For its 2012 season, the company has assembled an unparalleled collection of warhorses, and they’re champing at the bit, ready to gallop forth next January and start securing full houses. So if the tried and true repertoire favourites are your cup of tea, you are in for a treat. If you like the occasional challenge or rarity, if you’re interested in contemporary opera, Australian works, Baroque repertoire or Russian or Czech opera — 2012 may be tough going for you. With just a couple of exceptions, next year’s season is all about Opera’s Greatest Hits. So let’s hit the trail with those horses, and see what 2012 has to offer.

New leadership

The 2012 season is the first entirely programmed by Lyndon Terracini. In interviews after his appointment, Terracini implied that he had plans to épater le bourgeois a bit with some unconventional repertoire choices, but evidently the new administration has ultimately opted for security over daring, this year at least. Maybe a more individual stamp will come later — some of us, myself included, were rather looking forward to having an enfant terrible in the tob job — but for now, Terracini seems set on securing the company’s finances and audience base with surefire big sellers.

Mozart Festival

Sydneysiders, do you love Mozart? Let’s hope so, because that’s almost all you’ll see in your summer season. Beginning what Terracini hints may become a recurrent feature of season programming, Opera Australia will devote the first few months of its 2012 season to Mozart, with productions of three of his operas in English translation. Jim Sharman’s 2008 production of Così fan tutte returns, along with Benedict Andrews’s new Le nozze di Figaro (postponed for financial reasons in 2010) and most excitingly, Julie Taymor’s spectacular Metropolitan Opera production of The Magic Flute. Mozart is a surefire favourite, of course, but there are risks in this festival too — Sharman’s modern, tracksuited “Aussie Così” was not universally acclaimed in 2008, and those put off by it may well have a similar issue with the Figaro, which — at least when announced in 2010 — was to be set in a present day gated community, with Figaro as security guard.

The casting also puts serious pressure on some young singers, who will make major role débuts — Nicole Car will share Pamina with Hye Seoung Kwon, Samuel Dundas and Stephen Smith appear as Guglielmo and Ferrando, and David Parkin makes a move from smaller roles into one of the greatest roles of the basso profundo repertoire, Sarastro. Figaro does have a more seasoned cast, however, including Joshua Bloom in the title role, the lovely Elvira Faytkhova as the Countess and Australian great Michael Lewis as the Count. Of the three, Taymor’s Magic Flute is likely to be the greatest hit — a perfect family outing — and the company will rightly offer reduced ticket prices to some school holiday performances. The production will also travel to Brisbane and Melbourne.

That’s right, Brisbane

For the first time, Opera Australia will present a mainstage season in Brisbane as well as Melbourne. The aforementioned Magic Flute (with young Brisbane-based soprano Milica Ilic as Queen of the Night) and Baz Luhrmann’s much loved Raj production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Lorina Gore as Tytania, Tobias Cole as Oberon and, as ever, Tyler Coppin in the speaking/acrobatics role of Puck.

So what about the rest of the Sydney season?

You mean, apart from the all the Mozart? Just Turandot. There’s evidently no room for anything more, so those weary of the eighteenth century had better be fans of supersized Puccini. Graeme Murphy’s production returns, with Anke Hoeppner (who proved her aptitude for Big Puccini in last year’s La fanciulla del West) and American soprano Susan Foster sharing the title role. Another import, Italian Puccini specialist Daria Masiero, shares Liù with Hye Seoung Kwon, and Rosario La Spina enters the competitive singing fray (Turandot is like that) as Calaf.

But wait, there’s the Harbour!

That’s true. Opera on the Harbour will run for three weeks in March and April, so there’s always that for your non-Mozartian fix. Francesca Zambello’s extravagant harbourside La traviata is bound to be a big draw for Sydneysiders and tourists alike and it’s an important role début for Emma Matthews and, if I’m not mistaken, Rachelle Durkin as well, who shares Violetta duties.

Déjà vu in Melbourne

Melbourne’s autumn season shares the love, with two operas from Sydney’s summer season, and two from Sydney’s 2010 offerings. Julie Taymor’s Flute travels, as does Turandot, and in the latter Melbourne scores a casting triumph — the magnificent Elizabeth Connell sings the title role, no doubt launching a thousand SYD-MEL roundtrips in the process. Elijah Moshinsky’s Barber of Seville hits Melbourne too, with Figaro par excellence José Carbo, and the season concludes with the production of The Merry Widow now on in Sydney.

Cheryl Takes Sydney (auf Deutsch)

The warhorses still run rampant in Sydney’s winter season, but they’re framed by two rather less equine offerings: Richard Strauss’s bloodthirsty Salome and, in its Australian première, Korngold’s surreal Die Tote Stadt. Both star Cheryl Barker, who will be sensational in two roles ideally suited to her talents; they might not sell out, but they’re likely to be among the season’s musical high points. Die Tote Stadt already looks to set to be the Talking Point of 2012 — Bruce Beresford’s production will feature three dimensional holograms and “cinema-style surround sound”, with the orchestra placed in the Opera House studio, away from the singers, who’ll see the conductor via TV screens. Yeah, I’m a bit wary of that, too; but if it’s the only way we can accommodate a Tote Stadt-sized orchestra, it’s worth a try.

Italy in winter

Between those two German works, Italy takes centrestage, with just one French opera in the mix. John Copley’s very old, very brown Lucia di Lammermoor has at last been replaced; instead, the company will present John Doyle’s staging (a co-production with La Fenice and Houston Grand Opera) with — who else? — Emma Matthews in the title role and American tenor heartthrob James Valenti as her Edgardo. Clearly a Lucia worth hearing. Another Australian coloratura soprano, Jessica Pratt, has been notching up a series of successes overseas for a while now, including Queen of the Night at Covent Garden and Lucias all over Italy, so it’s about time Opera Australia nabbed her for home. She’ll sing Léïla in Pearl Fishers.

Graeme Murphy’s golden, stylised Aida is back, and again the title role will be split between an Australian (Jacqueline Mabardi, clearly a rising favourite with the new administration) and an import (Norma Fantini, whose name surely predestined her for divadom.) Madama Butterfly also features — it’s becoming almost an annual event at this rate — with Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura and Antoinette Halloran sharing the title role. Halloran’s husband James Egglestone sings Pinkerton, which surprises me given the very lyric quality of his voice; but at least the stage chemistry will be there!

Cherry picking in Melbourne

Lucia, Butterfly and Salome continue to Melbourne, with more or less the same casts as their Sydney counterparts — a wise move, given ongoing complaints (sometimes justified, sometimes not) that Melbourne was seeing B-casts of Sydney shows. Melbourne even gets one particularly neat casting change — instead of John Wegner, who’ll be Sydney’s excellent Jochanaan, Melbourne will see Peter Coleman-Wright in the role, alongside his wife’s Salome. If reports of the Tosca they did together are anything to go by, this should make for a pretty charged show.

But wait, there’s more!

In addition to all the above, OA will have two nationwide tours in swing next year. On a small scale, Oz Opera will take its Don Giovanni to NSW, Victoria and the ACT. And on a much, much larger and more glamorous scale, the company will also present a national tour of South Pacific, starring Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Broadway musicals are increasingly becoming a fixture of OA’s seasons, but this is the biggest such venture so far — and guaranteed to divide opinion. What do you think? Do these shows belong in an opera season?

A few final thoughts

I see a few notable absences in this season. Some of these singers have international careers which presumably explain this; others are ensemble stalwarts whose duties — at least in terms of principal roles — would appear to have been reduced. The release of complete cast lists may well amend this impression, of course; I just hope it has nothing to do with Terracini’s rather rash statements about weight. It’s also clear that the company is relying quite heavily on young singers in big roles — wonderful opportunities, much of the time, but I do hope these artists don’t find themselves compelled to take on too much, too soon — and that Australia’s established artists (whether resident or international) won’t be elbowed out. I can’t claim that this season is ideally suited to my personal taste — in and of themselves, I’d like to see a lot of these shows, but all in one year, well, it’s too many chestnuts for me. I need more weirdness, more variety and a bit more of a challenge in my season. But I’m not going to be there anyway (except for Salome and Die Tote Stadt, which I wouldn’t miss for the world) so who am I to complain?

Meanwhile, there there’s plenty to recommend this coming season and for anyone just starting to dabble in opera, it will be a particularly good introduction. My picks? Cheryl’s Salome and Marie/Marietta, of course, along with the new productions of both operas. Joshua Bloom as Figaro. Anything conducted by Simon Hewett or Arvo Volmer. Elizabeth Connell’s Turandot, Jessica Pratt’s company début, José Carbo’s Figaro (always good for a laugh) and every pearly note that Emma Matthews sings. And of the imports, I’d say the two most promising are James Valenti and the Julie Taymor Magic Flute.

So what about you? If you’re still with me, that is; I should probably have warned you that I’m never concise about this sort of thing. What’s your take on Lyndon Terracini’s inaugural season? What has you excited? What… doesn’t? Start putting together those subscription packages now, and please, share your thoughts here.