Cash-Strapped Opera Australia Singing for Its Supper

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Australia’s largest performing arts organisation has posted another loss as it struggles with hesitant audiences and cost blowouts.

Opera Australia recorded an operating loss of $447,878 (US$298,018) for the 2022 financial year, an improvement on the record $22.6 million loss it notched up for 2020/21 when the pandemic forced it to cancel most performances.

The company brought in $79.8 million at the box office, but staff costs for more than 1500 employees were worth of $70 million, according to the figures released on May 17.

It also received $37.6 million in taxpayer funding including just under $10 million from the NSW government and without that, things would have looked much worse.

With more losses predicted for 2023, it could be years before Opera Australia returns to surplus, according to chief executive Fiona Allan.

“I think it’s just not an immediate thing. I do think I can make a commitment to getting us there,” she told AAP.

“But I don’t think this is something that’s going to happen over one year or even two.”

Allan said the 2022 result is “great” for an organisation that’s still recovering, as well as coping with a new set of problems.

Costs for some production materials have gone up by half, while prices for flights and accommodation are “crippling”.

“We can’t pass those costs on to the consumer because people are very price sensitive in this level of inflation,” she said.

Audiences were cautious about heading to the theatre for much of the reporting period, and attendance remains volatile, with people buying tickets much later than usual.

Yet the annual report shows 627,568 people still had a taste of the opera, with 507 performances staged.

If the company can thank the taxpayers of Australia and especially NSW for making the 2022 result more palatable, it can also thank musical theatres.

Opera Australia raised eyebrows when it programmed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera but the show broke box office records in Sydney and Melbourne with an audience of 202,000 and another 63,000 catching the version staged on Sydney Harbour.

Another musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella was a similar success playing in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to an audience of 244,000.

Allan says more musicals are an obvious fresh income stream for the national opera company, which promises they won’t come at the expense of its opera program.

As for that, Opera Australia staged some innovative productions during 2022, with Il Trovatore using massive digital screens, and a production of Carmen shifted to Cockatoo Island and the #MeToo era.

Opera Australia ruffled feathers when the company revealed it would not stage any full productions in Melbourne during 2023, but Allan says it’s exploring more co-productions and looking at regional venues such as Geelong.

Behind the scenes, according to the annual report, an anonymous survey of the company’s employees that delivered a “sobering” picture of its corporate culture has resulted in measures including a 24-hour hotline for opera workers to report inappropriate behaviour.

A more recent staff survey has shown some improvement, said Allan.

“We’ve invested a lot in our people in the past year, and we’re trying to start to turn around a workplace culture that wasn’t always healthy,” she said.

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