Opera out in the cold: QEII’s recent policy review, Lindis Taylor

It would be easy to imagine that the arts establishment in New Zealand had a prejudice against opera so pervasive that no pains were spared to stifle it. The QEII Arts Council, for instance, is still widely mistrusted as a result of having killed one company and abetted in the suicide of a second within two decades. In September it released its new opera policy. It is a disappointing statement. It fails entirely to deal with opera’s major disability – a level of funding which is utterly derisory in comparison with every other art form in New Zealand and with other countries.

The total grants for opera companies in 1992 are to remain the same as in 1991 – in fact slightly reduced from $529,500 to $525,000. The only significant change is in the distribution among the companies. Mercury Opera received $315,500 in the current year while its successor, Auckland Opera, will get $240,000 in 1992 for three productions. Wellington and Christchurch will get grants of $60,000, for each of a planned two productions in 1992. This represents an increase over $37,000 each in 1991. Dunedin’s grant rises from $30,000 to $45,000 in 1992, with nothing after that. There was no mention of the Hawke’s Bay Company. After 1992 the system changes and only ‘professional’ companies will be able to apply under the Arts Investment Programme. Others are restricted to a ‘Music Performance and Recording Projects’ category which is clearly not intended primarily to help Dunedin and Hawke’s Bay, for instance, to mount the kind of opera that will succeed at the box office.

New Zealand’s support for the arts is almost at the bottom of the OECD list; furthermore, opera’s share is the lowest I know of among Western countries. That makes the attainment of professional standards by New Zealand opera something of a miracle.

The thrust of submission to the Arts Council has been that the southern companies did not seek increased funds at the expense of Auckland, but that grants should approach theirs: that could be achieved only by an overall increase. 1992 requests proved remarkably modest, totalling just over $800,000. It simply shows that companies recognised that it was futile to seek larger increases. In no way does it reflect the demand.

In my own submission I argued that the level of funding for opera should be at least comparable with that of ballet (the Royal New Zealand Ballet receives $1,362,000 in 1992 and is likely to pick up a further $200,000 through various additional ‘tiers’ of funding). But further, I believed that it should equal that of other English-speaking countries – Australia and the United Kingdom – that is some 14 percent of the Council’s disbursements. And that would still leave New Zealand well behind in per capita terms because of the low funding to the Arts Council.

The main concern must be over the Arts Council’s objectivity and its capacity to act equitably. Is it so tightly in the grip of its presently dominant interest groups that no redistribution of money can be hoped for? If, in the face of an international upsurge of interest in opera, including composition, and of a similar trend in New Zealand, the Council is unable to adapt, to change the pattern of its hand-outs, even in a token way, its usefulness must be questioned.

Whence the inertia – to put the most charitable interpretation on it? Do Council members lack the courage to redistribute funds in the face of all the evidence? Are the interests of other arts groups so strongly represented that change is impossible?

Music generally is not under-represented in the backgrounds of the Council members: it features in some way in six out of the fourteen. But the word opera occurs in none of the biographies, an extraordinary lack. I am sure that the Council will say in defence that it does not seek to be representative of everything from batik to bagpipes, but clearly, ineffective advocacy within it has resulted in the present pattern of funding.

Because of the vicissitudes of opera in New Zealand, the public has not yet become so familiar with the classics that they are ready to go further afield, let alone to contemplate works by New Zealanders. But there is no reason why an indigenous musical theatre could not arise: we seem to have forgotten the remarkable case of Jenny McLeod’s Under the Sun and Earth and Sky of twenty years ago. They stand without antecedents and certainly without successors – mainly, I submit, because the general climate proved unpropitious. Such things cannot be planned or created by edict. But a prerequisite for writing New Zealand works is surely the existence of a sympathetic atmosphere, a well-informed audience, a body of singers and other musicians versed in opera. There is no substitute for generous stable funding from government sources.


Lindis Taylor is editor of New Zealand Opera News


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