The Board of Opera Australia has renewed Lyndon Terracini’s contract as Artistic Director for another three years, as the company celebrates his 10-year milestone in the role. The former baritone was appointed by OA in 2009. In 2017, his contract was renewed for a second time taking him to the end of 2020. He will now serve until the end of 2023.
“When I started, it’s no secret that [the Company was in] a pretty dire situation and I thought I’d be able to do what I wanted to do, and what I thought needed to be done, within five years. But it’s taken probably up until last year to really get everything where it should be. Since I started in 2009, we’ve tripled our turnover and tripled our audience,” Terracini tells Limelight.
Lyndon Terracini. Photograph © Keith Saunders
The turnover and attendance has increased so dramatically, he says, because of the broader range of events that he has introduced including Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour and musicals presented with commercial producer John Frost, as well as the leading international singers and conductors he has managed to attract to the company.
It’s a long way from his first executive meeting as Artistic Director when there was a discussion about transitioning OA to a part-time company. “Needless to say that scared me and I thought ‘God, I just got here!’” says Terracini rolling his eyes.
“Fortunately in my last interview with the Board… they said ‘we’d like you to list what you would do and what you thinks needs to be done’. I said ‘okay, fine, we need to do something on the harbour, really maximise it, we need to do the Ring, and we need to do the big musicals. So I kind of had some ammunition because I told the Board that’s what we should do and they’d given me the job. So that’s what I set about doing. Frankly, I had no idea how I was going to do it. I really didn’t. I just knew we had to do that and I felt we were missing opportunities like Sydney Harbour.”
“I told the Board we need to do something on the harbour, we need to do the Ring, and we need to do the big musicals… Frankly, I had no idea how I was going to do it. I really didn’t. I just knew we had to do that”
The approach has paid off. “Opera Australia is the only major opera company in the world that achieves more than 50 percent of its revenue from ticket sales and Lyndon’s innovative approach to balancing artistic ambition with audience appeal and an unflinching commitment to quality has contributed enormously to that outcome,” said OA Chairman David Mortimer, announcing the extension to Terracini’s contract.
Opera Australia CEO Rory Jeffes also acknowledged Terracini’s contribution to the company’s success, saying: “As we move into 2020 we will be the first opera company in the world to stage a fully digital Ring Cycle, expanding our program to Brisbane and contributing to fulfil our commitment as Australia’s truly national opera company. We couldn’t have achieved this without Lyndon’s tenacious and unwavering focus on delivering the highest quality performances to as wide an audience as possible.”
A decade since joining OA, the ebullient, outspoken Terracini is clearly as passionate about his work as ever. He doesn’t attend every OA performance, but he attends most of them – and is then up early the next morning for work. “I think if you really enjoy it and love it, then it doesn’t worry you, it certainly doesn’t worry me,” he says of the comparative lack of sleep.
He freely admits that when he attends an OA performance he is “fairly demonstrative in the crowd, because I know if [the singers] think the crowd is supportive they sing better. So I’m whistling and yelling and all that sort of thing because I can see they respond to that.”
Amid all the long hours of work, he recently got married to his second wife, Swiss soprano and vocal teacher, Noëmi Nadelmann. The couple met in 1990 in Zurich when they performed together in The Marriage of Figaro, she as Susanna and he as Figaro. Though taken with each other, he was married at the time with two children and returned to his family in Australia. Twenty-four years later he was back in Zurich and they met up for a coffee, then quite by chance while he was in Berlin talking to Barrie Kosky about The Nose, he saw a production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and discovered she was performing in it. They met up afterwards and their romance was reborn.
They now live in a large house in the Sydney suburb of Redfern, where Nadelmann teaches singing, and recently got married in Switzerland where they own a home in a tiny mountain village. “My brother’s coming over with his wife, and my daughter Catherine is my witness, so it’s really good. Various people from all over are coming so it will be fun,” Terracini tells Limelight a couple of days before leaving for the wedding. “I’m taking two and a half weeks off,” he adds, not sounding entirely happy at taking that much time off.
Asked if he’ll be able to stay away from social media, he laughs. “I doubt it! You can sort of manage being away for two weeks but after that things start going awry.”
Next year, OA will present 923 performances throughout Australia. “It’s partly by design because if you don’t grow, you’re going backwards, but also in terms of maintaining a full-time company, if we’re not working every day and if we don’t have cash flow every day, we can’t survive,” says Terracini.
“You look at things that I find completely idiotic. In Rome where literally there are millions of tourists in the summer, the opera house is closed. Everyone’s in town and they’ll come to the opera, but it’s shut. And you look at Chicago now, which used to be one of the major companies; it’s down to 23 weeks a year. New York City Opera’s gone and it was bigger than Opera Australia.”
“Fortunately for us, we changed at the right time. But unlike a festival where you can do it pretty quickly, with this it’s just a huge ship and so I was a little surprised when I realised how long it was going to take. And part of it was being the antichrist for a few years and saying ‘well, an opera company, a major company, can’t survive unless you can do the big Italian repertoire and the big French repertoire at the highest level.’ And we couldn’t do it. We could do things like Katya Kabanova and Peter Grimes but no one wants to see [them] so it was death [at the box office]”.
“You look at things that I find completely idiotic. In Rome where literally there are millions of tourists in the summer, the opera house is closed. Everyone’s in town and they’ll come to the opera, but it’s shut”
“So now we can do all the big Italian repertoire with the best singers in the world and so the audiences are coming. But it took time to convince those singers, and their agent, to come and for the conductors to come. It’s sort of a vicious cycle. Really the conductors won’t come unless there are really good singers, and the really good singers won’t come unless there are really good conductors or directors. That’s working now and we can do things that people think are more interesting because our core is working really well. We couldn’t do Wozzeck and The Nose and Attila even five years ago, it was just too risky.”
Another of Terracini’s innovations has been the introduction of digital technology for productions including Aida and Anna Bolena directed by Davide Livermore, Madama Butterfly directed by Graeme Murphy, and the new Australian opera Whiteley by composer Elena Kats-Chernin and writer Justin Fleming, directed by David Freeman. In November OA will stage a new digital Ring Cycle in Brisbane directed by Shi-Zheng Chen, alongside the Livermore Aida.
Terracini has said that all new OA productions will be digital. “In terms of the digital technology, that’s getting better and better all the time. The whole world is digital and we have to change,” he says. “All the new productions that we do will be digital but we’ll still have co-productions and some of those won’t be. But some will be because now [other] major opera houses are getting it. La Scala is getting it now. Davide Livermore opened their season with [a digital] Attila, so they asked him to open the season again next year with a new Tosca. But the McVicar Mozart/Da Ponte cycle – they’re beautiful, so we’re not going to suddenly turn them into digital shows or the Moshinsky Traviata and so on.”
Graeme Murphy’s digital production of Madama Butterfly. Photograph © Prudence Upton
As Terracini points out, the cost of staging large-scale opera in big theatres is huge today, particularly if you are staging something less well-known that will only have a few performances, so digital productions make sense economically. As does staging popular fare like La Bohème year after year – for which Terracini has copped some criticism.
“People say ‘oh, I’m not going to see Bohème again’. I say ‘well frankly I don’t care what you think’,” he retorts. “Thirty thousand people are buying a ticket to this production of Bohème every year. Every year! So of course we’re going to keep doing it. There’s no way we could run Wozzeck every year, even though I think it’s the best production of Wozzeck I’ve ever seen. But we can do Bohème, Turandot, Traviata, Aida and Carmen on a very regular basis as long as we have really great singers.”
Terracini has never minced words about the challenge of staging new operas. “Nobody wants to see them,” he says. “It’s the only form where there’s no excitement about a new piece. It’s quite the opposite. People will see a new piece in their subscription package and they just go ‘oh no’. [There are] a number of reasons – they’ve been burnt because they hate the music, and if they hate the music, they’ll never come back.”
“With Whiteley it was really encouraging. There are issues with Whiteley but [the audience] loved the music and it’s the first time we’ve had a new opera where people have said they like the music, so it gives us confidence that we can rework it and do it again. But that’s a massive problem for the form. Turandot was the last opera that has genuinely entered the repertoire. That’s 1926.”
As for staging musicals, Terracini is unrepentant. Next year OA stages four musicals – Bran Nue Dae, commissioned by the Opera Conference, The Light in the Piazza starring Renée Fleming, a Yiddish language Fiddler on the Roof directed by Joel Grey, and The Secret Garden.
“I’ll always argue that pieces like West Side Story are much better pieces than something like L’Elisir d’amore”
“It’s about trying to find a bridge between musicals and opera. It’s finding the musicals that are really sophisticated so there’s no longer this silly debate about whether it’s an opera or a musical,” says Terracini. “And I’ll always argue that pieces like West Side Story are much better pieces than something like L’Elisir d’amore but they won’t be funded because L’Elisir is called an opera and a piece like Bridges of Madison County, which is a wonderful piece, [is called a musical].”
He dismisses complaints that the company is staging too many musicals. “A small number of people say, ‘you should be doing Peter Grimes and you should be doing Wozzeck’ and we do Wozzeck and they all come to Evita. We do Peter Grimes and they come to South Pacific. You can’t believe anything they tell you and I figured that out pretty quickly. Initially, I was thinking ‘oh gee, I better listen to them’. But we know everybody who buys a ticket… we do a huge amount of research.”
“As I’ve said a number of times, I felt we need to play to a lot more people and maybe it’s my Salvation Army background – what’s more my grandfather’s cousin, who was a Jew in Italy, founded the Italian Communist Party – but I feel that everyone who is paying tax in Australia is contributing indirectly to Opera Australia. So if we’re not trying to play to as many of them as we can, we should give the money back.”