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Opera Australia is staging a new high-tech Brett Whiteley opera

Written by
Ben Neutze

According to Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini, the artform to which he's devoted his life is in “a massive crisis”.

“Any art form that isn’t creating work that a large number of people want to see has a serious problem,” he says.When there’s a new movie, everyone wants to see it. When there’s a new opera, no one wants to see it. We’ve got to deal with that somehow and find a solution, which isn’t an easy thing to do.”

Since he joined the company in 2009, Terracini has been working to ensure Opera Australia doesn't go the way of many major opera companies around the world who've had to make dramatic cuts to staff and programming as their audiences have dwindled. Others have closed up shop entirely.

He's done this through a variety of measures, that have sometimes been particularly controversial, including annual crowd-pleasing musicals like South Pacific, The King and I and Evita, and Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

He's mostly been pulling out opera's greatest hits for the past decade to ensure audience numbers stay healthy. Terracini says Opera Australia gets more of its revenue from ticket sales than any other major opera company in the world (the box office makes up more than 60 per cent of the company's annual income). But next year, he's stepping outside of the box with some slightly more adventurous fare.

Madama Butterfly
Photograph: Supplied

Whiteley and programming new work

Opera Australia has attracted plenty of criticism for not programming enough new work. In his time, Terracini has only commissioned a new opera for TV, The Divorce, and a new opera for children, The Rabbits. 

Whiteley, an opera about the popular Australian artist Brett Whiteley, will be the company's first new mainstage opera since Bliss in 2010. It's the first in a series of new commissions from the company, and Terracini says Whiteley is the perfect subject: “His life is an opera; it’s sex, drugs and rock 'n’ roll.”

The company is looking for new operas that won't just disappear after one season.

“Hopefully we’ll find a piece that will be able to be part of the repertoire like Carmen, Traviata and Boheme,” Terracini says. 

The opera will be composed by Elena Kats-Chernin – Terracini guarantees her tunes are hummable – with a libretto by Justin Fleming. It will bring Whiteley's artworks to life using the company's new digital projection technology.

Anna Bolena
Photograph: Supplied

The digital revolution

Opera Australia is continuing its digital revolution in 2019 with three new “digital productions”, using high quality LED screens in place of traditional sets. The company's first production using the technology, Aida, opened last month and, according to Terracini, will be the company's highest selling production of Aida ever, and anecdotally is attracting younger audiences than those who usually show up to the opera.

“Opera used to be really at the cutting edge of new technology and then for whatever reason it just got stuck and hasn’t developed since the 19th century really, Terracini says. The stuff we’re doing is really trying to push it out into a new world.

Opera Australia's digital 'Aida'
Photograph: Prudence Upton

Reaching new audiences

The company has also been working to reach a broader audience and has a focus on Australia's Asian population. Certain productions now come with simplified Chinese surtitles and the Chinese audience has doubled in the last few years.

“The ethnic demographic has changed dramatically, Terracini says. We need to see that in our audiences. If we don’t, then how can you justify receiving money from government when all these people are completely divorced by it?” 

Sydney 2019 mainstage season

La Bohème (Dec 31-Mar 28)
Conductor: Benjamin Northey, Director: Gale Edwards

OA has pulled this production out almost every year since its debut in 2011, because it’s absolutely gorgeous to look at and always attracts a big crowd. The Weimar-inspired production will star Joyce El-Khoury in her OA debut as Mimì.

Turandot (Jan 15-Mar 30)
Conductor: Christian Badea, Director: Graeme Murphy

This 1990 take on Turandot is another evergreen. It still looks fabulous, driven by dance and and an otherworldly design. Amber Wagner, who played Aida for OA this year, will sing the title role opposite Andeka Gorrotxategi as Calaf – who sings Pavarotti’s greatest hit, ‘Nessun Dorma’.

Wozzeck (Jan 25-Feb 15)
Conductor: Andrea Molino, Director: William Kentridge

Based on Büchner’s Woyzeck, this is a piece for the serious opera lover who’s at home with more avant-garde, atonal music. South African artist William Kentridge uses his own illustrations as sets, projecting them onto giant screens.

Werther (Feb 22-Mar 11)
Conductor: Carlo Montanaro, Director: Elijah Moshinsky

It’s been a decade since this production of Massenet’s romantic opera was last seen. If it needed a reason to return it’s this: American tenor Michael Fabiano will be making his role debut in the title role.

Salome (Mar 6-26)
Conductor: Johannes Fritzsch, Director: Gale Edwards

If you don’t already know the story of Salome, here’s what you need to know: it ends with a princess demanding the head of a prophet on a platter. She then sings an aria to the severed head. American soprano Lise Lindstrom will take on the title role in this daring production.

Madama Butterfly (Jun 28-Aug 10)
Conductor: Massimo Zanetti, Director: Graeme Murphy

After endless revivals of Elijah Moshinsky’s Butterfly, OA is finally staging a new production. It will be the first of the company’s 2019 digital productions, with Jennifer Irwin and Michael Scott-Mitchell designing, alongside digital artist Sean Nieuwenhuis. Karah Son and Hyeseoung Kwon will both play Cio-Cio San.

Anna Bolena (Jul 2-26)
Conductor: Renato Palumbo, Director: Davide Livermore

Davide Livermore’s digital Aida was a big hit for the company in 2018. Now he’s using the same video technology for this take on Donizetti’s historical tragedy, with Ermonela Jahu in the title role and Teddy Tahu-Rhodes as Henry VIII.

Whiteley (Jul 15-30)
Kats-Chernin and Fleming
Conductor: Tahu Matheson, Director: David Freeman

OA will stage its first new mainstage opera since 2010’s Bliss. With a score by Elena Kats-Chernin and libretto by Justin Fleming, this opera will tell the story of Australian artist Brett Whiteley and his brilliant wife Wendy. Digital projections will bring his artworks to life.

The Marriage of Figaro (Oct 18-Nov 2)
Conductor: Guillaume Tourniaire, Director: David McVicar

Italian bass Paolo Bordogna will reprise his performance as Figaro in this acclaimed production by David McVicar. It’s very much one for the traditional opera lover, with meticulously detailed period sets and costumes.

Il Viaggio a Reims (Oct 24-Nov 2)
Conductor: Daniel Smith, Director: Damiano Michieletto

This Rossini opera has never before been performed in Sydney, but will have an inventive premiere directed by Damiano Michieletto (who was behind OA’s acclaimed production of Cavalleria Rusticana / Pagliacci) set inside a museum where some of the world’s most famous artworks come to life.

Other 2019 Sydney performances

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: West Side Story (Mar 22-Apr 21)
Bernstein and Sondheim
Conductor: Guy Simpson, Director: Francesca Zambello

Expect fireworks – of both the vocal and literal variety – at OA’s first musical on the harbour. Francesca Zambello directed the first ever opera on the harbour and returns to direct Julie Lea Goodwin and Alex Lewis in the classic musical.

West Side Story (Aug 20-Oct 6)
Bernstein and Sondheim
Director: Joey McKneely

After you’ve watched the outdoor version of West Side Story, you can skip across the harbour to the Opera House itself for this indoor production.

Andrea Chénier in concert (Aug 8-11)
Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg

Superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann is back in Sydney for this performance at the Opera House’s Concert Hall alongside Eva-Maria Westbroek.

Ghost Sonata (Sep 11-14)
Conductor: Warwick Stengards, Director: Greg Eldridge

OA is continuing its series of chamber performances in its scenery workshop with this opera based on August Strindberg’s play. The cast includes Richard Anderson, Dominica Matthews and John Longmuir.

Opera in the Domain (Jan 13)

The annual free greatest hits concert returns.

Did you hear which portrait won People's Choice at the Archibald's?

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