Divorcing the Traditional

Lyndon Terracini has been a rather controversial Artistic Director for Opera Australia with his strong focus on fantastic audience experiences for the wider Australian community. Some feel that he is selling out this traditionally upper class artform, others (like myself) believe that he could be the saving grace for an old performance style. But, regardless of your opinion, there is no debating that his latest project will satisfy the company’s mission of bringing opera to as many people as possible.

Handa Opera

The Divorce has just started filming in Melbourne. Featuring a cast of Australian favourites including Lisa McCune, Marina Prior, Hugh Sheridan, Kate Miller-Heidke, Peter Cousens and Christie Whelan-Browne, this isn’t your traditional soap opera.

With more emphasis on the opera than the soap, this ABC television series takes the long-standing traditions of opera and expresses them through a more accessible medium. Music will be written by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin alongside a libretto by Melbourne-born Joanna Murray-Smith.

Sure, this is a controversial move. It comes at a time where there is growing popularity for broadcast versions of musical theatre, plays, opera and ballet and there is also great opposition to the removal of the ‘live’ aspect of performance. But this shouldn’t be compared against the other opera programming. It is an opportunity for opera to reach completely new audiences. Audiences who have never seen an opera or have too many barriers in their way to see a work.

And this has often been a point of contention for Opera Australia.

They are often applauded for surviving through a period where many grand-scale opera companies are folding. But it isn’t really a secret why Opera Australia is still going strong reporting huge audience numbers each year. One of their highest priorities is the audience.

Opera traditionalists may be looking for abstract new operas which take the discipline further towards art rather than entertainment, but this isn’t true for the bulk of Australia’s population. New audiences and younger audiences want works which clearly resonate with them. Works which are accessible. And, especially when trying to get the family market on board, the last thing any parent wants is to spend a whole lot of money on an experience that their child isn’t going to understand.

And this audience focus is clearly represented in the company’s commissions of new Australian work. Before this year, their last new Australian work was commissioned back in 2010. Now their most recent new work is the deliberately accessible The Rabbits written by Aussie pop-artist Kate Miller-Heidke. She has a large following which will be brought into the opera fold and the work is deliberately written with a family audience’s enjoyment in mind.

It won’t push boundaries in the traditional way, but it is definitely pushing new boundaries in opera’s accessibility with new audiences. And that is exactly what The Divorce is doing. It might be a departure from the traditional art form, but if it is as successful as some other ABC programming, this four-part series could quite easily surpass Opera Australia’s entire 2014 audience of 649,443 people in one go!