In 2012, the reign of Terracini begins at Opera Australia. Here’s what’s in store for his first programmed season.

The second part of this interview with Lyndon Terracini appears in the September issue of Limelight, on sale August 17 and soon available online. For in-depth commentary on the season, visit Limelight’s Opera Blog.

What did you want to do differently for your first season programming in the driver’s seat?

One, to try and play to as many people as possible. Two, to try and make everything we do much more like an event, like we did with the opening of La bohème, for example, with the fanfare in the foyer. And three, to construct mini-festivals throughout the year. Starting off with the summer season, it’s composer-driven, and the summer seasons for the next three years will be composer-driven.

So next year is Mozart?

Yes, three productions, all in English. It gives audiences another way to look at these pieces when they are in our own language, and see what that means to us. The company always used to do Mozart in English. 

What’s special about Julie Taymor’s Magic Flute?

It’s gorgeous and it’s designed to speak to as many people as possible. There are a lot of puppets in it and wonderful flying birds, giant bears. I really think it’s the sort of Magic Flute that Mozart and his librettist Schikaneder would’ve loved to been able to do – it’s fantastic in the best possible definition of that word. It has these wonderful creatures in it that I think kids will love, too.

So you’re hoping for it to be a kind of crossover success.

If someone’s never been to the opera before, this should be the first thing they see. And for people who’ve seen The Lion King, which is the most popular musical in the planet, which Julie Taymor directed, they’ll recognise her aesthetic. It’s also the first production we’ve done with The Met and hopefully it won’t be the last.

The Australian premiere of Die Tote Stadt is a highlight of the winter festival. Why hasn’t it been performed here before, and what challenges does it present?

It’s beautiful music, but we’re actually taking the orchestra out of the pit and putting it in the studio. So it won’t be in the same theatre. We’ll have surround sound in the theatre and an extended stage out over the pit. We’re doing this firstly because we can’t fit it in the pit, but also because Korngold was a movie composer and with this production, I’ve talked it through with director Bruce Beresford and we want the audience to feel sometimes as if they’re sitting in the cinema with the surround sound. There will be film elements so that you’re not always sure whether you’re in a cinema or you’re in a theatre, or if it’s live or if it’s film. I wanted to introduce that interplay deliberately with this piece. It’s a statement about us; that any arts organisation, particularly in the 21st century, needs to be a lot more creative.

Is the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour festival part of this drive to be creative? 

It’s a different aesthetic outside. The Act Two party arrives on motor launchers, and because it’s Sydney, there’s a Mardi Gras. It’s nothing like Opera at The Domain; it’s a really smart production but on a grand scale. Bregenz does really spectacular productions, and this will be spectacular on that level. It gives you a different way to see the piece than how you would see it in the Opera Theatre, but it’s no farther from the stage to the back row seats than it is at The Met. So it’s not like a football stadium. I wanted people to be able to see the show and not be this speck in the distance.

This is an expensive event to mount. Is Opera Australia under a lot of financial pressure at the moment?

We’ve had deficits for the last few years. There has been bad news about the demise of New York City Opera recently; people have said, ‘Oh that couldn’t happen here’. Well, it can. The best way to avoid this is to be a lot more creative and create work that a lot more people want to see. That protects the form for the future. Because as soon as you cut back, that’s when standards start to fall. 

South Pacific definitely ticks the boxes in terms of creativity and popularity.

According to Rodgers & Hammerstein this is the best production of South Pacific ever. It’s a stunning show, it ran for two-and-a-half years at the Lincoln Centre. And we’ll have Teddy Tahu Rhodes singing Emil de Becque and we’ll have musical theatre people doing all the other parts, including the chorus. It will tour nationally. But apart from being located in the south Pacific ourselves, the way it addresses racial issues I think is very relevant to where we are today in Australia, too. So there’s some wonderful music in it but it also has something important to say about our society, about who we are and where we are.

How important is it that these issues are explored in Opera Australia productions?

The ethnic demographic of Sydney and Melbourne and most of the western world is changing dramatically, and there are a lot of people who don’t have a connection to a European art form and European culture, and we need to make sure we reach out to them as well.

How are you doing that? 

We need to look at how we cast. One of the reasons I wanted to have Takesha Meshé Kizart and Ji-Min Park in La bohème this year is because of their ethnicity. However, having said that, they’re both sensational singers, and that was the thing that came first. But I think their backgrounds are a much more accurate reflection of the demographic you see on the streets in Sydney than the demographic you see in an opera theatre, or in fact most theatres in Sydney and Melbourne. And we’re serious about it, so we need to make sure that we’re playing to the people who are actually living in this city, and a lot of those people are from a different ethnic backgrounds. And my feeling is that if they see they’re being represented in the art that we’re making, then they’ll come. Our La bohème is set in Berlin in the 1920s, so it’s completely believable that these people have come from all over the world to be in this amazing city at this time, which is so exciting, and they meet and fall in love. And I think that’s a more potent, and for me heartbreaking, love story, because of the difficulties that I’m sure they would’ve experienced – if we extrapolate this story then it is incredibly heartbreaking when she dies.

And so in 2012 Madama Butterfly will have a Japanese Butterfly and a Japanese conductor.

There have been some wonderful performances of people singing Butterfly, but I never once believed they were Japanese. And now it’s completely inappropriate if you’re playing Otello to “black up” and I think it’s starting to become a bit absurd when you only have Europeans singing Cio-Cio-San.

What’s the most daring offering in the season?

Certainly Die Tote Stadt will be pretty wild in the sense that people won’t have seen the technology in an opera theatre before. It used to be that opera companies were where all this inventiveness took place and then film evolved and it became just standard. Nothing much has changed in opera since the nineteenth century. When you see audiences declining worldwide, you’ve got to have a look at it. I got Wayne Bennett the football coach to come speak to the Queensland Orchestra once – he said if you continue to do things the way you’ve always done them, you’ll continue to get what you’ve always had. And it’s pretty true. If we just keep going along the same way, well, we’ll lose audiences. And we need to listen to what our audiences are saying.