Murphy’s Butterfly isn’t the only production that will use these LED panels at Opera Australia this year. In fact, the company’s entire winter season at the Sydney Opera House is a “digital” season, with a new production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, and a new opera about Brett Whiteley by Elena Kats-Chernin, which uses the screens to bring Whiteley’s work to life.
It’s all part of Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini’s plan to ensure the company and artform’s survival into the future. It’s not an easy task, when opera companies all around the world are seeing audiences dwindling as costs rise.
“When I first came here, god, everything was broken,” Terracini says. “The first senior executive meeting I had was about how we could transition to being part time. I thought, ‘fuck, I just got here!’”
Since he joined the company in 2009, Terracini hasn’t always been a popular figure in the local opera community, but he has increased the company’s sales income from $36 million in 2010 to $67 million in 2018. He’s done this through staging more popular works, employing some high profile international singers, performing more musical theatre, and launching the hugely successful Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour program.
The company’s “digital productions” are the next stage in evolving the company but it’s something that Terracini has had in mind for a decade. His initial inspiration was an opera he appeared in: Peter Greenaway’s projection-heavy 1994 production of Rosa, A Horse Drama in the Netherlands.
Opera Australia premiered its first digital production last year, a thrilling version of Aida that looked more like a Katy Perry or Kylie Minogue pop extravaganza than what you’d expect at the opera.
You wouldn’t necessarily think that a season of these high-tech productions would work out cheaper than a traditional production, but Terracini says the cost of a traditional opera set sits somewhere above $1 million, and the cost involved in moving a show in and out of the theatre is massive. Only minimal “bump-in” period will be required in the digital winter season, which uses the same 12 LED panels (rented by the company so they can quickly replace them with better quality screens as tech advances) in every production. It will also make co-productions with international companies much more financially attractive.
“With a co-production, you’re usually putting 15 shipping containers on a ship and transporting them all around the world. You’re paying for transport instead of a show. With the panels, you can hire them anywhere, you plug in a USB stick, and there’s the show.”
"What worked in the 19th century doesn’t work in the 21st century."
But it’s more than a purely financial move. It’s an acknowledgement that “what worked in the 19th century doesn’t work in the 21st century,” Terracini says.
Opera used to be a genuinely popular and democratic artform and attracted massive audiences with innovative and spectacular staging. But Terracini says that innovation stagnated, and that for many contemporary audiences seeing an old-fashioned opera set became quaint and a little like “visiting an antiques store”. He says the artform became “arrogant”, and couldn’t keep up with the advancements in film in the 20th century. Now opera is looking to film for a little bit of help, although the way it’s using that technology is entirely different.