Rehearsals for Opera Australia’s production of The Phantom of the Opera, produced with The Really Useful Company, in association with Cameron Mackintosh, were to have started this coming Monday.

Australian performer Josh Piterman, who had been playing the Phantom in London’s West End when the production was shuttered because of COVID, couldn’t wait. As he told Limelight earlier this year, it felt like he was living a dream when he was cast in the OA production.

Audiences were just as excited, with the show making box office history when tickets went on sale at the Sydney Opera House. Over 100,000 tickets have now been sold for the Sydney season due to open in September, and the season at Arts Centre Melbourne in November.

But today, Opera Australia announced that The Phantom of the Opera has been postponed until 2022.

Josh Piterman and Kelly Mathieson in the West production of The Phantom of the Opera, 2019. Photo © Manuel Harlan

“Last year was bad enough, but this year’s worse,” OA Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini tells Limelight, adding that the production of Phantom had been seen as a way to get the company “out of the hole that we were in last year because of COVID”.

Opera Australia said it has taken the incredibly difficult step to postpone both seasons of The Phantom of the Opera due to the uncertainty created by the ongoing restrictions imposed by the New South Wales and Victorian Governments because of the indefinite COVID-19 lockdowns.

It said that the ongoing lockdown in Sydney has made it impossible for OA to continue its work in the wardrobe and scenery manufacturing workshops, which  has meant that the costumes and set could not be ready in time for the scheduled opening in September. With no possibility of delaying the opening, a postponement was the only viable option.

It is yet another blow for OA, which was recently forced to cancel its entire Sydney Winter season after just one performance of Aida. This involved the cancellation of 37 performances, including its new production of The Tales of Hoffmann, directed by Damiano Michieletto.

After a horror year in 2020, which saw the cancellation of all its performances from March when pandemic restrictions began, including the postponement of its new Ring Cycle in Brisbane, OA announced this June that it had posted a $7.1 million trading deficit for 2020.

During 2020, it was forced to sell its warehouse in Alexandria, and there were ructions when the Company made 56 staff, including 16 musicians, redundant.

Speaking to Limelight about the postponement of Phantom, hot on the heels of the cancellation of the Sydney winter season, Terracini says: “I have had better times. As you can imagine, [when] you see ten years of work just being decimated, it is pretty upsetting, not just for me but for everyone who has been associated with it along that journey. Last year was bad enough, but this year’s worse.”

“After that long layoff last year, it took about six months for people to be match fit and in form. We had one performance of Aida – and they were – the sound coming off the stage was just huge. And then it was all gone again. For Phantom, we had sold over 100,000 tickets, which is a lot of money. And that was to get us out of the hole that we were in last year because of COVID, and we’ve got to find a way out it again now.”

Terracini says that “governments need to take more responsibility. We are training all these [singers and musicians] in conservatoriums and schools like ANAM, and we will end up having a completely decimated industry, so where are they going to go?”

Asked if OA’s survival is now at stake, Terracini is blunt. “We need help. I have never gone out to the Government before and said, ‘look we need help’ – and we do. We have got one of the best opera orchestras in the world, one of the best choruses in the world.”

“We had to make some really difficult and horrible decisions last year but we are not going to do that again, we can’t. You get to a tipping point where you have got nothing left. I am reminded of that quote that is attributed to Churchill during the Second World War where his Cabinet said ‘we’ve got to cut the funding for arts and culture and direct it to the war effort’ and Churchill is supposed to have said, ‘well, then, what are we fighting for?’”

“And that’s where I feel we are at the moment. We’ve got to maintain what we have so that once we get through this we will have a chance to get back. But if we lose what we have and what we’ve built up over the last ten years, then we will have nothing left. As I said, governments have to take responsibility for this. What sort of culture do you want your children to live in? A desert?” says Terracini.

“Peter Gelb [General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York] said to me in 2019,  ‘you are the most successful opera company in the world’ and we’ve done that by tripling our turnover, tripling the size of our audiences, but our livelihood is primarily on being able to sell tickets. When we can’t sell tickets, we can’t do anything, and that’s the situation we’re in. One hundred thousand tickets to one show is a lot of money.”

If the Federal and State governments don’t start supporting the arts industry and companies like Opera Australia to ensure they survive, Terracini says: “You will be looking at an opera house in the future with no opera company. Arguably the most famous building in the world and what are you going to have in it?”

Looking at the devastating impact that COVID is taking on the arts and on the community at large, Terracini says, “this is the worst situation since the Great Depression”.

Terracini is confident that Phantom will be able to be staged in 2022, despite the fact that numerous producers will be looking for venues to present postponed productions.

“Fortunately we have got good relationships with the Arts Centre in Melbourne and Sydney Opera House so I am confident we will find dates for next year but the logistics of that are huge as well. We have a terrific relationship with Andrew (Lloyd Webber) and Cameron (Mackintosh) and they are very keen for it to happen as well so all of that is terrific, but it’s still hard work,” he says.

A year ago, Terracini was fielding questions about whether the Ring Cycle could go ahead. It’s hard to believe that we are having that conversation again.

“Fortunately the Ring looks fine,” he says. “In Queensland there are no new cases. We are creating a bubble here and we’ll create a bubble there, exactly the way the NRL is doing it for the rugby league players, so we are all feeling very confident about that, but a big show like Phantom is extremely important to us as a company.”