DEMOCRA­TISE OR DIE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

WHEN I am ush­ered into Lyn­don Ter­racini’s of­fice, the artis­tic di­rec­tor of the coun­try’s most pres­ti­gious arts com­pany doesn’t look up; he has his face buried in his mo­bile phone, like a tex­to­b­sessed teenager. The Opera Aus­tralia chief is check­ing the com­pany’s daily ticket sales, which he ad­mits has be­come an un­healthy ob­ses­sion. “It’s pa­thetic,’’ he says sheep­ishly, even as he runs his thumb com­pul­sively over his smart­phone screen.

The web link isn’t work­ing, so he reluc­tantly puts down the phone, only to pick it up again once this in­ter­view is un­der way. This time, he can see that OA sold al­most 2000 tick­ets the day be­fore. “Great!’’ he ex­claims loudly, his re­lief pal­pa­ble. Among the tick­ets fly­ing out the door are those for a Magic Flute bound for a Gold Coast beach and a Madama But­ter­fly that opens on Fri­day on Syd­ney Har­bour, com­plete with a float­ing stage, gi­gan­tic in­flat­able moon and a tat­tooed Cio-Cio-San (to be played by Ja­pan’s Hiromi Omura and Korean-born Aus­tralian Hye­seoung Kwon).

Such crowd-pleas­ing pro­duc­tions are cen­tral to Ter­racini’s strat­egy of bring­ing an elite art form, en­crusted with decades of tra­di­tion, to a broader, more di­verse au­di­ence. He is do­ing this when, he claims, opera houses and or­ches­tras are fold­ing “vir­tu­ally by the day’’.

So far, at least in box-of­fice terms, the strat­egy seems to be work­ing: the na­tional opera com­pany is sell­ing record num­bers of tick­ets while many of its over­seas coun­ter­parts floun­der in the red. “I guess we must be do­ing some­thing right,’’ says Ter­racini, chuck­ling rue­fully. There is a hint of steel in that laugh, and it’s di­rected, one sus­pects, at the nay-say­ers who have at­tacked the more pop­ulist as­pects of his pro­gram­ming. Dur­ing the past two years, the opera di­rec­tor has pro­grammed three wa­ter­front spec­ta­cles on Syd­ney Har­bour. Last year, he teamed up with mu­si­cals pro­ducer John Frost to stage a tour­ing pro­duc­tion of Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein’s South Pa­cific, which starred Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Lisa McCune and Kate Ce­ber­ano. An­other R&H mu­si­cal, The King and I, opens in Bris­bane next month be­fore tour­ing to Syd­ney and Mel­bourne.

Ter­racini was told by many — in­clud­ing col­leagues in­side OA — he was crazy for sched­ul­ing a mu­si­cal in an opera sea­son. Yet South Pa­cific turned out to be the big­gest sell­ing pro­duc­tion of OA’s 2013 lineup. “All those people who said I’m a dis­grace and I’m the anti-Christ for do­ing the mu­si­cal — our sub­scribers bought that far above any other opera in the sea­son.”

The King and I, a lav­ishly de­signed, Tony award-win­ning pro­duc­tion, again pairs Rhodes and McCune in the lead roles. Asked why a sub­sidised opera com­pany is stag­ing an­other Amer­i­can mu­si­cal, Ter­racini says with cus­tom­ary frank­ness: “Be­cause many of them, things like South Pa­cific, are bet­ter than a lot of op­eras. They’re bet­ter crafted, the mu­sic is bet­ter, the texts, the nar­ra­tive is much bet­ter.’’

It’s dis­ori­ent­ing to hear the most pow­er­ful fig­ure in Aus­tralian opera talk­ing up clas­sic mu­si­cals while talk­ing down “a lot’’ of op­eras. Then again, this fourth-gen­er­a­tion Ital­ian-Aus­tralian who dis­cov­ered mu­sic through Sal­va­tion Army brass bands and choirs is prob­a­bly the na­tion’s most out­spo­ken cul­tural leader. In this in­ter­view, in his blunt yet dis­arm­ingly open way, he can­vasses sub­jects rang­ing from his decades­long strug­gle with de­pres­sion to his hard­line views on con­tem­po­rary com­posers (“they haven’t got au­di­ence’’). He dis­misses the distinc­tion be­tween mu­si­cals and op­eras as “pompous’’: “I don’t think the gen­eral pub­lic is in­ter­ested in [those la­bels] at all. People don’t care whether it’s an opera or a mu­si­cal or what­ever ... I think that pompous de­lin­eation of what

March 15-16, 2014 people think an opera is, it’s just a very dated and very nar­row view.’’

Since he took on the top job at Opera Aus­tralia in 2009, the singer turned arts ad­min­is­tra­tor has honed his talent for gen­er­at­ing head­lines, Twit­ter storms and Face­book furores. He has made con­tentious dec­la­ra­tions about ev­ery­thing from obese opera singers do­ing love scenes (“It’s ob­scene’’); to “the sense of pa­tri­cian en­ti­tle­ment’’ of some opera in­sid­ers; to the “pre­his­toric’’ union quota that lim­its the num­ber of over­seas singers who can per­form with OA. “You can’t have unions run­ning said.

Given his pen­chant for call­ing it as he sees it, I ex­pect the for­mer bari­tone to be ebul­lient and blus­tery; a ta­ble thumper. But mostly he talks in a sub­dued, al­beit of­ten breath­tak­ingly di­rect, way. In his Syd­ney of­fice — which is big and light but more func­tional than glam­orous — he sits, al­most hunched over in a small up­hol­stered chair, avoid­ing eye con­tact.

Days later, at Re­view’s photo shoot, his per­form­ing per­sona comes out to play. Wear­ing a

art,” he has black T-shirt em­bla­zoned with the words “Are you mad?’’, he hams it up for the cam­era. He stretches out on the paint-spat­tered floor of the OA’s props depart­ment, stands on a metal­lic, claw-footed throne, hangs off a wob­bly lad­der with an arm and leg ex­tended. It’s easy to for­get he is 62. At one point, he smooths his blow­dried quiff, leans into the pho­tog­ra­pher’s lens and quips: “Trust me, I’m an artis­tic di­rec­tor.’’

Here is sly ac­knowl­edg­ment that his strat­egy for at­tract­ing broader au­di­ences has no short­age of de­trac­tors. In fact, he jokes about it. He

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