Opera Australia (OA) has released its 2023 Annual Report, revealing an overall operating loss of $4.9m.

In the previous financial year – one bolstered by a $10m booster shot in the form of a NSW Government COVID Support Package – OA reported a loss of $447,878.

Iain Henderson, Jessica Pratt and the Opera Australia Chorus in Opera Australia’s The Tales of Hoffmann. Photo © Keith Saunders

Marking the milestone of 50 years of performing at the Sydney Opera House in 2023, OA presented 30 productions: 14 operas, 13 concerts and recitals, and three musicals. Total box office revenue was just over $65.7m, sharply down from the previous year’s $79.8m.

Just over 492,000 people attended 454 OA performances nationwide, down from 627,000 across 507 performances in 2021-22.

First-time purchasers to OA performances rose from 50% in 2022 to 60%, in part driven by musicals such as Cinderella and Miss Saigon.

In funding terms, 70% of OA’s income was self-generated (52% of that from box office) with 24% coming from government multi-year funding, 6% from government project funding and the balance in philanthropic donations.

OA’s Capital Fund contributed a $1m annual endowment through its Distribution to Opera Australia in 2023, helping to reduce OA’s overall net deficit to $1.7m. The Capital Fund’s reserves reached $29.6 million at EOFY 2023.

Fiona Allan My Music

Opera Australia CEO Fiona Allan. Photo © Prudence Upton

Announcing the results, Opera Australia CEO Fiona Allan acknowledged the headwinds the company has experienced and will continue to face in the short to medium term.

“I don’t think any arts organisation is immune to the cost of living crisis,” Allan tells Limelight. “But in the period of this report, it’s not clear-cut in how it’s affecting us, especially coming off the back of COVID. We were still seeing audiences coming back after the hiatus. But the really good news for us was that we’ve just come off one of the most successful summer seasons we’ve ever had with five works brand new to Sydney audiences. People are coming out.”

Chief among the challenges facing the company going forward is predictability, Allan says.

“Audiences are booking later, often last-minute. When you don’t get that immediate sense of how well a production will do from day one of your season going on sale, everything becomes much harder to predict. It’s not just about getting the money in the bank early, it’s knowing what you have to do in terms of marketing love and care to connect with an audience. I think all companies are facing the same kind of volatility now.”

Miss Saigon

Seann Miley Moore, Bryce Li and Abigail Adriano in Miss Saigon. Photo © Daniel Boud

The OA productions attracting the largest audiences in 2022–23 were: Miss Saigon (145, 845 across Melbourne and Sydney); the Melbourne seasons of The Phantom of the Opera (over 94,000) and Cinderella (36,947); the revival season of Madama Butterfly on Sydney Harbour (44,697); the Brisbane and Sydney seasons of Aida (33,183) and the Sydney Opera House seasons of La bohème (22,937) and Don Giovanni (13,833).

OA’s Brisbane Ring Cycle attracted just shy of 20,000 attendees across the four operas. Critically acclaimed, the Brisbane season was hailed a great success for OA artistically, but the enormous undertaking and additional costs incurred by a production delayed by three years due to COVID weighed heavily on the negative side of the company’s ledgers.

Opera Australia’s 2023 Ring Cycle, Brisbane. Photo © Keith Saunders

While the deficit of $4.9m seems small to the $22.6m operating loss recorded in the COVID-stricken 2021, it still has to be addressed. Will OA be tightening the artistic corset strings?

“I think the short answer to that is no,” says Allan. “We are always looking at cost reductions and operational efficiencies. But we are already a very lean organisation when you consider the volume of activity. Where we have to be clever going forward is in creating artistically interesting offerings that still keep us in a good financial position. I don’t see these two things as being polar opposites – which is something I think we’ve just demonstrated in Lindy Hume’s summer season. The cost base of that season was not extraordinary and it really overachieved at the box office. It shows that you can be artistically very creative and financially very realistic at the same time.”

First-time artistic partnerships with Victorian Opera, Opera Queensland and Queensland Symphony Orchestra heralded a new direction for OA in the reporting period and have paved the way for a more collaborative – and cost-sharing – approach, says Allan.

“We now have a new Artistic Director in Jo Davies, and she’s known as a collaborator. We’ve always been great at international collaboration but what Jo is most interested in is the question of how we are supporting the cultural ecology in this country. Who are we working with? How do we support new work? How do we support new generations of talent onstage and producers and offstage and creative teams?”

Deficit aside, the 2022–23 year was one of great artistic merit, says Allan. Her personal highlights?

“Oh, I think the final ovation at the end of the Brisbane Ring. It was tinged with a sense of grief. Here we were, all about to lose the connection we’d all forged over four operas, that whole adventure. It was like people didn’t want to let it go, didn’t want the experience to end.”

“Another highlight for me was a bit of a wildcard: the Opera Up Late concert with Reuben Kaye. Here we were, in a packed Joan Sutherland Theatre, with everyone looking fabulous in their sequins. It was all famous opera arias, but we were hearing them all anew through a queer lens. It was us really pushing the envelope of what opera can be.”

View and download Opera Australia’s Annual and Financial Reports here.

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