Opera Australia is to sell its warehouse in Alexandria and undertake an organisational restructure to reduce costs in order to cope with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

This will entail a number of redundancies. The company will consult with staff and stakeholders including the MEAA – the union representing the media, entertainment and arts industry – regarding the planned job losses.

Natalie Aroyan in Opera Australia’s 2020 production of Attila. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Staff were told about the restructure at 2pm today by OA CEO Rory Jeffes. In a message sent to all OA employees, Jeffes informed them about the changes, which will be undertaken in the coming weeks and months.

In March, OA stood down the majority of its staff under an employee support package, which allowed them to access up to 80 percent of their regular salary. This was extended to September, with the company receiving the JobKeeper wage subsidy to help pay the reduced wages.

Since venues were shuttered in March because of the coronavirus, OA has cancelled more than 570 performances, and lost more than $75m in expected ticket revenue. Last month, OA announced that it was postponing its digital Ring Cycle, scheduled for Brisbane in November/December this year, and would stage it in 2021 instead. The company also cancelled all remaining productions programmed for 2020.

When COVID-19 first hit, Jeffes discussed the option of selling both Sydney properties currently owned by OA – the warehouse in Alexandria and the Opera Centre in Surry Hills, which houses rehearsal studios, offices and workshops. For now at least, the Opera Centre is safe. But a number of jobs are on the line.

In his message to staff, Jeffes said: “Back in March nobody knew how long, and the extent to which, the coronavirus crisis would impact our lives. Now, as we approach six months of impact, the one thing that is clear is that this will continue to disrupt our lives, and our ability to operate as a performing arts company, for the foreseeable future.”

“There is no denying our Company – and indeed our whole industry – has been hit incredibly hard. This, combined with the broader uncertainty that this once-in-a-century pandemic brings, means that I must share with you today that workplace change must occur to allow the long-term viability and artistic ambitions of Opera Australia.”

Jeffes said that the loss of ticket income during 2020, which normally makes up half of the company’s revenue has been “devastating”. Looking forward to 2021, he said that “many uncertainties regarding ongoing restrictions on venue capacities, health regulations, travel restrictions and physical distancing” remain.

As a result, difficult decisions had to be made, he said. “The COVID-19 pandemic is both a health crisis and an economic crisis. We cannot let it become a crisis threatening the very existence of Opera Australia by failing to respond to the world we now live in. To continue to serve our purpose in enriching Australia’s cultural life, as well as maintaining the artistic excellence we are so proud of, we need to make responsible decisions now.”

In the short term, the company plans to sell its Alexandria property. Several years ago, OA sold its Melbourne property to provide “a financial buffer against the feared disruption to Opera Australia of the renewal project at the Joan Sutherland Theatre in 2017,” as Jeffes put it. “Those funds are what has made it possible to support staff through the pandemic to date, but are finite, and now expended. We are now actively pursuing the sale of our Alexandria warehouse with the aim of providing the funds to support Opera Australia through the recovery from this crisis, whilst not knowing how long this will be,” he told staff.

“Yet these sales do not address the underlying long-term financial viability of Opera Australia. We must restructure to establish a new organisational framework and operating model that provides agility to adapt to the new and volatile operating environment.”

As a result of the restructure, the company has identified a number of roles across the company that will no longer be required. Staff who are affected will be consulted next week. The company has also introduced a temporary freeze on contract extensions for its fixed term and casual employees.

Numerous arts companies are struggling to keep afloat because of the impact of COVID-19. The Australian Chamber Orchestra recently made several staff redundant. One fears that this is just the beginning, and that other redundancies across the industry are inevitable.