Several of the 16 musicians dumped from the Opera Australia Orchestra have spoken of the devastation wrought by the forced redundancies, with one accusing the company of “dropping a hand grenade” into the orchestra.

Musicians from the Opera Australia Orchestra protest against company redundancies

Tutti oboe Mark Bruwel, who first joined the orchestra in 1988, said carrying out the targeted redundancies during the COVID-19 pandemic was “just appalling, and at the same time they were getting government assistance to keep jobs, it’s unconscionable”.

“To throw us out into a work environment where, along with travel, the performing arts, they’re the two industries that have really copped it in this crisis. It’s not like I can go and get casual work with the Sydney Symphony next week.”

Bruwel, 55, says there is a “very big ideological element” behind the targeted redundancies. The result will be the use of more freelance musicians, he says, which will undermine the orchestra’s artistic integrity.

“Every night you’ll go in with a different team of players,” Bruwel predicts. “It would be like the Australian cricket team versing England in the Ashes and putting on a different eleven every single day. For [Artistic Director] Lyndon [Terracini] to say they’re pursuing excellence, that’s just a joke.”

Upon hearing of the redundancies, the mood among musicians, says Bruwel, was a “combination of shock, disbelief, fear and a complete sense of betrayal, that the people you entrust guardianship of our art form … had just dropped a hand grenade in the middle of the orchestra”.

The orchestra’s Players Committee has said in a widely distributed fact sheet that it “strongly suspects that the ultimate aim of this strategy is to permanently and perhaps entirely casualise the artistic core of the company”.

A committee spokesperson tells Limelight Opera Australia admitted in a meeting this week it was making 56 people redundant in total, including the musicians, chorus members, stage crew and wardrobe staff.

Opera Australia’s Chief Executive, Rory Jeffes, confirms 56 is an accurate number of redundancies, with more than one third of those redundant employees in administrative areas, but denies the company plans to casualise its artistic core.

“We absolutely remain committed to a permanent orchestra and chorus,” Jeffes tells Limelight.

“Of course I realise there is a great deal of anxiety and upset around. None of this is done lightly. We know that it has major impacts on people’s lives. But these are all decisions that have to be made in order to ensure the survival of both Opera Australia and our ability to be able to provide as many opportunities for artists and artisans as possible into the future.”

Rachel Easton, 44, who until last week was tutti violin, had been looking forward to celebrating her 21-year anniversary at Opera Australia this year. “It is a family,” she says. “We’ve all gone through youth orchestras together and the various conservatoriums around the country together. You’ve grown up together, or been taught by some of these people in the orchestra.”

Easton recalls joining Opera Australia as a freelancer when Simone Young was Music Director, and what a “terrific teacher” Young was. Easton earned a permanent orchestra place after three years.

“Simone Young was absolutely determined to get the best out of the orchestra at all times, and she was very strict with us but in the best way. Demanding but also teaching and really pushing you in the way you needed to be pushed.”

But four to five weeks ago, news of Opera Australia’s restructuring program started to “rattle through”, says Easton, undoing the bond between musicians and the company. “The mood was horrible. Here you are thinking you’ve got a full career; I should have 20 more years left in my career.”

“For some reason Opera Australia had been supporting everyone’s pay packets a little over JobKeeper. I’m puzzled why they’re choosing to make redundancies, rather than just stick everyone on baseline JobKeeper to purely maintain the positions.”

“We want to protect the orchestra structure, we want to protect the chorus structure. That’s taken half a century to get. It doesn’t need to be disassembled.”

Easton says some very specialised instrument players have been made redundant.

“In Verdi operas, it’s not the tuba, it’s the cimbasso. The cimbasso player was just made redundant. We are all wondering, are they going to be doing Verdi because there are only a few players in the state that do that, and there are only a few cimbassos, the actual instrument.”

Peter Jenkin, whom Simone Young appointed Principal Clarinet in 2002, was also made redundant. He leaves with great memories, such as playing Wagner’s Parsifal with a “stellar cast” led by tenor Jonas Kaufmann in 2017.

At 64, Jenkin is one of the oldest musicians made redundant, and is one of the lucky few financially and work-wise: he is on staff of the Sydney Conservatorium, where he has been offered more work.

But the impact on his psyche of being made to leave was “extremely hard”, he says, then laughs: “I had to stop drinking because I got so depressed. It wasn’t healthy.”

“In the very last week before the shutdown, I went to a reception for Faust, which is a very big part for first clarinet, and Lyndon made a point in his speech to the board and sponsors and dignitaries, a special comment about my performance; how beautifully played the clarinet solos were. I got a bit of a look and a hand clap as well from the concertmaster, who said it was ‘Pete’s night’.”

“The next communication I got from the Opera with regard to my work was an email saying they wanted to speak to me about my future employment.”

Jenkin says COVID-19 is “absolutely” a cover to casualise the workforce. The redundancy program is “about restructuring the company in a manner which would be impossible if we were actually working”.

Jenkin recalls taking part in an Opera Australia company Zoom meeting about the restructuring, where he could see the faces of his fellow musicians. “People were incredibly hurt by it,” he says. “I had gallery view switched on and I remember being struck – I’m almost in tears talking about it – but they just looked like ghosts. It was awful …”

“Normally if we were gathered together in a room, I wouldn’t see that. But to see a whole screen full of people that had been impacted this way was very confronting.”

Mark Bruwel recalls Opera Australia “muting” one of those Zoom meetings so that the musicians could not speak. “The work that Simone Young did when she joined Opera Australia, what Lyndon’s done is taken all of that and just booted it out the door, along with all the wages and conditions that had been negotiated,” says Bruwel.

“Why would you cut just so much corporate knowledge out, in the middle of a crisis? They really did kick us out into the street. The consultation process was a complete farce …”

“It’s a text-book case of how not to treat your employees. The area I found most distressing was the almost ambivalence at best towards the mental health of the various employees of the company during COVID-19.”

Rory Jeffes responds that it was “certainly not the case” that people were silenced.

“When we started the consultations, the initial consultations were for the whole company, which was around the situation the company was in, and how we were responding to that in terms of a different operating model, and what the implications would be, including the fact there were redundancies.”

“What we did, because there was a lot of information to give to people, on those initial Zoom groups – there were well over 200 people on those calls – and so what we did, and we were clear about this from the start, is we set this up to alternate between being opportunities for us to provide information across the whole company to those over 200 people, and then the following week to have them as a Q&A session.”

“It is the case that the information sessions were very much about the company providing information to all our employees … and there were then follow-up sessions which were all about two-way communication, and they actually worked very well.”

Why were voluntary redundancies not offered to the artists? “As we looked at how to implement the [new] operating model, we needed to achieve a balance of a range of roles across the whole organisation. Just going for arbitrary or voluntary redundancies would have jeopardised our ability to be able to retain that balance of roles across the organisation, so it was not a route we were able to go.”

Why not just keep artists on baseline JobKeeper? “The new operating model is long term … which will allow us the flexibility to respond to [changes due to COVID-19] as they happen. … JobKeeper’s a short-term thing, and we needed to do what we’ve done.”

In the short term, if Opera Australia has to call in freelance musicians if it wants to stage an opera in, say, January 2021, won’t that undermine the artistic integrity and excellence of the orchestra?

“So the way we’ve gone about this is to make the organisation sustainable. We’ve not implemented a new operating model for any reason other than a response to the crisis. Now, we need to achieve balance across all the various aspects, whether it’s orchestra, chorus, the principal singers, the technical side, the crews, our ability to get audiences in,” says Jeffes.

“All of those have to be considered and worked through in terms of how we’re going to be able to get back on stage. We’re really excited about what we’re going to be able to do and I’m actually really confident that, whether our musicians or our artists, they’re going to be really excited about what we’re going to be able to do as well.”

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