As the government’s ban on mass gatherings in response to the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus comes into effect, arts organisations around the country are announcing the cancellation and postponement of events, while there are increasing calls for the government to support the arts industry and its workers, many of whom are casuals or sole traders.

Photograph courtesy of City Recital Hall

In addition to the cancellations already announced on Friday and over the weekend, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra has cancelled all its concerts until the end of April, the Australian Chamber Orchestra has called off its Arvo Pärt and Shostakovich tour, and Sydney’s Omega Ensemble has postponed its Four Seasons Recomposed until later in 2020. The Australian Ballet has closed its Melbourne season of Volt early, with the company saying it will make an announcement about the Sydney season, due to begin on April 3, as soon as it can. Although tickets to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s concert tonight have been cancelled, the band will play on, streaming the performance from Hamer Hall at 7pm on the orchestra’s YouTube channel.

In theatre and musicals, the long-running blockbuster Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in Melbourne is postponing performances until April 12, while the musical Billy Elliot has closed its Melbourne season early.

Venues are also closing their doors. Arts Centre Melbourne is now closed until April 12, while the Melbourne Recital Centre is also closing for four weeks. Sydney’s City Recital Hall has announced that it will close until permitted to reopen. The Sydney Opera House has cancelled all performances for today, March 16, with more information to be provided soon.

The National Gallery of Victoria is closed to the public until April 13. The National Gallery of Australia is still open but has suspended its public programs and eduction activity until April 13. The Art Art Gallery of NSW also remains open but has cancelled all public programming for an initial period of two weeks, while the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art is open but has cancelled all public programs, events and tours until further notice.

Opera Australia has cancelled the remainder of its Sydney summer season, including all performances of Carmen and the recently opened Attila. “We are very proud to be the only major opera company in the world where more than 50% of its revenue comes from ticket sales. However, as Australia’s largest arts employer with more than 1,000 employees, not to mention contractors and suppliers, it is this singular strength that will now be our biggest challenge through the COVID-19 crisis,” Opera Australia CEO Rory Jeffes said.  “This is a time of crisis for performers across the cultural sector. So, it is at this time that I ask any ticket holders to OA or any presenting company – please re-consider your refund requests and instead where possible, to either exchange your ticket to a performance later in the year, convert it to a gift voucher or a donation to the company.”

The request to consider gifting ticket sales rather than asking for refunds is one that is echoing around the arts industry, while the peak body Live Performance Australia has called for the government to confirm a timeframe for the ban on mass gatherings, as well as calling on an emergency support package for the performing arts industry.

“This is an unprecedented crisis and will have a catastrophic impact on jobs and revenue as shows and festivals across the country are cancelled. What we need now is a timeframe so companies can plan for closure,” LPA Chief Executive Evelyn Richardson said. “The brutal reality is that many performing arts companies do not have the financial reserves to ride out a period of enforced closure. Knowing now if we are planning for a one, two or three-month closure period is vital.”

“Our preliminary numbers indicate that over three months, half a billion dollars in revenue and thousands of jobs will be lost,” she said. “Companies across the country have been running solvency tests all weekend.”

LPA’s statement also called for the government to announce an emergency industry support package “to deal with the imminent loss of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in income across the live performance sector.”

“All levels of government will need to respond. Germany and Denmark have confirmed industry support while other countries, such as the UK, are scoping assistance as part of event bans,” the statement said.

“The cancellation of live performance events of all shapes and sizes is already decimating jobs and income for those who work in the industry, and this will only escalate in the coming days and weeks,” Richardson said. “Performers, production and technical crews, venue and hospitality staff are being hurt right now and government support is required to get them through this extremely difficult time.”

“Our industry needs support now, and it will also need a recovery plan for the months ahead when we reactivate. We look forward to working with government in the days ahead to get this into place as a matter of urgency,” she said.

The Australian Major Performing Arts Group has supported LPA’s call for an economic relief package as the public health response to COVID-19 continues to develop.

“We are already seeing a fall in ticket sales, shows and events are being cancelled and significant uncertainty exists regarding international tours and artist travel. Current and future performing arts organisational challenges are arising from the combined impact of the bushfires and COVID-19 and the likely downturn in discretional spending that will accompany an economic recession,” said Australian Major Performing Arts Group Executive Director Bethwyn Serow.

AMPAG wrote to the Minister for Communications and Arts, The Hon Paul Fletcher, yesterday outlining its concerns and the need for relief initiatives and economic stimulus to plan for the potentially devastating impact COVID-19 will have on the sector.

“The performing arts are characterised by high levels of casual employment, and rely on a combination of ticket sales, philanthropy and government investment to succeed,” said AMPAG Chair Mary Jo Capps. “The performing arts are major employers, stimulate tourism and help communities to connect – all of which will be important assets in assisting recovery.”


Update: Opera Australia has announced that this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour has been cancelled. The season of La Traviata was scheduled to run from March 27 until April 26 at Mrs Macquarie’s Point. Ticket-holders will be entitled to a refund but are also being encouraged to consider exchanging their tickets for a performance later in the year, converting their ticket to a gift voucher or to a donation to Opera Australia if they’re in a position to do so.

“There is an incredible amount of effort involved in bringing any production to life,” Opera Australia CEO Rory Jeffes said. “Our people are passionate about this work and it’s devastating that La Traviata now can’t be brought to the stage as a result of these terribly unique events.”

“We will be working very hard to ensure that when this ban on public gatherings is eased in the future, Opera Australia will be ready and able to get back on stage and do what we do best, entertaining our audiences.”


Update: State Opera of South Australia has announced that the performance of Carmina Burana at Memorial Drive on March 27 and the May season of The Barber of Seville at Festival Theatre are suspended.

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has confirmed that all of its concerts until April 13 have been cancelled. However, the MSO will be streaming several concerts, with details available here.


Update: Musica Viva Australia has announced the cancellation of its tour of Piers Lane and the Goldner String Quartet, which was set to visit seven Australian cities from April 4 to 23.

“This situation has profound implications for the whole performing arts sector,” said Musica Viva CEO Hywel Sims. “If you’re in a position to continue supporting musicians, I urge you to consider doing so. We are working to find ways to minimise the impact on our artists, many of whom rely on income from our schools and concert tours.”

“In the coming days, we’ll be discussing ways to continue providing music to the Australian community. Please continue to visit our website for updates.”


Update: Pinchgut Opera has cancelled its Splendour of Venice concerts, which were due to take place at the Great Hall, Sydney University on Sunday 26 April. “We are planning to reschedule these concerts to a later date and are still working on confirming details,” the company said.


Update: The Sydney Symphony Orchestra has announced it will not be performing for 30 days, effective immediately. “Pending further advice from the Australian Government, we plan to resume public performances on Wednesday 15 April, 2020 with Beethoven and Brahms: Towering Romantics at the Sydney Town Hall,” the SSO said in a statement.