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Decolonial Hacker
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Decolonial Hacker critically examines cultural institutions, their alliances, interests and behaviour. Born of a desire to entrench more consistent and collective engagement with institutional critique, Decolonial Hacker operates through a web browser extension that “hacks” institutions’ URLs with commissioned criticism, and an online platform that archives these texts. The extension activates when a user logs onto an institution’s website, dissolving their webpage to reveal an article that analyses certain problematics of that place informed by decolonial politics at large – for instance, pillaged colonial objects, funding sources and labour conditions.

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Decolonial Hacker critically examines cultural institutions, their alliances, interests and behaviour. Born of a desire to entrench more consistent and collective engagement with institutional critique, Decolonial Hacker operates through a web browser extension that “hacks” institutions’ URLs with commissioned criticism, and an online platform that archives these texts. The extension activates when a user logs onto an institution’s website, dissolving their webpage to reveal an article that analyses certain problematics of that place informed by decolonial politics at large – for instance, pillaged colonial objects, funding sources and labour conditions.

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This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body. We acknowledge the ongoing violence and dispossession which characterises the so-called settler-colony of “Australia” and pay full respects to First Nations peoples past, present and emerging.

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SHOBUN BAILE — TRUST STUDY #1 (2020)
Screening: 28 JUNE 2022 - 12 JULY 2022
SHOBUN BAILE — TRUST STUDY #1 (2020)
Screening: 28 JUNE 2022 - 12 JULY 2022
SHOBUN BAILE — TRUST STUDY #1 (2020)
Screening: 28 JUNE 2022 - 12 JULY 2022
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Opera Australia Dancers in Opera Australia's 2021 production of Aida at the Sydney Opera House. Image: Prudence Upton.

Opera Australia and the Expense of Orientalist Spectacle

23 August 2021
Decolonial Hacker
Opera Australia
Opera Australia
Words
Victoria Pham
23 August 2021
Decolonial Hacker
Opera Australia
Opera Australia
Words
Victoria Pham

contents

Act I.

Classical music’s self-diagnosis as a “heritage” art form1 coincided with its dwindling participation and interest from the wider and global public in the 1950s. Since then, maintaining the relevance of classical music to a more contemporary and multicultural audience has been challenging. With the average age of an attending audience member being in their late 60s to early 70s, a typical response by opera companies has been to increase reliance on government funding and gradually raise ticket prices. 

Once a year, Australia’s largest performing arts company, Opera Australia, announces its upcoming season. The annual highlights consist of the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour and its mainstage series program. The focus of the company has become increasingly narrow, conservative, repetitive, and dare I say, Verdi-oriented. Rather than expanding its horizons to become a more sustainable cultural institution, the company has appeared to double-down on its mission to present opera in its “golden age,” perpetuating the notion that operatic theatre is a place for nostalgic spectacle. Is the claim of “heritage” an excuse to continue staging problematic spectacles in the name of classical tradition, or is it the only viable manner to save this—self-admittedly—dying classical art form?2

I have wavered between opera’s traditionalism as a response to economic realism or viewing it as complacent creative direction and have fallen towards the latter. Although I acknowledge that components of heritage and tradition exist in all art, I have learned that Opera Australia represents a space that actively excludes the new, the young, and the so-called ‘Other’.

Act II.

“Examine this boat all over, and see if you find any leaks. I can see them. And what am I to do? The world is expecting an opera from me, and it is high time it were ready. We’ve had enough now of Bohème, Butterfly, and Co.! Even I am sick of them!”
Letter by Puccini to Tito Ricordi
New York, February 18, 19073

Opera Australia perceives their art form as nothing more than a rotating ethnic degustation menu cycling between their three most performed opera composers: Puccini, Verdi and Mozart. The company’s opulent presentation of “popular” opera does little to inspire the imagination, and to borrow from music critic Nancy Groves, leaves no rhinestone unturned.4 Relying on a programme where fantastical displays of culture do little else but Orientalise suggests that Opera Australia and its demographic are dependent upon these worn-out productions that use Oriental culture for the sole purpose of nostalgic spectacle.5 It should be noted that there are other non-exoticised options—for example in 2021 they are staging Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartok. This token work aside, the rest of 2021 consists of staples of the operatic catalogue all composed before the year of 1912; Puccini twice, Offenbach and a whooping four works by Verdi!6 Simply gazing at the choices of Opera Australia’s mainstage, it is difficult not to consider these repeated choices a musical safari masquerading as fine art. These are works of their time, with the 2021 season presenting operas spanning 1844—1911, but why must their performance and production be performed in a manner that can only be described as archaeological?

By archaeology, I refer to Opera Australia’s presentation of the entire art form as artefact and archive. Archaeology, in its most basic form, is the blending of humanities and science to study human history through material culture. In this sense, Opera Australia’s reinvigoration of a living form of performance art appears to rely predominantly upon the music of the dead. However, artefacts and archive are novel curiosities: when performed, they hold little relevance to a space that cannot deny the contemporary perspective of its living audience. Unlike the disciplines of archaeology and heritage, the performing arts are not centred upon the study of the past. Opera is not simply an act which can be archived, never to have its inherited cultural value questioned or interrogated. The interpretation of opera as a form of cultural heritage is a continually evolving process in which ideas are expressed and stories are told. 

In other words, opera is a living practice that depends upon performers and performance to bring it to life. What a shame that so many of the living are required to rehash what those who have passed might have seen two hundred years ago! The novelty of such an archaeological performance begins to wear thin.  Insisting upon anachronistic approaches such as brownface (as I will analyse below) makes these forms of opera indifferent to the nuanced realities of contemporary life, thus reinforcing arrogant and racist hierarchies where the white gaze remains in a position of authority.

 In 2016, the National Opera Review published the following statement and series of recommendations regarding the artistic vibrancy of Australian opera companies:

“Opera Australia and Opera Queensland, in particular… [reduced] the number of mainstage productions and/or performances they offer and, in the case of Opera Australia [offer] longer runs of frequently repeated popular mainstage operas. The unintended consequence has been that audience numbers for mainstage opera have declined and employment opportunities for artists have significantly decreased. The Review considers that such a situation is not sustainable.

Other initiatives are required to increase artistic vibrancy, including supporting the development of new Australian works; presenting works in association with festivals; and increasing the use of digital technology… Such recommendations would also support increased employment opportunities for artists.”7

One could argue that the integration of digital technologies in Opera Australia’s presentations is an admirable response to the Review’s recommendations, most notably in their restaging of Madama Butterfly in 2019 and Aida in 2019-21. Although these performances can be commended for their visual delivery, their grandiose presentations do not mask the heart of the issue. A clear case study would be the 2019 production of Madama Butterfly directed by Graeme Murphy, as shown in the image below.

Opera Australia’s 2019 production of Madama Butterfly by Graeme Murphy. Image: Prudence Upton.
Opera Australia’s 2019 production of Madama Butterfly by Graeme Murphy. Image: Prudence Upton.

In Madama Butterfly, Puccini’s main character Cio-Cio san is frequently referred to as Opera’s most hysterical mother. In Murphy’s restaging, rather than interrogate the sexist overtones of hysteria bestowed upon Cio-Cio San and the racist characterisation of Japanese women as overtly feminised and fragile, his production chose to reinforce tired, patriarchal stereotypes. In particular, the stage design sought to enhance these fantastical tropes of sexual exoticism in the name of ‘authenticity’. The integration of 10-LED screens into the stage design was lauded as a “so much going on visually,”8 yet, it is nothing more than a backdrop to the problematic representation of the characters themselves. It is difficult to see beyond the bondage-themed presentation of Cio-Cio San and the sexualised fantasy that is depicted around Japanese culture, given that Murphy’s Madama Butterfly exaggerates an already fetishised image of Japanese women through his integration of kawaii girls and Japanese bondage. This panders to the obsession of the Western gaze and its objectification of Asian women, here, quite literally strung up like marionettes to be played and toyed with for sexual gratification. The only thing authentic about this repulsive simulation of Asian women is that such Orientalist characterisations continue to negatively affect those lives. Perhaps Murphy’s justification for this shallow representation of ‘The East’ is that the production was an effort to pay respects to Puccini’s Butterfly, and to garner a wide audience to support such an expense; sex sells. Operas such as Murphy’s, in their obstinate belief of ‘authenticity,’ perpetuate a deliberate misrepresentation of non-white cultures and people of colour. Opera Australia’s claim of modernisation through incorporating digital media does not alter the core of the performance nor its unsavoury presentation: technology is but a thin veneer for its enhancement and reprisal.

Similar to Murphy’s Madama Butterfly, Opera Australia’s upcoming production of Verdi’s Aida also relies upon projection and digital media. Like the 2019 Butterfly’s insistence upon exaggerating a sexualised caricature of Asian women, the trailer for upcoming Aida expresses nothing but a cheap depiction of Egyptian culture that trades in antiquated tropes of half-naked women, gaudy gold costumes and ceiling-high walls adorned by hieroglyphics. Technology does not reduce the problematic spectacle that the company has chosen to rely upon, thus driving home a key point: using modern technology does not in and of itself modernise the presentation of your subjects.

Left: The baritone Michael Honeyman dreadlocked and brown-faced as the King of Ethiopia in Opera Australia’s production of Verdi’s 'Aida' for the Handa Opera, Sydney Harbour, 2015. Right: Honeyman as the Consul of America in Opera Australia’s production of Puccini’s 'Madama Butterfly' for the Handa Opera, Sydney Harbour, 2014.
Video still from the 2021 trailer of Opera Australia’s Aida (Verdi) where digital technology is now being integrated with the set design.
Video still from the 2021 trailer of Opera Australia’s Aida (Verdi) where digital technology is now being integrated with the set design.
Video still from the 2021 trailer of Opera Australia’s Aida (Verdi) where digital technology is now being integrated with the set design.

The form of authenticity that Opera Australia believes in is fundamentally flawed: their productions are not ‘authentic’ in the sense of an actual historical or contemporary reality. Rather, they are only ‘authentic’ to the extent that they habitually reinforce a racialised Orient from and for an anachronistic Western perspective. This so-called ‘authentic theatre’ is little more than a shallow impression of other cultures that the 21st century has long since understood as racist. More directly, Opera Australia’s interpretation of the ‘genuine Orient’ is measured by racist conceptions of authenticity. 

Opera Australia’s 2015 production of Aida encapsulates the consequences of this misplaced desire for an ‘authentic’ spectacle at the expense of people of colour and their dignity. The dreadlocks and brownface in which Australian baritone Michael Honeyman performs in is a cumulative result of artistic direction, costume, and makeup. Perhaps Opera Australia’s aim was to preserve a sense of mystical exoticism in the name of heritage. Or perhaps it was a misplaced effort to honour the original desires of the Viceroy of Egypt, outlined in the following excerpt from 1870:

“The Viceroy wants the opera to retain its strictly Egyptian colour, not only in the libretto but in the costumes and the sets… Add to this the exotic quality of the mise-en-scène…To create imaginary Egyptians as they are usually seen in the theatre is not difficult…”9

We no longer require the conjuring of imaginary Egyptians or “Oriental Peoples”10 as they are “usually seen in theatre” as the West may have in 1870. More than 150 years later, opera need not rely on such outdated modes of presentation. This archaic reimagining of Ancient Egypt and the peoples of Ethiopia reinscribes outdated cultural and sociopolitical norms of the 19th century as a contemporary reality.11 By the same token, we no longer need to watch Carmen, Aida and Butterfly wail their arias clad in extravagant costumes that are more complex than their characterisation. The perpetuation of an Orientalist fantasy through creative direction, makeup, and set and costume design is not only damaging to an art form that is already perceived as exclusive, but reveals that the success of opera companies at large is derived from an institutional insistence upon performing exoticised nostalgia in the name of authenticity.

An underlying presumption of opera is that if traditional Orientalist spectacles are not upheld, companies will lose their customary audience due to a loss in ‘quality.’ The dubious implication of quality being tied to outdated modes of casting and creative direction is a knee-jerk response from those conservatives who are in service to the ‘old ways.’ Opera Australia’s current productions rely on caricatures and actively contribute to the ongoing stereotyping of people of colour and their cultures, rather than engaging music, theatre and art to connect deeply with contemporary and local audiences. Opera Australia has the opportunity to inspire, reflect and tell deeply engaging stories that would no doubt attract younger and newer audiences. Instead the company chooses to pander to the its own ego and increasingly ageing demographic. It seems that traditional opera remains one of the final bastions for large-scale racial and cultural appropriation.

The inbuilt mythology of opera as the height of classical music has allowed for the perpetuation of such institutionally lazy practices. Internationally, opera has garnered a reputation for its feeble relationship to reality and has regularly drawn headlines for its outdated love affair with ethnic exoticism.12 But to say that this is all opera has to offer is false. Rather, fault lies in companies such as Opera Australia who have propagated this unsustainable presentation of a living art form that has far more to showcase than archival reworkings.

Act III. 

In 2011, the Artistic Director of Opera Australia, Lyndon Terracini, delivered the 13th Annual Peggy Glanville-Hicks address. With a great deal of optimism and passion, he proclaimed:

“Brave programming is having the courage to program what critics will criticize you for, but will make a genuine connection to a real audience, who will become passionate supporters of the art form.”13

Since his announcement as Director in 2009, only three Australian Operas have been commissioned or produced for its mainstage; one by Brett Dean (2010), one by Kate Miller-Heidke (2014), and one by Elena Kats-Chernin and Justin Fleming (2019), out of the estimated total of 152 operas. His call for “brave programming” rings hollow when all but less than 2% of all the mainstage operas staged under his direction to date have come from the well-trodden past. Furthermore, Terracini’s desire to encourage a healthy culture of critique came to a hypocritical juncture when, in 2015, he made headlines for barring two music critics from Opera Australia’s media list.14 Diana Simmonds of Stage Noise and Harriet Cunningham of Sydney Morning Herald were barred by Terracini due to their public critique of his artistic direction and parochial, Verdi-heavy programming. The critics received similar emails from the Opera Australia’s media department, with the one to Simmonds stating that “in response to some of your recent writing about the company, Lyndon asked that you be removed from the media list.”15 Terracini’s response to critique unveils Opera Australia as a company that is indifferent with making genuine connections with contemporary audiences, too staid to change even in the face of widespread criticism. Insofar as Opera Australia’s integration of digital technology is a flimsy veneer for its supposed modernisation, was Terracini’s impassioned 2011 proclamation nothing more than an offhand gesture to disguise the true culture of the company?

Fast-forward to 2017 when Opera Australia’s CEO Rory Jeffes announced that Opera Australia was the world’s most profitable opera company, and that it is “the world’s only major opera company where ticket sales exceed half of turnover.”16 Opera Australia continues to receive a large amount of annual state and federal funding—a combined average sum of between $24 and $26 million which increased to the amount of $37 million in 2020.17 As Professor Jo Caust asks us to consider, “Does opera deserve its privileged status within arts funding?”18

While opera’s history as a ‘luxury’ art form may be read as a classist and exclusionary pastime, the nature of Opera Australia’s public funding renders it in service to the public. It is an assumed responsibility when an organisation is granted such a degree of public support that they serve the public and its local practitioners. To address this observation, the following excerpt is taken from Marketing Beyond Your Core Audience by Georgia Rivers, a publication featured by Opera Australia:

“The classical performing arts are expensive… But the classical performing arts are part of our cultural heritage, so they won’t die out. They will join the superficial market that maintains art galleries and museums... It’s fleeting, but it keeps historic collections afloat… Our goal is to make seeing an opera at the world’s most famous opera house the default for every visitor to Sydney, regardless of their interest in opera.19

The average ticket cost to the opera is over $100AUD,20 whereas access to view the permanent collections of state galleries and museums is often free. Why not seek to imagine the experience of opera along similar lines of accessibility? What might be inferred from Opera Australia’s goal is that their current model is geared towards tourists rather than the public who fund their artistic operations. The company’s relative indifference in trying to foster an innovative and sustainable culture of classical music through engaging with local practitioners and audiences is representative of practices within the industry at large. Opera Australia is merely a symptom.

The argument that classical music exists to only re-perform the greatest hits of the Western canon over the last 400 years implies that anything out of the ‘expected’ such as music by women, by people of colour, or anything commissioned in the recent decades, does not fall into this mythologised category of the ‘greatest music.’ Ironically, what has been elevated to the status of ‘the greatest music’ was commissioned and performed during their historical periods in which new music was constantly created and celebrated. At some point in history, all of Bach, Beethoven, Verdi and Puccini was new music. Today, attempts to broaden the nature of representing certain productions, their creative direction and the variety of composers being commissioned in the classical music world are met with hesitation and cyclical arguments about contemporary music not being economically viable.21 Perhaps these staunch critics against contemporary music and hearing new voices should be reminded that one of the most revered works of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky’s La Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), caused a riot amongst the audience when it was premiered on the 29 of May 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris.

In Ciaran Frame’s publication, The Living Music Report 2020,22 the following statistics are laid out pertaining to the programming culture of major Australian orchestra and classical music companies:

18% of works were written by living composers
10% of works were written by Australian composers
4% of works were written by female composers
1% of works were written by CALD Australian composers
1% of works were written by First Nations composers

Such figures would not be considered acceptable in any other industry, let alone one that subsists on public money, totalling $81.9 million for Australian orchestras and $37 million for Opera Australia in 2020, to exist.23

Left: The baritone Michael Honeyman dreadlocked and brown-faced as the King of Ethiopia in Opera Australia’s production of Verdi’s 'Aida' for the Handa Opera, Sydney Harbour, 2015. Right: Honeyman as the Consul of America in Opera Australia’s production of Puccini’s 'Madama Butterfly' for the Handa Opera, Sydney Harbour, 2014.
Left: The baritone Michael Honeyman dreadlocked and brown-faced as the King of Ethiopia in Opera Australia’s production of Verdi’s 'Aida' for the Handa Opera, Sydney Harbour, 2015. Right: Honeyman as the Consul of America in Opera Australia’s production of Puccini’s 'Madama Butterfly' for the Handa Opera, Sydney Harbour, 2014.
Left: The baritone Michael Honeyman dreadlocked and brown-faced as the King of Ethiopia in Opera Australia’s production of Verdi’s 'Aida' for the Handa Opera, Sydney Harbour, 2015. Right: Honeyman as the Consul of America in Opera Australia’s production of Puccini’s 'Madama Butterfly' for the Handa Opera, Sydney Harbour, 2014.

2021 and beyond

In line with the Government’s COVID-19 roadmap to re-opening the country, the doors open on 17 May 2021.

 

Almost all of the Barbican’s casual staff don’t show up for front-of-house shifts. They have moved out of London or found employment in places that value them more. The Barbican’s creative upper class have to become hosts and invigilators to open the centre.

Barbican Stories is published.

 

Barbican employees are shocked at the stories and recollections of racism in the book. They can’t believe that this is all true and so they dive into their minority workforce to find out for themselves, once and for all. Unconvinced and under mounting public pressure, the Barbican hires an external consultant (a friend of a director) to publish a public race report that concludes that whilst the Barbican could do better, there is no systemic issue.

 

2,000 workers across London’s cultural sector create a picket line in solidarity with Barbican workers. The demands of the protest are impossible and necessary.

 

During the Barbican’s opening concert, as the conductor enters the stage to fill the auditorium with music, it is instead filled with the sound of 400 people standing up and leaving the orchestra on stage with no audience. A violinist cries.

 

All the employees of colour evacuate and the Barbican is left with a purely white workforce. There is a palpable sigh of collective relief: If there’s no one but white people, then we can’t be racist! 

 

Artists stop aligning themselves with backward institutions so cultural producers at the Barbican have to become artists to fill the programme.

 

Whiteness clings to the walls like moisture. Visitors are too ashamed to cross the picket line.

Coffees go undrunk, B R U T A L tote bags collect cobwebs, the conservatory grows wild. The ducks leave the lake in solidarity. Old Barbican guides litter the foyer. The orange carpet turns grey with dirt.

Eventually, audiences don’t need a picket to stop them from coming to the centre. A primed and ready-to-pay cultural audience now reflects the fastest growing demographic in London. Now, these younger and more diverse audiences that make up the city’s landscape find different and better cultural spaces that actually care about them and reflect their lives without skirting around the ugly facts. Why see another token diversity event when there are now whole institutions dedicated to the complexity of the diaspora?

One by one, lights are cut from the Barbican’s many rooms and offices, as they grow dusty in the absence of people. Moss grows between the cracks in the concrete.

 

The only room that remains open is the directorate office.

 

The directors maintain a throne of old catalogues, leaflets and newspaper clippings, in a never-ending meeting where the only thing on the agenda is to dust. 

 

One unremarkable day, the Barbican ruins collapses in on itself. The debris blows away to reveal an ON SALE sign.

 

The only thing worth anything at the Barbican is the land it used to occupy (and even that won’t cover the debt left behind by the brutal beast).

 

Blitz Property Developers find EC2Y 8DS and they love a bargain.

 

Once again, the site is raised by the Blitz.

Act IV.

The archaic practices Opera Australia continues to champion does a grave disservice to living practitioners who desire a pathway out of the archive. It comes at the expense of musicians and technicians that are active in their pursuit of new modes of storytelling, and who willingly interrogate and challenge the artform’s problematic elements within their own practices.

Opera Australia’s Orientalist fantasies are dislocated visions of ‘authenticity’ that do not deserve its privileged, government funded support. Their diminutive presentation of opera does little to create a thriving and sustainable future for classical music at large. If the focus of Opera Australia was to create art in a healthy culture of critique and public forum, opera would live beyond its self-imposed categorisation as a “historic collection.”

Like historical artefacts, perhaps Opera Australia deserves to be processed, tagged and placed into a box deep within the bowels of a quiet collector’s archive. Because any organisation that insists upon relying on the privilege of the dead, presented in the manner of the dead, deserves the trajectory it draws for itself.

Bergeron, Katherine. 2001. ‘Verdi’s Egyptian Spectacle: On the Colonial subject of ‘Aida,’ Cambridge Opera Journal 14: Cambridge University Press.

Busch, H. & Verdi, G. 2001. Verdi’s Aida: The History of an Opera in Letters and Documents.

Edward W. Said. 1994. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books.

Edward W. Said. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

Frame, C. 2020. The Living Music Report 2020. Accessed on-line at: https://livingmusic.report/ 

Letter of Giacomo Puccini: Mainly connected with the Composition and Production of his Operas. Ed. Giuseppe Adami, trans. Ena Makin in 1997. George G. Harrap & co. Ltd.

Stokes, Martin. 1994. “Introduction: Ethnicity, Identity and Music,” Ethnicity, Identity and Music: The Musical Construction of Place. Oxford and Providence: Berg: 3.

The National Opera Review: The Final Report. 2016. Department of Communication and Arts, Commonwealth of Australia.

Newspaper and On-line Articles:

Bailey, Michael. November 5, 2020. ‘Opera Australia sings for survival,’ for The Financial Review. Accessed on-line: https://www.afr.com/life-and-luxury/arts-and-culture/opera-australia-sings-for-survival-20201104-p56bm7

Bailey, Michael. May 16 2018. ‘Opera Australia survives homeless 2017 with $2.1m operating loss,’ in the Financial Review. OA world’s most  - https://www.afr.com/life-and-luxury/arts-and-culture/opera-australia-20180515-h1034b

Boon, Maxim. January 5 2015. ‘Opera boss attempts to bar two critics from performances,’ for Limelight: Music, Arts & Culture. Accessed on-line at: https://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/news/opera-boss-attempts-to-bar-two-critics-from-performances/

Blake, Jason. March 25 2020. ‘Opera Australia Cushions Stand-down of Staff,’ for The Audrey Journal. Accessed on-line: https://www.audreyjournal.com.au/arts/opera-australia-cushions-stand-down-of-staff/

Burke, Kelly. November 3, 2020. ‘Secret Ballots and ‘unfair’ dismissals: Opera Australia reels from turbulent six week,’ published in The Guardian. Accessed on-line: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2020/nov/04/secret-ballots-and-unfair-dismissals-opera-australia-reels-from-turbulent-six-weeks

Burke, Kelly. January 8, 2021. Opera Australia accused of intimidation and bullying as unfair dismissal case heads to court’ for The Guardian. Accessed on-line: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/jan/08/opera-australia-accused-of-intimidation-and-bullying-as-unfair-dismissal-case-heads-to-court

Caust, Jo. September 27, 2017. ‘Does Opera deserve its privileged status within arts funding?’, for The Conversation, Accessed online: https://theconversation.com/does-opera-deserve-its-privileged-status-within-arts-funding-84761

Eastburn, S. & Haferkorn, J. & Dromey, C. 2018. ‘Is Classical Music a Living or Heritage Art Form?’ in The Classical Music Industry. Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.

Federal Court Records regarding Opera Australia vs Mark Bruwel https://www.comcourts.gov.au/file/FEDERAL/P/SYG2919/2020/order_list#;javascript:void(0)

Groves, Nancy. March 30 2015. ‘Aida Review – Sydney Harbour opera’s head is bigger than its heart,’ for The Guardian. Accessed on-line: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/mar/30/aida-review-sydney-harbour-operas-head-is-bigger-than-its-heart


The Living Performing Arts Reports, Australia:

2017, Opera: https://reports.liveperformance.com.au/ticket-survey-2017/category/opera

2018, Opera: https://reports.liveperformance.com.au/ticket-survey-2018/category/opera 

 

Lunny, Oisin. April 17, 2019. ‘Blackface Scandal Divides the World of Opera,’ for Forbes. Accessed on-line: https://www.forbes.com/sites/oisinlunny/2019/08/17/blackface-scandal-divides-the-world-of-opera/?sh=1861a59d56fa 

McPherson, A. 29 June 2019. ‘Madama Butterfly (Opera Australia) Review,’ for Limelight Magazine. Accessed on-line: https://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/reviews/madama-butterfly-opera-australia/ 

Meares, Joel. January 3 2015, ‘So childish’: Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini revokes critics’ tickets,’ for The Sydney Morning Herald. Accessed online at: https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/opera/so-childish-opera-australia-artistic-director-lyndon-terracini-revokes-critics-tickets-20150103-12hait.html;

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II. Listening

Today, the Phonogramm-Archiv’s collection of wax cylinders reside in an annex of the Ethnologisches Museum in Dahlem, a building constructed in the style of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) during an expansion in 1973. Before entering the building, we register ourselves with a security guard and await the arrival of the collection’s archivist. Brought through catacomb-like corridors, doors of mountainous weight and stairwells painted white with pale green lacquered handrails, we arrive at the resting place of Jaap Kunst’s wax cylinder.


Not dissimilar to other institutions, the depot we found ourselves in is an environment of conditioned circumstances. It has a temperature of nineteen degrees celsius and a relative humidity of fifty percent, a syncopated soundtrack of humming neon lights and murmurs from an air conditioner, all of which when taken together attempt to mimic a neutral space. Here, in this performatively coy room are musical instruments from gamelan orchestras, whose only emitted sounds are those of silence. Originating from the Southeast Asian islands of Bali and Java, these instruments are accustomed to a climate of high temperatures and humidity. Their primary functions were spiritual: to be played at religious rituals and ceremonies, as well as traditional performances. Now, however, the ensemble is attuned to a spiritual decay—conservational poison is used to ‘preserve’ their function for archival purposes only—inside storage within the depot of Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum.


Neighboring the gamelan storage room, the first audio recording of a Balinese Sanghyang resides here. An inventory of empty, ‘silent’ wax cylinders necessary to capture this event had been allocated to Kunst by the Phonogramm-Archiv’s then-director Erich von Hornbostel in exchange for his act of sonic collecting. These cylinders embarked on an extended journey—from Berlin to the Sunda Islands and back—as Kunst went on to produce 300 or more recordings on his trips to Indonesia, documenting musical performances and rituals. We seek arrangements for listening to this performance, and attempt to move as close to its recorded event as the wax cylinder allows.

In Bali, times where it is forbidden to play gamelan are rare. One hundred years ago, however, deadly pox epidemics repeatedly infected villages on the island, forcing the inhabitants to close all temples and lock the gamelan instruments up. No rituals and ceremonies were permitted, the kinds that were believed to hold power in halting the spread of precisely such deadly disease. And though the temples fell silent, abandoned by their priests, village communities gathered at them each night to create a cacophony of noise, orchestrated through the quotidian: buckets, bamboo and wood. Noise was believed to be the only medium left to banish the demons of disease and cast the people’s fears away. According to the renowned dancer and sculptor I Made Sija from the village Bona, during one of these dark nights a man became possessed by the familiar rhythms of the gamelan. Yet the sounds he was enchanted by did not originate from bronze cymbals and gongs, but rather, human voices.

cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– –––
––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak –––
cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak –––
––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak
––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak
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cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak –––
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cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– –––
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cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak –––
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cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak –––
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cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak –––
––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak

From that moment, disease began to ease as death and illness were overcome by sheer oral percussion. To this day, the people of Bona believe that the chanting and dances in trance outside the temple walls saved the village from the epidemic. This moment also marked the emergence of Bali’s most popular dance performance: the Kecak.

In its history from a sacred to a secular chant, the most famous Kecak dancer is I Wayan Limbak from the village Bedulu. When interviewed in the 90s about the origin of Kecak, he recalls a story with a similar arc. Already in the early 19th century, before the Dutch colonization of Bali and in the era of Bali’s kingdoms, Kecak dances accompanied trance rituals, the so-called Sanghyangs. These Sanghyangs were held every year to prevent the cholera pandemic, a rite of prayer performed every night around the village that was believed to ward the disease away.

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Inside the Phonogramm-Archiv, the room we’re in is just large enough for three. Monochrome, ethnographic photographs from a non-European continent decorate otherwise plain walls, while drawers are labeled by geography: ‘Afrika’, ‘Asien’, ‘Amerika’ and 'Ozeanien’. On the table we’re led towards, a Hi-Fi receiver is connected to a pair of speakers and a myriad of playback devices for a variety of mediums—vinyl records, magnetic tape, analog audio cassettes and compact discs. We immerse ourselves into Kunst’s recording of the Kecak via the wax cylinder’s digitized successor, a DAT cassette tape.

Every transferred sound begins with a short, customary introduction which signposts from which cylinder and collection the listener is about to hear:

Es folgt die Übertragung der Walzen der Sammlung “Kunst, Bali”. Es folgt Walze 1. 
[Coming up the transfer of the cylinders of the collection “Kunst, Bali”. Coming up, Cylinder 1.]
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Additional materials of correspondence, provenance and consignment accompany the phonographic recording. Yellowed papers of different grammage, typesets, handwriting and signatures compose together what feel and appear as the past breaking into the present. A watermark shines through one prominent sheet: a mark which signifies the longing of its maker, towards the distant islands the sounds of these cylinders were first captured on. Another sheet of paper reveals terse descriptions of all fifteen wax cylinders recorded by Kunst in Bali: 

Abridged from numbers five and six: “Sanghyang dedari. Male choir (at the end gaggling [Schnattern])”, “mostly gaggle [Geschnatter]”.

It remains uncertain who exactly wrote these descriptions. Scribed in German, the curators of the archive assure us that both the director of the Phonogramm-Archiv at the time Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and his colleague Curt Sachs were diligent in avoiding disrespectful formulations. Whoever it was, these words reprise another compression of the actual acoustic event.

 

Confined to this room at the Phonogramm-Archiv, one’s listening to Kecak is directly produced by the archive’s prefigured auras of hospitality and hostility: the latter feeling affected through the bureaucracies a visitor must face to be given permission to access the collection’s hold. Given the inability to revisit the recording’s original event, any act of listening to its field recording will forever reanimate the conditions in which a colonial gaze captured it. Though, in this space of re-listening, the hands of coloniality and premature technology are easily forgotten. The field recording we listen to operates not only as a narrow range of frequencies, but narrow-minded vectors of power: it comes to represent a recording of an assumed, objective reality. The DAT cassette dislocates the event of Kecak and echoes its sound further away. Is there room for narrative to diverge inside the Phonogramm-Archiv?

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III. Diverging

In recent years, the act of listening to the wax cylinder had been temporarily transposed outside of the Phonogramm-Archiv listening room—though this public display was only down the corridor.9 In 2013, as part of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem programme the exhibition Seeing Music: Lichtklangphonogramm transformed the optical and mechanical characteristics of the archive’s wax cylinder collection, producing novel installations that facilitated an alternate perception of listening. The artists behind the exhibition—Melissa Cruz Garcia, Aleksander Kolkowski, Matteo Marangoni and Anne Wellmer—produced a mixture of site-specific installations: magic lanterns that visualised a cylinder's textural grooves, self-made ‘gramoscopes’ that hacked a gramophone’s tunnel by transforming it into a projector of light and image, and a multi-body listening booth of selected recordings from collection. Described as an artistic treatment of ethnographic material, the artists facilitated an ocular engagement with an event originally recorded as something purely sonic.10 When asked about the exhibition’s potential to inform the Humboldt Forum’s unconfirmed future display of wax cylinders, Ethnologisches Museum director Lars-Christian Koch appeared skeptical of the presence of artistic intervention within this space:


“As an ethnological museum, we have an educational mission. We are not an art museum. If we want to seriously convey what other music cultures are like, how they treat sound in their processes, how they shape sound, then the question is, how much art or artistic design we require to optimize this conveyance.”11

 

Koch’s hesitancy to open up room for such narratives in the space of the Humboldt Forum is unsurprising given the long-standing aversion between ethnographer and artist.12 His intention to ‘optimize’ artistic interpretation neglects the reality that both the music and cultures recorded were done so on the aforementioned colonial terms. Silencing the noise contained in these field recordings omits its glaring context from the museum’s “educational mission”, not too distant from a former ‘civilising mission’. If Seeing Music’s artistic intervention of re-interpreting the wax cylinder is not welcome at the Humboldt Forum, another means of listening must be sought out beyond the confines of the listening room. By decentering the diegetic sound of Kecak heard within this particular wax cylinder, we turn instead towards the recording’s incidental, underscored noise to listen to its other realities that were present at the time of recording. 


Our ears hone in: the Dutch colonial rule of Bali began in 1849 and reached full control after two puputans (mass suicides) by the royal houses of Badung and Klungkung, in 1906 and 1908 respectively. At this juncture, a cultural policy known as Baliseering (Balinisation) was enforced to prohibit the ‘modernisation’ of Bali and maintain it as a ‘living museum’. Such realities were inaudible, beyond sound and the Phonogramm-Archiv’s collection, and stand to be heard in the noise of Jaap Kunst’s recording.

 

In More Brilliant than the Sun (1998), artist and theorist Kodwo Eshun advocates for a methodology that enables another kind of listening. Eshun’s alignment of Afrofuturist frequencies with jazz, breakbeat, as well early techno productions, drove him to propose a means of listening to artistic compositions outside that of Western theory and its canonical methods of analysis. Instead, he carves out an idiosyncratic guidebook for “dense personal narrations of imaginations” that emphasises an auditory experience’s material output: vinyl grooves, record sleeves and liner notes included.13 Sound artist Pedro Oliveira has framed sonic fiction’s potential through its ability to voice previously unheard stories, to modify the perception of sound and its effect/affect, in ways that are as much political as they are aesthetic.14 He writes:

 

“Eshun’s sonic fictions are...a means by which the subaltern speak, sound, and unfold their knowledge as theory and culture. Sonic fictions are the proposal for a radical divorce from so-called universal (metropolitan and/or Eurocentric) theories of musicology and social and cultural studies, to make room for other systems to claim their space.”15

Utilising Eshun’s methodology of sonic fiction onto the colonial artefacts in the Phonogramm-Archiv comes highly charged, however. We must first decouple artistry from artefact, renouncing Jaap Kunst—and any field recordist complicit in the archive’s creation—from the role of artist in their production of the wax cylinder’s recording. Doing so allows us to listen with the noise and not with its producer: a reminder of the place and context through which the cylinder was first inscribed, a reminder of the spatial and temporal distance between listener and event—the listening room and Bali. In other words, we decenter the ethnographer as producer and compose a means of listening beyond their control.


A step further, our interest in sonic fiction is woven and informed by Saidiya Hartman’s notion of ‘critical fabulation’: a discursive practice that deals with representing what the archive deliberately omits. In Hartman's essay Venus in Two Acts (2008), she attempts to tell an impossible story: the account of an enslaved young girl, brutally killed whilst captive on a British slave ship. The personhood of Venus, named only once in the legal documents from the trials that followed, emerges at the very limits of the archive. Hartman's writing is at times autobiographical, leaning into a similar empiricism to that of Eshun’s sonic fiction that reveals her authorship in (parallel to) the story of Venus. As much a counter-history as it is critical theory, Hartman welds the gaps between silence and noise. In our own undertaking, such gaps—marked between Jaap Kunst’s original recording of Kecak onto a wax cylinder and our own act of listening today—establish an opportunity to compose a historical narrative counter to that which was originally inscribed.

Woven together, a sonic fabulation is one that must tell one of many impossible stories contained within the Phonogramm-Archiv. To displace Jaap Kunst’s gaze and mediation, we drum up another imaginary. Widening the aperture for analysis beyond soundwaves alone, a sonic fabulation of the wax cylinder and other, similar objects departs from the depot and listens with the yellowed documents left behind, the broken wax seals of colonial correspondence, and the haphazard commentary made by archivists which are bundled up with preserved recordings. With each act of sonic fabulation, the wax cylinder’s suspension inside the archive might then be slowly loosened.

 

To tell a story ‘against’ the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv, as Saidiya Hartman might say, is to tell a story of the wax cylinder’s sonic debris. What was once consequential, the unintended and immovable residue of its mechanical recording, is felt out differently as a sense-making tool for critical ways of interpreting the sonic artefact. Turning directly towards this space in between silence and noise, other subjects for listening emerge.

 

Throughout the wax cylinder’s unstable course of living, revolutions may result in death. At a rate somewhere between 80 and 250 per minute, their divergence narrates its own story.

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  1. Eastburn, S. & Haferkorn, J. & Dromey, C. 2018. ‘Is Classical Music a Living or Heritage Art Form?’ in The Classical Music Industry. Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group; ‘Opera, a celebration of European Cultural Heritage: Where the past meets the future,’ Accessed online at: https://operavision.eu/en/library/features/opera-celebration-european-cultural-heritage
  1. Sandow, Greg. 2010, ‘The Myth of Classical Music Superiority.’ Accessed online: https://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2010/06/the_myth_of_classical_music_su.html . Sandow, Greg. 2014. ‘Greg Sandow and the “Death of Opera.”
  1. Puccini, Giacomo. 1907. Letter to Tito Ricordi from Letters of Giacomo Puccini: Mainly connected with the Composition and Production of his Operas. Ed. Giuseppe Adami, trans. Ena Makin in 1997. George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd.
  1. Groves, Nancy. March 30 2015. ‘Aida Review – Sydney Harbour opera’s head is bigger than its heart,’ for The Guardian.
  1. Key examples are the OA’s stagings of “standard Operas” and their Oriental subjects and setting, primarily, Aida’s Ancient Egypt, Atilla’s Mongolia, Carmen’s Gypsy realm to Butterfly’s Japan.
  1. 2021 Season, published by Opera Australia.
  1. The National Opera Review: The Final Report. 2016. Department of Communication and Arts, Commonwealth of Australia Page iv.
  1. McPherson, A. 29 June 2019. ‘Madama Butterfly (Opera Australia) Review,’ for Limelight Magazine. Accessed online: https://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/reviews/madama-butterfly-opera-australia/.
  1. A letter from Auguste Mariette to Paul Draneht 1870, Paris July 15. From Busch, H. & Verdi, G. 2001. Verdi’s Aida: The History of an Opera in Letters and Documents.
  1. A letter from Guiseppe Verdi to Giulio Ricordi, St Agata, July 31. From Busch, H. & Verdi, G. 2001. Verdi’s Aida: The History of an Opera in Letters and Documents.
  1. Bergeron, Katherine. 2001. ‘Verdi’s Egyptian Spectacle: On the Colonial subject of ‘Aida,’ Cambridge Opera Journal 14: pp. 2 // Said, Edward. 1993. ‘The Empire at Work: Verdi’s Aida’ in Culture and Imperialism (New York): 114.
  1. Lunny, Oisin. April 17, 2019. ‘Blackface Scandal Divides the World of Opera,’ for Forbes. Quartz & Guilford, Gwynn. July 23, 2014. ‘Opera’s Old-Fashioned Race Problem’ for The Atlantic.
  1. Terracini, Lyndon. 2011. Archived transcript of the 13th Peggy Glanville-Hicks address, ‘The Art of Populism’.
  1. Meares, Joel. January 3 2015, ‘So childish’: Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini revokes critics’ tickets,’ for The Sydney Morning Herald. // Boon, Maxim. January 5 2015. ‘Opera boss attempts to bar two critics from performances,’ for Limelight: Music, Arts & Culture.
  1. Meares, Joel. 2015.
  1. Blake, Jason. March 25 2020. ‘Opera Australia Cushions Stand-down of Staff,’ for The Audrey Journal.
  1. Morris, Linda. June 1, 2021. ‘Opera Australia ‘bleeding cash at an incredible rate’ due to box office blow' Sydney Morning Herald. Accessed online: https://www.smh.com.au/culture/opera/opera-australia-bleeding-cash-at-an-incredible-rate-due-to-box-office-blow-20210530-p57wfz.html.
  1. Caust, Jo. September 27, 2017. ‘Does Opera deserve its privileged status within arts funding?’, The Conversation.
  1. Rivers, Georgia et al. 2020. Marketing Beyond your Core Audience.
  1. The Living Performing Arts Reports, Australia: 2017, Opera: https://reports.liveperformance.com.au/ticket-survey-2017/category/opera // 2018, Opera: https://reports.liveperformance.com.au/ticket-survey-2018/category/opera.
  1. An example of this form of hesitation and defence can be found in recent publications such as: Scott, P. 2021. ‘An orchestra’s role is not primarily to reflect contemporary society,’ published in Limelight Magazine: Music, Arts & Culture. Accessed online at: https://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/features/an-orchestras-role-is-not-primarily-to-reflect-contemporary-society/.
  1. Frame, C. 2020. The Living Music Report 2020. Accessed on-line at: https://livingmusic.report/.
  1. Frame, C. 2020. The Living Music Report 2020. Accessed online at: https://livingmusic.report/ // Morris, Linda. June 1, 2021. ‘Opera Australia ‘bleeding cash at an incredible rate’ due to box office blow,' Sydney Morning Herald. Accessed online: https://www.smh.com.au/culture/opera/opera-australia-bleeding-cash-at-an-incredible-rate-due-to-box-office-blow-20210530-p57wfz.html/.
  1. Eastburn, S. & Haferkorn, J. & Dromey, C. 2018. ‘Is Classical Music a Living or Heritage Art Form?’ in The Classical Music Industry. Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group; ‘Opera, a celebration of European Cultural Heritage: Where the past meets the future,’ Accessed online at: https://operavision.eu/en/library/features/opera-celebration-european-cultural-heritage
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Victoria Pham is an Australian multi-media installation artist, composer, writer and biological anthropologist currently based in the United Kingdom. She currently is a PhD Candidate in Biological Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. As a composer she has studied with Carl Vine AO, Richard Gill OAM, Liza Lim and Thierry Escaich. Her compositional and sound-artist practice is represented by the Australian Music Centre as an Associate Artist.  

Pham has been commissioned by a number of institutions such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Maitland Regional Art Gallery, Samstag Museum of Art, Gallerie V (Cambridge) and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. She has featured in several festivals from VIVID to Tilde to BLEED. Pham is currently the Artistic Director of artist-run initiative FABLE ARTS and is the host and producer for podcast, DECLASSIFY. Her research into evolutionary biology specialises in prehistoric archaeo-acoustics and evolution of music.