Lyndon Terracini on “why our art’s in the wrong place”

lyndon_terracini_headshot

Lyndon Terracini (source: Opera Australia website).

The former Director of the Brisbane Festival and incoming Artistic Director of Opera Australia, Lyndon Terracini, has orchestrated a well-publicised spray at Australia’s major performing arts sector in today’s Australian.

In an article by Michaela Boland, Terracini previews a speech today to the Australian Business Arts Foundation, which will dovetail with a forthcoming publication with Currency House:

Lyndon Terracini, the former artistic director of the Brisbane Festival, has arrived at the opera company with a bold vision to make it more accessible and more representative of the community. He believes storytelling in Australia has become predictable and conservative, and is concerned it lacks creative inspiration.

Even productions acclaimed as visionary, such as Benedict Andrews’s epic War of the Roses and the plays of Barrie Kosky, fall short of his expectations.

“I don’t think they have the element of daring that Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll had,” Terracini told The Australian on the eve of his speech.

Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, staged at the Melbourne Theatre Company in 1955, was the first mainstage Australian production, and signalled the end of British domination of the Australian theatre. Such a landmark effort is difficult to replicate.

“The work we are doing now is much more professional, even sophisticated, but where is our core ethos?” Terracini said.

“What has happened to the boldness and cavalier daring of our performing aesthetic? We’ve become comfortable, the art we’re making is very comfortable and we’ve become mean-spirited.”

In a speech in Melbourne hosted by arts publisher Currency House and the Australia Business Arts Foundation, which will be repeated in Sydney next week, Terracini will accuse contemporary artists of lacking courage in their work. He intends to pour scorn on the major performing arts companies for selecting performers from a limited ethnic pool.

“How many indigenous faces do you see in the SSO, MSO, Brisbane’s orchestras or the ACO? We’re not seeing them, and we should ask why,” he said.

Terracini intends to rectify the racial sameness that is obvious at Opera Australia.

“Opera companies have remained the same since their inception and the world has changed dramatically,” he said. “Yet 200 years ago the role of an opera company was very different to now. Opera used to be what the movies are now. People for all sorts of reasons may have had a prejudice about coming to opera, but once they come you can bet they will adore it,” he said.

Oh really? I’m not sure  if the stats would back that assertion up. To begin with, let’s acknowledge that Terracini is right about a number of things. Australia’s major performing arts organisations, with some notable exceptions like Bangarra, are very white, very middle-class and the art that  many of them produce is indeed “comfortable”.

However, I argue that this has nothing to do with a lack of vision of behalf of many of those involved in the sector.

Rather, the chief reason is related to in-built structural problems in the industry itself. One of the biggest problems is the major performing arts organisations’ audiences. Richer, whiter, older and better educated than the broader Australian population, the audiences for the MPOs are generally ill-disposed towards “daring”, “bold” and “cavalier” performances. As any marketing executive at one of these organisations will tell you, their audiences prefer classic repertoire and safe interpretations. So do many critics, like our old friend Peter Craven.

And what about Terracini himself? A glance at the back catalogue of the Brisbane Festival and Queensland Music Festival programs he directed does not exactly reveal a cavalcade of bold, daring and cavalier productions. On the contrary, Terracini’s programs are generally stocked full of crowd-pleasing community events with the occasional high culture commission thrown in.  Bob Cat Dancing was certainly popular, but could you put it up against Benedict Andrews or Barrie Kosky? And … Summer of the Seventeeth Doll? Yes, it was a ground-breaking play. It was also fifty years ago.

It will be interesting to see how Terracini’s tenure progresses at the top of the biggest tree in the Australian cultural forest. His tenure as a festival director in Brisbane was marked by canny political manouvering – but also some brutal power plays that left many in the sector feeling bruised and even bullied. Will that conduct continue in the big house in Sydney?

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