DEMOCRATISE OR DIE
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