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A war of words has broken out between Artistic Director of Opera Australia Lyndon Terracini and Peter Tregear, the Head of the School of Music at the Australian National University in Canberra. The first blow of this online scrape was dealt by Tregear on the Australian Book Review website, in an article titled ‘Opera, the art of the possible’. In it Tregear takes Terracini to task about his response to federal arts minister George Brandis’ announcement that a major review of the funding strategy for the four major, federally funded Australian opera companies (Opera Australia, Sate Opera of South Australia, West Australian Opera and Opera Queensland) was required to ensure their longevity.
In a systematic and scathing dressing down of Terracini’s article, published in The Australian on August 12, Tregear attacks Terracini’s assertion that the greatest threat to the continued existence of major opera companies is a simple matter of rising expenses versus dwindling public appetite for opera. Tregear also disagreed with Terracini’s assertion that the past three quarters of a century have failed to produce a single operatic work deemed valuable enough to be programmed regularly by any opera company, foreign or domestic. After highlighting Terracini’s failure to acknowledge the historical precedent for the scaling down of choruses and orchestral forces in recognition of limitations of resources (financial or otherwise), and his disregard of operatic masterworks from the past 75 years such as Britten’s Peter Grimes, Stravinsky’s The Rakes Progress or Adams’ Nixon in China, Tregear continued to pull no punches by attacking Terracini’s 2015 OA season.
Quoting Terracini’s counterpart at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb (“The answer is not in simply playing La Bohème to death… that is a certain recipe for losing the audience altogether”), Tregear suggested that future decline in Opera Australia’s audience figures could be attributable to Terracini’s conservative programming in 2015. Going further, Tregear pushed his criticism of Terracini’s 2015 season by suggesting that Opera Australia’s program was not only a misguided attempt to “compete with other forms of mass culture” but was also failing the public in its duty to “express something unique about the human condition in order to enrich the lives of others”. And so with this comprehensive trashing of not only Lyndon’s thoughts on the state of the art form, but also the failure of Opera Australia to contribute anything meaningful to the cultural zeitgeist (at least in 2015), Tregear had thrown down the proverbial gauntlet at Terracini’s feet.
Judging from the tone of Terracini’s rebuttal it’s clear that Tregear had hit more than a few nerves. In a response also posted on the Australian Book Review website, Terracini described Tregear’s article as “disappointing” and “not related to the facts”. Terracini was quick to highlight that Opera Australia’s audience figures aren’t in decline, quite the opposite, with the company selling more tickets in 2013 than in any other point in its history (generating $51.7 million at the box office over 743 performances). He was also keen to assert that many opera companies, including the Met in New York, rely on the considerable income generated by operas from the standard cannon, such as La Bohème, and those who choose to ignore this necessity risk going under, with Terracini citing the demise of the New York City Opera as a salient example.
Point by point Terrancini refuted the criticisms aimed at him and his opera company but also made the most of the opportunity to turn the tables on Tregear, with his response taking a turn toward the personal. “Highly misleading”, “merely regurgitating falsehoods which are not constructive in any context” and “irresponsible” are just some of the descriptors Terrancini uses to characterise Tregear’s opinions, pointing out that OA’s 2015 season will feature some of the world’s most accomplished singers as well as the presentation of The Rabbits by Kate Miller-Heidke: a new opera co-commissioned by Opera Australia.
Terracini signed off his rebuttal by saying that “Accurate reporting and research are essential components of serious debate and one would hope that in future Peter Tregear does his homework”. Both men have aimed their punches pretty close to the belt and it will be interesting to see if the next response will deliver a punch below it. Regardless of the outcome it is fascinating to watch two of classical music’s biggest proverbial beasts lock horns over what is a vitally important battleground for Australian culture. Judging by the comments of our readers and social media followers, this is a topic which means a great deal to a great many people.