But, partly because she has been competing for roles with Pamela Stephen, Harms had just received her first offer in four years - covering Stephen in next year's Werther. The hell with it: she wrote to board members, supporting Janes, accusing Hickox of wasting the public money invested in the training of Australian singers. "The liquidation of some of the company's best assets is almost complete. How can there be a return on investment when the investment no longer exists?" Finally, Janes learned via email that she had God on her side.


One of Hickox's credentials as music director is his recording contract with the English classical label Chandos, founded by Brian Couzens and now run by his son Ralph. It recorded Hickox's most successful OA outing, Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges, in early 2005, starring, in powerful voice, Bruce Martin. Except that when the CD was released, Martin wasn't in as powerful voice as he remembered - which vexed him. "A few hundredths of a second puts Usain Bolt yards in front," he says. "A few decibels to a singer puts them in front in the auditorium, over the top of the orchestra. Decibels: they're my speciality." For all its success, much about the production behind the scenes was unusual. It was as though Hickox was more concerned with his live recording than performances, and Martin felt sonic interference was all too plausible. His complaints were dismissed.

In early 2007, Martin arrived to rehearse the role of Vodnik in Dvorak's Rusalka typically prepared - that is, exhaustively. He had listened incessantly to recordings; he had researched the Czech myths it traversed; he had memorised the entire score; he had paid for a word-by-word translation of the Czech libretto, and memorised that, too. When Martin quotes OA's commitment to "interpret with integrity the indivisible musical and dramatic elements of operas", he means it. During rehearsals he began wondering about the commitment of others. The production, acquired from England's Opera North, had originally been in English; now it was for some reason in Czech, the English producer was all at sea with the language, while Hickox was easily flustered, deprecating detail. Seemingly tiny matters became huge differences. At one point, rehearsal ground to a halt over a line of Vodnik's: "Neni mozna! Povidej!" ("It's not possible! Explain yourself!") Hickox was intent on conducting it as one sentence; Martin observed that the two sentences needed a split-second separation. "Bruce is an incredibly honest and hard-working performer," says one witness. "You don't give him directions; he knows the score better than anyone." Hickox was barely dissuaded from replacing Martin with his cover, Jud Arthur.

Because of the Love recording, Martin was suspicious. He invited musical friends to the shows to check that he was coming through with his usual clarity; they confirmed it. But that posed a problem for Chandos. Hickox was again obsessed with the live recording: he wanted singers to minimise their moving round, and to perform in socks if their shoes squeaked. And, anxious to pump up the sound of the thinly voiced Wood Nymphs and the disappointing imported mezzo playing Jezibaba, he also wanted Martin, whom the recording equipment was picking up as slightly sharp at his loudest, to be quieter. Martin's suspicions were further aroused during the playback session: just as his voice was climaxing, he heard Hickox hiss to Ralph Couzens, "Not so much."

Then, at a ‘patch session' held, inconveniently, the morning after the last performance, Martin was told that, while there was nothing wrong with his performance, he had nonetheless to sing the difficult climax to his main scene over and over again while the other voices were adjusted round him. To general embarrassment, Hickox was even heard making jokes about Martin's partial deafness - a legacy of Martin's national service, and too much time unprotected around machine guns, and actually an additional reason for the esteem in which the singer is held.

Hickox promised by email that he would "safeguard your interests when it comes to editing the final CD". But when Martin received the first edit, in October last year, he heard himself being drowned out by the chorus, and Jezibaba and the Wood Nymphs bursting out of the speakers. Martin's hearing problems are with speech, not music, but he metered the sound difference in his home studio to make sure; he also forwarded the recording to a musicologist, Professor Michael Brimer, who advised that Martin's voice had been  "manipulated beyond recognition".

It was no good. Martin's complaint to Chandos was dismissed: change, it replied, was "not possible"; Hickox and OA were "happy". And that was it: Martin was through. Collette might submit that OA is "open for debate", but that is not the sense of Martin's retirement letter:

After all these years I know how the "system" works, I know how organisations defend themselves, I know all about the subtle and not so subtle pressures used to get people to "fall into line", and I know how easy it is for someone to be marginalised and isolated by derogatory comments behind their back without them even knowing how or why. I have no illusions as to what I'm facing here.

What Martin couldn't understand was why nobody seemed to be able to hear the difference in sound. He emailed Collette: "The manipulation is so obvious that children can hear it, Adrian, even if your music staff can't." In fact, Collette did hear the difference, when the Chandos recording and the ABC live broadcast were played for him. But faced with either backing Martin or Hickox, he seems to have chosen the latter. Desperate to smooth things over, he stalled. Admitting that he was "at a loss" about the recording, Collette wrote to Martin on 30 October mooting a farewell to "celebrate one of the most important careers in Australia", adding, "I will write to you separately about the Rusalka recording after I have had the chance to think things through." Martin felt further correspondence futile, and had no need of goodbyes. "Unlike the Terminator," he wrote, "I won't be back."

There was one odd postscript. Last thing on Friday, 7 December, Martin unexpectedly received an emollient email from Hickox in London, who was "so sorry to hear from Adrian how unhappy you have been" but bearing "very good news". Suddenly, "not possible" change was possible. Martin's being "backward in the sound picture" had all been due to being "quite far back on the stage"; Couzens would fix it. But by the time Martin had replied, first-thing Monday, Hickox was on holiday, the CD was ready for release and the recording was, it transpired, barely altered. Hearing it, Martin reiterated his retirement: in what was to have been his final role, Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor, he was replaced by Richard Anderson, aged 36. OA thought it had heard the last of Martin. With a long letter to Fell sent a week after Janes' August 2008 meeting, he proved them wrong.


OA now had detailed critiques from one of its greatest performers, one of its longest-standing patrons, two current stars and a host of signed and unsigned supporters. On the morning of 3 September, Janes received a friendly email from the board-appointed director Anson Austin, assuring her that all the letters she had tabled would be given "due consideration", there being "no intention or desire to cover up anything relating to this matter". That afternoon, at Really Useful's Double Bay offices, Danziger told Janes that OA would not investigate anonymous complaints. "You bring us singers as proof," she said. "Then they can put their claims individually." This would be difficult, Janes replied, when OA representatives were soliciting support for Hickox. The meeting wound up quickly, with Danziger promising to investigate further. But by the time Janes got home, OA had issued a press release expressing "unqualified support" for Hickox, insisting it had "categorically refuted" all claims, containing figures that didn't quite address the questions they purported to answer and foreshadowing internal "consultative forums" - OA having earlier consulted nobody before extending Hickox's contract. Hickox dismissed Janes in the Sydney Morning Herald as "motivated by self-interest".  The board, announced Melbourne's Age, had "won".

"Won"? So far, almost everyone has lost. But if Collette is wanting "debate", some honest answers to straight questions might yet salvage something. Where, for instance, does Opera Australia stand in relation to Australian opera? Assuming the company will always lack the resources to be genuinely international, why does its Mission contain no mention of its duties to Australian artists? Norman Lebrecht puts it simply: "What OA needs and deserves is a hands-on music director who can shape its future without being handcuffed by boardroom accountants and jumped-up local notables." Any other suggestions?

What, furthermore, is the effect of our national habit of providing the arts with just enough to get by? You needn't go so far as Rudolph Bing, who said that opera had no business making money, to conclude that at OA it has made budget outcomes paramount, encouraged the treatment of performers as interchangeable and discountable parts, and instilled a culture that indulges the overmighty foreigner who puts an international gloss on things.

Is it even possible to debate artistic standards in Australia? Who would lead such a discussion? Administrators obsessed with ‘empirical' data? The freebie-addled arts media? The endlessly expanding arts bureaucracy? For it is, above all, an unassuageable defensiveness about criticism, the sense that any commentary not simply celebrating or boosting the arts might endanger their delicate, state-supported equilibrium, that has at Opera Australia courted the suspicion of artists, the ire of patrons and, finally, the wrath of God.

Gideon Haigh

Cover: October 2008

October 2008

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