National Opera Review: 6. Response to the Government by The Music Trust

The Final Report was published in October 2016. The government response has arrived in September 2017.


Doing the data

The Review produced 118 recommendations. The government has responded to each of them, one by one, with its position – viz it agrees, agrees in principle, or “notes”, which might mean “don’t expect anything from us”.


It also suggests the “pathways to action”. This is slightly more complicated. They are:


  • for discussion with relevant (state) cultural ministers;
  • for the companies’ or the company’s consideration;
  • for the company and state government’s consideration;
  • for consideration in a future Budget context;
  • for the Australia Council’s consideration;
  • for the Australia Council’s implementation;
  • implementation in progress;
  • implemented.

Many recommendations require consideration by companies or state ministers.


Is the government making any actual commitments?

But what we would love to know is: to what is it committing itself. Well, “agrees” sounds forthright. “Agrees in principle” sounds like it’s standing near an exit door. “Notes” sounds like it opened one eye, looked, and closed it again.


Let’s line up “agrees” with the pathways. The government agrees 68 times. 7 times implementation has been completed and 6 times it is in progress. So those sound like real commitments.


8 times, the responsibility for implementation lies with the Australia Council which, as a government authority, is bound to respond. Most of these recommendations are about changes to its own operations.


The government leaves to consideration by the opera companies 33 of the recommendations with which it agrees, so by and large it intends no action of its own. 14 of the recommendations with which it agrees it would have to discuss with its state government co-funders but presumably, it might instigate discussions.


All but two of the recommendations with which it agrees in principle will have to be discussed with the states. All the recommendations that it notes it essentially leaves to the companies and/or the states to act upon except the recommendations for increased funding to the sector, which it says would be considered “in a future budget context”. Presumably, that will happen only if someone proposes it. Would that be the Minister?


What recommendations are being implemented?

There are 13 in all. What do they cover? The companies should continue to meet financial and balance sheet requirements. The Victorian Opera will be categorized and funded as a major company. OA will not use core funding to tour mainstage productions anywhere except Melbourne. WA and SOSA have responsibility for mainstage productions in their cities. The Major Performing Arts Panel at the Australia Council will continue to have responsibility for managing Commonwealth funding to opera; its Chair will have increased status. Actions are underway for a financial rescue of Opera Queensland.


So more or less status quo except for the funding to the Victorian Opera. VO has received an initial allocation of $340,000. It’s a good company and that’s great news. The agreement between Commonwealth and the state governments (except SA) is for an 80/20 split in funding for these companies, with the states paying 80%. The Feds put up $453,000 for WA and $626,000 for Qld in 2014 – presumably more since then. So Victoria may see more funding in due course.


The situation with employment of Australian singers

The media made its splash about this issue in particular. From 2010 to 2016, there was a 24% decrease in the number of lead role performances at Opera Australia as it cut back its opera seasons. Over this same period it quadrupled the number of performances by imported singers and enabled this by halving the number of performances for principal Australian singers. The offender is almost entirely Opera Australia.


The Review took a dim view of this. It proposed that companies should meet detailed reporting requirements on the balance achieved between Australian and non-Australian artists and other matters regarding employment of Australian artists. The government agrees and requires implementation by the Australia Council. But there is no guarantee that being required to report bad practice will mean that it ceases. So the government also supports in principle the recommendation that if “an appropriate balance” is not achieved, a company could be liable for a penalty of up to $200,000. However, it will apparently not support implementation before achieving agreement with state cultural ministers.


The Review suggests: “A trigger for a conversation in relation to an appropriate balance in relation to the percent of performances by Australian singers in leading mainstage opera roles might be set at 80 percent.” In 2014, the OA figure was 60%.


Other matters

The government agrees, in principle agrees, or notes the recommendations stated in the final report of the Review. It does not add to them or invent anything else.


So there is not a lot for us to discuss that was not covered by the Music Trust’s responses to the Final Report, published in some detail in Loudmouth. In our view, the Review was substantial and had many good observations and achievements but fell down in some of the most important aspects concerning revitalization of the artform.


Details of the Music Trust assessment can be read here: http://musictrust.com.au/loudmouth/national-opera-review-propping-up-the-19c/ and here: http://musictrust.com.au/loudmouth/breaking-from-the-opera-review-breaking-from-history/


The Final Report of the Review can be read here: https://www.arts.gov.au/documents/national-opera-review-final-report


APPENDIX

Here are some of the recommendations with the government’s response, and our comments.


Artistic autonomy

Each Major Opera Company should be given the flexibility to define its own artistic and strategic direction within a prudent financial framework. The government agrees but wants discussion with (agreement from?) the state ministers. This seems fair enough but on the other hand, there is widespread criticism that all grantees except those receiving the largest grants, such as opera companies, receive an artistic evaluation upon which hinges their funding. Apparently that will not change.


Responsibility to deliver on commitments

A combination of recommendations says that funded activities will be clearly identified and that there will be a financial penalty if they are not delivered. If not delivered for three consecutive years, companies could lose their major company funding status.


Separate the funded and the commercial activities

Significant commercial activities should be ring-fenced and separately accounted for. Government agrees. Generally you can assume it wants agreement from state ministers. There is some doubt that OA was fully transparent in its accounting for administration costs in its very large commitment to commercial music theatre. This should avert that problem.


State companies

There is a set of recommendations intended to resolve Opera Queensland’s financial problems. The Commonwealth agrees and these are already being implemented.


Victorian Opera should be supported now to become a major performing arts company. This has been implemented with modest funding ($340,000).


Funding for additional major opera companies

In future, other opera companies that meet the criteria to become a major performing arts company should be supported for admission. The government agrees. It’s an interesting proposition given the funding needed to offer even modest existential support to such a company. Indeed, it will have had to have such funding in order to grow to the level that might recommend it as a major company. Where did that come from? But good that it will be in principle possible to admit new companies, provided that the necessary funds are not taken from the little guys.


OA touring

A set of recommendations concerning OA: no core funding to deliver mainstage performances in Brisbane, Adelaide or Perth. Continuing funding for the Melbourne season. Government agrees and the recommendations are implemented.


New arrangements for the Opera Conference

A set of recommendations for “Opera Conference”, which is a collaboration among these companies. Its objectives would be broadened and it would have a more independent existence with its own funding and non-voting Chair, the funding burden shared equally with the states. It would supervise an annual mainstage production to be shared among the companies. Government agrees, but there will be discussion with the state ministers.


Regional touring and outreach

Opera Australia should tour biennially to each state and territory, with funding direct instead of through the Opera Conference. The government agrees in principle; discuss with states. The OA touring company is very small and goes to small as well as large communities. Seems like a good thing for opera, the audience, and the performers who gain valuable experience as well as an income.


State companies should continue their community and outreach programs, with appropriate core funding. Government agrees in principle.


Required mainstage productions

Government core funding should be targeted to increase the overall number of mainstage productions. This would entail a minimum of three productions each from the state companies. [Queensland has been producing only one.] OA should be funded for 11 productions annually over two seasons in Sydney and 7 in Melbourne. Government agrees in principle.


Programming consultations

Each company should discuss with funding agencies the variety, balance and scale of repertoire choices before such decisions are finalized. Government notes and says this is for the companies’ consideration. What is the nature of these discussions? What are the implications?


Development of new works

Governments should support the development of new work, particularly through experimentation, workshops and smaller scale activities. The government agrees in principle but says this is for consideration in a future budget context. So lots of wriggle room there.


Innovation Fund

Governments should create an Innovation Fund which will include discrete competitive funding to encourage the development of new works to which the major companies can apply either on their own of in conjunctions with smaller companies. Government agrees in principle – future budget context. Sydney Chamber Opera just finished such a collaboration with the Victorian Opera which on the face of it worked well.


Governments should create an Opera Festival Fund within the broader Innovation Fund. This is not to create an opera festival but to support companies’ participation in existing festivals. Government agrees in principle, future budget. One interesting aspect mentioned in the Final Report is that this could position a company to tour the production to festivals internationally.


To promote a vibrant and innovative future for opera, Governments should establish, within the Innovation Fund, a specific competitive initiative based on using digital technology to enhance the artform, connect with audiences, enhance production design values and/or lower production costs. Government agrees in principle, future budget. But why do companies have to be lured into all those enhancements plus lower production costs? Why would they not have understood and acted upon these advantages? They are not using candles any more. Why not go the whole way and try electricity!


Employment for ensemble, chorus and orchestra

Ongoing employment opportunities for the ensemble, chorus and orchestra should be optimised within available funding, recognising the proposed increase in the number of productions. While it is highly desirable to provide stability of employment for artists, trade-offs between the needs of artists and financial stability need also to be managed. Government agrees but says it is for “companies’ consideration”. Sounds like “Don’t you worry about that”.


Young artists

Each of the Major Opera Companies should be encouraged to develop a remunerated Young Artist Program that is consistent with the programme of its activities and the skills of the young artist. That might include encouraging a beneficial relationship with conservatoria and academic institutions, as well as other young artist programmes. Government agrees - that this should be considered by companies. It is of course an excellent idea. “Encouragement” features strongly. Encouraged how?


Audience building

There is a set of recommendations that companies should seek larger audiences, including older audiences and yes! – younger audiences. Government agrees. Presumably, these are more or less redundant.


Music education

State Governments should reflect carefully on the need to strengthen and fund music education programmes in schools. The Commonwealth agrees. The noise of the careful reflection keeps us awake at night.


There is a set of recommendations concerning financial viability upon which we defer to the experts. Then another set on governance and management.


Funding

There is a long set of recommendation concerning government funding. Funding should be benchmarked to best practice and the funding model should be reviewed every five years. Government agrees in principle. There was a precise model which was marred by backsliding, especially by NSW, which already benefits disproportionately from the funding model. So: As outlined in Recommendation 5.3, the current overall core funding ratios between the Federal and the relevant State Governments should be maintained, recognising that the overall system for all major performing arts companies is not stable and is likely to need to be reviewed over time.


Based on the funding model, an increase should be made to the overall level of core funding for the Major Opera Companies. Government notes, future budget. You would expect some such recommendation from a review but given opera’s share of available funds, any increase will be criticised and if the increase is taken from funds now going to small organisations, there will be revolution. Fortunately, there is a later recommendation stating: New funding, rather than existing arts grants, should be used to implement the recommendations made by this Review.


Specific funding allocations are recommended. Most of these recommendations are “noted” for consideration in a future budget. Recommendations:


Opera Conference: $1.5m per year, indexed, half provided by the states.


Innovation Funding package: $1.2m. Of this $500,000 goes to each of the Festivals Fund and the fund to entice digital production activity. Only $200,000 goes to development of new operas, as recommended by the Review, an impractically small amount and a major failing.


Additional staff for the Major Performing Arts Panel to implement and oversee the other recommendations: $0.250m


Funding for Opera Queensland recovery.


In summary, it is proposed that Governments should consider an incremental funding request of $24.136 million over four years in 2015 dollars.


Panel members

The members of the Review panel were Dr Helen Nugent AO (chairman), company director, former Chair of the Major Performing Arts Board and Chair of the Major Performing Arts Inquiry of 1999 which set up the current funding structure, and Deputy Chair of Opera Australia; Kathryn Fagg, board director, Board of the Reserve Bank, business manager, Chair of Melbourne Recital Centre; Andrew McKinnon, independent commercial impresario; Moffatt Oxenbould AM, former Artistic Director, Opera Australia inter alia.

Articles in this series

National Opera Review: 1. Introduction and Discussion Paper

National Opera Review: 2. Submission by The Music Trust

National Opera Review: 3. Final Report of the Review Committee

National Opera Review: 4. Response to the Final Report

National Opera Review: 5. Response to the Final Report by the Government

National Opera Review: 6. Response to the Government by The Music Trust


Author

Richard Letts

DATE: April 7 2018

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