Opera Australia always knew that 2017 was going to be a difficult year given the closure of the Joan Sutherland Theatre (JST) at the Sydney Opera House for seven months of renovations. The Company expected to lose money, and it did – but, maintains CEO Rory Jeffes, not as much as anticipated.

In releasing its 2017 Annual Report today, OA confirmed that it had an operating level deficit of $2.1 million (though it had anticipated a loss of $2.6 million). The deficit includes an amount of $1.222 million representing a revision of past superannuation contributions as the result of short payments.

However, with a surplus of $2.75 million from The Opera Australia Capital Fund – a critically important arm of OA funding, which through prudent investment and the generosity of donors has built a healthy corpus to help secure the future of the Company – OA finished with a consolidated surplus for the year of $688,000.

Rory Jeffes. Photograph © Daniela Testa

Jeffes, who joined OA as CEO on July 31, 2017, describes himself as “somewhere between comfortable and pleased. Not happy. You can’t be happy with an operating deficit,” he tells Limelight.

“But the Capital Fund had a great year. We consolidate the accounts, so the fact they grew by $2.7 million means that we made a $2 million loss, so we have a $600,000 surplus overall. If you just look at that figure, you think ‘oh, that’s a good year’, but the Capital Fund grew due to the vagaries of the stock market – and the well-known phrase ‘investments can go down as well as up,’ [means] they may have a bad year and we don’t want to rely on that,” he says.

“But the $2 million loss is less than we’re budgeted to lose when they did the original budget, before my time. But then… some past errors in superannuation payments and long service leave allocations added up to well over a $1 million dollars. So the overall result of $2 million was somewhere between comfortable and pleasing.”

Since the Company had two years notice of the closure of the JST, Jeffes says that the thinking between Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini, the previous CEO Craig Hassall and their team had been: ‘let’s make sure that we make 2016 financially very successful, so the threats and potential problems in 2017 don’t become too serious. The surplus made in 2016 was going to be matched by the loss made in 2017, but the loss made in 2017 was not as bad as originally had been budgeted for.”

King Roger. Photograph © Keith Saunders

The Company started 2017 well with its Sydney summer season in the JST prior to its closure making more money than the same time in 2016. La Bohème, Damiano Michieletto’s new production of Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci, Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger, co-commissioned by OA with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, La Traviata with Ermonela Jaho as Violetta, and Tosca together attracted admissions of 83,871 compared to 75,828 in 2016, taking $11,678,941 compared to $10,749,385. The Melbourne autumn season (Carmen, Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci and King Roger) attracted 27,024 attendances compared to 26,430 in 2016, taking $3,501,279 rather than $3,337,814.

However, figures for the Sydney winter season, once the JST was closed, were down. Instead, OA looked to a range of different venues, producing Two Weddings, One Bride in the SOH Playhouse, Thaïs starring Nicole Car and Etienne Dupuis in concert at the Sydney Town Hall, Parsifal in concert with Jonas Kaufmann in the SOH Concert Hall, where the Verdi Requiem was also staged, Ferruccio Furlanetto at City Recital Hall, and Madama Butterfly at the Capitol Theatre. The Melbourne spring season, meanwhile, was shorter than usual with just Ferruccio Furlanetto and The Merry Widow, and was naturally down on the previous year.

“Usually the winter season in ’17 should have generated about $13 million in sales and actually did about $7.5 million. The cost was much larger because we were talking about Thaïs and Parsifal, but for me and the Company the big learning was what incredible performances they were. They [got us] thinking about how we incorporate concert-style productions or semi-staged performances like that [in the future]. That’s very, very active in our minds,” says Jeffes.

Michael Honeyman, Kwangchul Youn, Jonas Kaufmann, Pinchas Steinberg and Michelle DeYoung in Parsifal. Photograph © Keith Saunders

“We could never do Parsifal on the stage at the JST, but we can do it on the Concert Hall stage in the way that it was done. It was my second week with the Company and it was like ‘blimey, that’s amazing!’ Looking at future years I think that’s something you’ll see more of from Opera Australia [with] less well known operas.” As for Kaufmann: “We will see him again,” says Jeffes.

The decision to scale back the second Melbourne season “was obviously something that was decided before I was here but I’m not disowning the decision. Looking at the numbers it was necessary,” says Jeffes, who adds that they are now looking at ” how to actually build our presence more in Melbourne over time.”

“I think for me we just need to be clear about what our role is in Melbourne, because it is slightly different. There are other opera companies, Victorian Opera and Melbourne Opera, doing great work. We just want to make sure that we are clear what we stand for in Melbourne and make sure that Victorians understand that. I think we’re getting much better at that. We aren’t ashamed of the season we just did [in 2018], where we did Traviata, Tosca, which was amazing, and Don Quichotte, with Furlanetto, was as good as you’ll see anywhere else in the world – and that’s what we stand for. We won’t be doing operas that Victorian or Melbourne Opera might do, but we are very clear about where we position ourselves in the market. We do want to do more down there.”

As for including lesser known operas, King Roger, which played in the JST, attracted around 8,500 attendances over eight performances, compared to 29,000 for La Traviata over 22 performances.“The core operas, particularly in that summer season with the number of tourists that come, is the bread and butter. We do it at a very high quality, but those are the operas that tourists will come and see. It’s a very important market for us. But we still do want to do the King Rogers or The Nose this year,” says Jeffes.

“If you were just doing it for audience, you wouldn’t do King Roger, you wouldn’t do The Nose, or Metamorphosis or Don Quichotte.But it’s all about the balance between the different repertoire, as a Company that wants to be driven by its artistic ambition and not just a machine.”

Ferruccio Furlanetto in Don Quichotte. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Metamorphosis by Australian composer Brian Howard is being performed this September in the Scenery Workshop at Sydney’s Opera Centre.“I guess [the audience for that is] a subset of The Nose audience. It is a niche product. If somebody asked me what do I hope for OA, it is that we can ensure that opera and OA is seen as a contemporary, relevant company living in today’s arts environments, not just celebrating something that’s happened in the past. And so doing the Traviatas, while it’s incredibly important, doing Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is also incredibly important. Fifty thousand people came to that this year, only about 20 percent of whom actually go and see what we do in the Opera House. And that’s great. But they’re not going to go and see The Nose or King Roger and that’s fine too,” says Jeffes.

“And so I see that as a segment of our audience, rather than a group of people who we need to try and convince they need to see Brett Dean’s Hamlet, because they won’t. But that’s okay. And at the other extreme, there’s Metamorphosis, which is wonderful, but it’s only going to appeal to a small number of people, so doing it at the dock here or down in Malthouse [in Melbourne], we can present it in a style in a way that’s still excellent, but works for an audience of 800 or 900 people.”

Asked if OA has considered picking up Dean’s Hamlet, which premiered at Glyndebourne Festival in the UK and then had a season at the 2018 Adelaide Festival, Jeffes says: “Obviously we did [Dean’s] Bliss [in 2010] and it was an Opera Australia production that went to Edinburgh Festival. But Hamlet, having been done just now in Adelaide, I don’t think there’s a market for it in the next few years. That doesn’t mean we won’t bring it back, and I very much hope we do, because I think it’s wonderful. But it costs a lot of money to put that on, and really, 3000 people saw it in Adelaide and I suspect a lot of that is the core audience who would want to see it if we were premiering it in Australia. I think there will be a delay before Opera Australia puts that on, but I very much hope we will one day.”

At the most commercial end of OA’s work are the musicals that they have been staging in recent years in association with John Frost of the Gordon Frost Organisation (GFO). My Fair Lady directed by Julie Andrews (which premiered originally at the SOH in 2016) played in Brisbane, Melbourne and at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre in 2017, attracting 28,000 attendances. Jeffes believes that musicals still have a role to play for the Company, which is producing Evita in September at the SOH. “It’s a step further removed from Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, but there’s an audience out there who want to see great music, and great drama, and I think the lines between what is opera and musicals has become blurred and continue to blur into the future very much,” he says.

Anna O’Byrne in My Fair Lady. Photograph © Jeff Busby

“I certainly think that My Fair Lady is a musical, not an opera, I think Evita is a little bit closer but is still very much a musical, not an opera. But if you look at Porgy and Bess, is that a musical or an opera? It’s both. Sweeney Todd, West Side Story… They are operas of the musical age, but I would argue that those are operas. So looking forward to new work being produced, to me there are the Hamlets and there are the Les Miserables, but there is a middle ground where wouldn’t it be fabulous to produce a wonderful opera that has the sorts of popular appeal of musicals? In terms of the future of the artform, that has to be where it goes, because otherwise it will only ever become more and more niche. And with the scale of what it takes to put on grand opera, that’s not going to work. So for the future, and in development of repertoire for the future, which is getting away from ‘is it a musical or an opera’, I think it’s critical for the future of artform,” he says.

Jeffes admits that the inclusion of a musical in the season is “unashamedly profitable. We work really hard with GFO, who have great skills in this area. It’s not always going to be exclusively with them, but it has been so far. And to be totally clear about it, based on some misconceptions from the Opera Review, no funding from the government goes into our musicals. They are unashamedly making a surplus which we then apply that to the core of what we do,” he says.

The Opera Review also raised the issue of the number of international singers being brought in. Jeffes says that it is something they are “addressing”, adding: “We don’t support a quota. I think the ideas of quotas is very false. I think it should work at the other end which is what we’re talking about at the moment with the Australia Council and with Australian singers and their managers – what is an appropriate level and where does this sit and how does it affect the repertoire choices that we make? If we are going to have Furlanetto come and do Don Quichotte, I’m sorry but we’re going to do that, because that is something that Australians deserve to hear. But certainly the question of ensuring the support for Australia singers, both those who have made it and who are up and coming, and how to provide support for young artists as they’re developing is very central to a lot of our thinking.”