Churchill Trust report author David Barnard is “irresponsible” and “self-interested,” says Opera Queensland’s Lindy Hume.

International directors and professionals at home have spoken out condemning a report that says Australian opera singers aren’t respected abroad. The claims, reported last week on industry website ArtsHub, were made by David Barnard, a conductor and opera répétiteur, who was awarded a Churchill Trust Fellowship to undertake a seven-week tour of European opera houses as part of his professional development. Barnard also described Australian opera company artistic directors as “self-promoters”, criticised them for taking additional fees for conducting and directing their own companies, and launched a swingeing attack on the judgement of Victorian Opera and the competence of its AD Richard Mills.

As part of a strongly worded rebuttal, Opera Queensland’s Artistic Director Lindy Hume spoke to Limelight last week calling many of Barnard’s statements “irresponsible and his arguments “not sustainable.” “I don’t know this guy, I’ve never met him – if I have I can’t recall, but what his comments show is an extremely narrow perspective and a surprisingly limited understanding,” she says. Meanwhile Kasper Holten, Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, has told Limelight that on the contrary, Covent Garden has been “very impressed with the standard of singers coming out of Australia in recent years”, going on to contradict Barnard’s statements on the roles of conductors and directors within opera companies.

Opera Queensland AD Lindy Hume

Barnard’s Fellowship, funded by Mr and Mrs Gerald Frank New, allowed him to travel to Europe for two months to look at how opera works overseas and examine the perception of Australian opera abroad. In his report, Barnard maintains that European houses and academies have so little respect for Australian vocal training that they would be unlikely even to consider singers from this country for auditions, let alone places within their companies. He cites a “lack of style understanding and refinement of musicality” among reasons why Australian singers are “usually dismissed before the audition stage.” Although he admits he was unsuccessful in gaining access to several houses, including La Scala, Milan, he quotes Michele D’Elia, a freelance vocal coach who works with the Accademia del Teatro alla Scala as saying that people regarded Australia “as a place [for] sport, wildlife and sunshine”, and that it was “simply not on the radar for opera.”

But Holten for one is adamant that this is far from the case in the experience of the Royal Opera House. “We have been thrilled to work with excellent Australian talents,” he says. “Last season five of the participants on the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme were Australian (four singers and one stage director). This programme is designed for exceptional artists at the start of their career and the competition for a place is always extremely high; that year there were over 390 applications from 58 countries. This season we have again four Australian singers participating.” Hume agrees, citing the historical case. “Clearly since the 1950s there’s been a steady stream of Australian artists leaving Australia to go to the great opera capitals of the world and doing extremely well,” she says and Holten concurs: “The Royal Opera has benefited from the performances of many great Australian singers through generations, and of course I have to mention the astonishing success of Nicole Car, whom I brought to London after I worked with her in Sydney.”

ROH Covent Garden’s Director of Opera Kasper Holten. Photo: Sim Cannetty-Clarke

Another international house that Barnard admits he found it difficult to extract information from is the Opéra National de Paris. However, in his report he claimed to have spoken to Myriam Mazouzi, Director of the Academie de l’Opera de Paris, who had told him that an Australian would have no chance of getting into her academy. “Why would we even consider looking to Australia? In Europe, Australia is not regarded as a country for opera and we would most likely spend the whole time bringing the Australian artist up to standard in the basics of style and language first – we don’t have time for this,” he quoted her as saying. The Academy was quick to respond, accusing Barnard of “considerable mistranslation”, insisting that they would never discriminate against a candidate, and requesting that ArtsHub publish a lengthy clarifying statement from Mazouzi in full.

Barnard’s other broadside was launched against Australian opera company ADs. “In Germany, if you are stood down from a Ring Cycle because you didn’t really ‘prepare it’ or it was out of your capabilities as a musician and conductor, you are not likely to be engaged for other opportunities in the future. In Australia, we continue to let the same individual run an opera company and conduct in their own season each year,” he wrote in a paragraph that most assume refers to Victorian Opera AD Richard Mills who stepped down from conducting the 2013 Melbourne Ring, citing issues of “personal chemistry” with members of the cast. VO Managing Director Andrew Snell refused to comment further on the matter, telling Limelight that “Richard has already made his comments around why he departed from The Ring, comments that were well publicised at the time.” Hume was less reticent. “It’s so disrespectful of one of Australia’s most distinguished musicians, composers and conductors,” she says. “Richard Mills has created opportunities for Australian artists above and beyond – even just in the operas he’s written – as well as through the leadership of his musical organisations for decades.”

David Barnard

Another of Barnard’s arguments maintains that in Germany an artistic director is content with the job and doesn’t seek further opportunities to work within their company. “In Australia, for some peculiar reason, this position seems to warrant the remit of promoting your own discipline and to give yourself opportunities you would never otherwise get outside of your small pond or ability. In some cases, these self-promoters, even pay themselves a ‘fee’ in addition to their CEO or artistic director salary to do such a thing. I’d love to know how this is ethical business practice or the best use of our public money”, he says.

That argument doesn’t hold much water according to Hume and Holten. “Why doesn’t he tell that to Simone Young or Patrick Summers? Or Antonio Pappano? It’s ridiculous,” says Hume. “It’s called artistic leadership. It happens all the time, all over the world. If you’re a practicing artist like I am, it is part of your artistic leadership, it’s part of your artistic arsenal to lead from the front. You wouldn’t get someone like Barrie Kosky if he couldn’t direct his own company.” Holten disagrees as well. “On the contrary, I think it would absolutely be the norm that an Artistic Director works with his or her own company, if he or she is a conductor or stage director,” he says. “Of course both Antonio Pappano and myself regularly do artistic work at The Royal Opera.”

As regards any additional fee, VO’s Andrew Snell sees no problem. “Artistic Directors have the incredibly difficult job of driving the artistic vision of a company in a continuously challenging climate, often with very limited resources, he says. “Each company will have a different financial model to recognise this extraordinary contribution. Some will include the scope for additional work within an existing salary and others will recognise that work separately. An additional fee is often about recognising a considerable level of work, which is additional to the AD’s existing workload.”

Barnard’s 38-page report is published on the Churchill Memorial Trust website and expands on many of his points. “Australia is still not truly on the opera radar internationally and is regarded by many as third rate, which is devastating to me,” he says. “This poor reputation is also reflected, so they say, in the way Australian opera companies are managed and their small, dull annual output… I’d like to help change this – I’d like to influence the change, for this and future generations of the opera profession, so that they are given the best opportunities here in Australia without the need to live abroad long-term to learn their craft and share their talent.”

While Hume accepts certain aspects of musical style and certain linguistic capabilities have always been difficult to achieve in Australia, she doesn’t see any of these as insurmountable problem and feels that Barnard is “naïve” and that he is considering the issues from a “limited perspective”. “We live on the other side of the planet for God’s sake!” she says. “Great Australian singers have always gone to Europe to do their finishing, it’s just how it works. You can’t just isolate one little aspect. He seems not to have any understanding of the big picture. He hasn’t mentioned any of the funding disparities. He seems to be quite self interested.”