Opera Australia at a crossroads

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. Photo by Hamilton Lund for Opera Australia

As Opera Australia finds itself embroiled in an industrial dispute and haemorrhaging with financial losses, onlookers can only look on with pity and horror at what has been happening with the nation’s flagship opera company since the pandemic hit in March. With numerous production cancellations and postponements continuing to mount, 25 per cent of its staff facing redundancy, and plans underway to sell its Alexandria warehouse to raise cash, it is in crisis.

The dispute between management and the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) over job losses only deepens the crisis. On the one hand, the union has accused Opera Australia of having engaged in “a sham consultation process” with workers ahead of the planned restructure. This it expects will see job losses across “every department of the company, including musicians, chorus performers and technical and staging crew”.

The majority of OA employees were temporarily stood down in March, but JobKeeper payments have allowed them to stay on the books with a proportion of their regular salaries as part of an employee support package. But MEAA contends that the purpose of this JobKeeper funding is to keep staff employed, not shed them in a restructure.

Meanwhile, OA management has given no formal notices of retrenchments, although it has given clear indications that it intends to permanently downsize its workforce. Chief executive Rory Jeffes announced to staff on 21 August that a needed company restructure will involve streamlining the company “to create efficiencies, reduce cost and align to a new, more flexible operating model”.

On 3 September, Limelight quoted a company spokesperson as saying that 25 per cent of the jobs to disappear will be in administration, and that “consultations are happening with employees in the rest of the organisation, with MEAA as their representatives”.

Now MEAA is taking Opera Australia to the Fair Work Commission with claims the job cuts are being made without consultation or justification. It said in a statement on 14 September: “We have proposed an alternative emergency measures agreement, where workers would be prepared to take a temporary pay cut to ease the financial pressure and retain jobs. This has worked at other major performing arts companies like the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.”

MEAA simultaneously launched a public petition to save employees’ jobs, and this calls for urgent financial intervention and for the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts to intervene “to ensure the company maintains its responsibility as the producer of world class opera in Australia”.

With losses expected to mount to “multi-millions” this year, it is self-evident that contraction to the company’s employees can only go so far before OA slowly bleeds to death. Rather than this being a battle between company management and the union, it is to be viewed a public battle to retain one of the country’s highest achieving and most visible artistic icons. Not only that, OA is also Australia’s biggest arts employer with 1,495 artists, musicians, trade and technical workers, and administration and management staff. Too much stands to be lost without government stepping in with additional support.

An alternative idea, as Peter Tregear has suggested, is that Opera Australia could reinvent itself on a low-cost model that presents opera in local, community settings around the country. This would in turn solve the company’s reliance on star international performers flying in for productions at a time when travel restrictions make that impossible. But as we already have in Australia many smaller professional, semi-professional and amateur companies doing this, as Tregear notes, it would only result in duplication. Any down-sizing will inevitably erode OA’s artistic strength and prestige as an apex company – along with its public and international image as the Sydney Opera House’s raison d’être.

With OA facing the bleakest time in its history, this is time not for taking sides but for finding a common purpose.

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