A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald quoted Lyndon Terracini, artistic director of Opera Australia, saying that ‘audiences don’t want to see new works,‘ The context is him defending his 2015 programming choices, which have been broadly discussed elsewhere.
On the face of it, it’s a reasonable argument. Opera is expensive to mount. New opera takes more rehearsal time (e.g. more $$ out) and is seen as a box office risk (e.g. less $$ in). It doesn’t need Mr Pickwick to point out that if you are trying to balance the books a re-run of an existing production of a repertoire favourite is a safer bet.
Where it comes unstuck, however, is if you challenge is the validity of the statement itself.
“Audiences don’t want to see new works.”
Which audiences are we talking about? All audiences? Classical music audiences? Opera audiences? Audiences who can afford premium-priced opera tickets?
I was at Sydney Opera House on Tuesday and Wednesday night this week. On Tuesday I was seeing the first night of Faust in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, and jolly good fun it was. Tits and tights and Fab-ulous singing. On Wednesday I saw the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performing Boulez, Debussy and the Australian premiere of Georges Lentz’s new work, Jerusalem (after Blake).
The foyer was heaving on both nights, full of sticky, sweaty Sydneysiders who had rushed from work, school, home, through the commuter traffic, to get to Bennelong Point for an evening of kul-cha. There were great crowds of humanity from right across the social spectrum – young, old, jeans and t-shirts, jewels and high heels. What’s more, there was a palpable buzz, that lovely feeling of people excited about what they were going to see.
I didn’t see the ACO crowd come out – we were in Faust for a good solid 3.5 hours. And it was a good solid show. Much enthusing amongst the black ties and sequins as we came out, plus quite a bit of running for car park / taxi / ferry / bus.
On Wednesday night I confess I was one of those people running to get to the car park before everyone else, ignoring the coincidental firework display going off like, well, fireworks over Farm Cove. But I did witness the response to the music. Warm applause after the Boulez, then whoops and cheers after the Lentz. Remember, this is an Australian premiere, 20+ minutes long and about as opaque as a moonless night, and yet it had a power about it which completely gripped me and, it would seem, the majority of the audience. There was that perfect silence at the end before a roar of approval, and an acquaintance in the row in front of me turned round after the last notes and mouthed ‘WOW!’
My point is that this was challenging, uncompromisingly new music which found a wholehearted response from an enormous crowd. OK, it was Meet the Music, so many in the audience were high-school kids who had no real choice in what they went to see. But the way they listened and responded was incredibly heartening. 16 year olds can be a tough audience, and I’ve seen and heard their likes go feral in the Concert Hall before, but not tonight.
So what kind of audience is this? Young, old, dressed-up, dressed-down, gay, straight, culturally-diverse. Some buying cheap school tickets, some spending a bit more. Open-minded, participators. Bottom line, it’s the audience of the future.