For the briefest of moments last Friday night, I thought I was seeing things. Was that really George Brandis ambling up to the microphone to wax operatic about the opening night of Carmen on Sydney Harbour? Sure enough, there at the Opera Australia lectern he appeared: the ghost of arts ministers past. In 2015 Brandis was dumped as federal arts minister in Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet reshuffle, an ignominy that coincided with the fallout from his controversial $105 million raid on the Australia Council and the establishment of his short-lived National Program for Excellence in the Arts. The senator was replaced by Mitch Fifield, a man who on his appointment to the highest cultural gig in the land admitted he hadn’t in recent memory seen an opera. With Fifield away on Friday, Brandis was given the job of talking on behalf of the government, raising the eyebrows of many in attendance. I’d love to report anything of what was said, but the post-show microphone had other ideas. It was on the blink, cutting in and out of audibility. The result was a speech that better resembled someone ordering dinner for a coachload of footballers through a fast-food drive-through PA. It was a bizarre end to a big week for Brandis. Just that morning he’d relented to a three-year order from the federal court to release his ministerial diaries, and days earlier the government dumped the Catalyst arts program — the one instituted by Fifield to replace Brandis’s Excellence fund, which had been set up with redirected OzCo money. The decision to can Catalyst and restore $61m to the national funder was met with dancing in the streets by some quarters of the arts fraternity, and Brandis remains a contentious figure in the sector. But, even as the mic skipped on Friday, the man known as Bookshelves pressed on with staccato-like stoicism. The great irony is the sound in this sixth iteration of Handa on Sydney Harbour is the best it has been. That is thanks to Tony David Cray, the Grammy-winning engineer responsible for piping Bizet’s opera to the 3000-strong open-air crowd. There is no denying the appeal of HOSH. Ticket sales are strong, and the production is slick. OA artistic director Lyndon Terracini could be forgiven for wearing a smile each night as Carmen meets her tragic demise: Don Jose’s not the only one who knows how to make a killing on the harbour.