Opera boss: Some musicals are better than many operas

Opera boss: Some musicals are better than many operas


norman lebrecht

November 02, 2019

Lyndon Terraccini, newly renewed boss of Opera Australia, tells the SMH: ‘I will always argue that pieces like South PacificMy Fair Lady and West Side Story are better pieces than many operas.’

Terraccini runs ‘the only opera company in the world where more than half our budget is funded by ticket sales.’




  • Stephen Maddock says:

    He’s absolutely right.

    Those three are all terrific, and Hamilton also stands comparison with a great many operas from the last half century. And there’s lots of those that I love.

  • AnySchiffInAStorm says:

    He’s absolutely right, of course. The Magic Flute. and Abduction from the Seraglio are both Singspiels, not operas.

    And then we come on to Sondheim…

  • John Borstlap says:

    Where’s he talking about??!! ALL operas are far less good than My Fair Lady. Everybody knows. People just go to operas for status reasons.


    • AngloGerman says:

      Such an ignorant comment, you clearly have terrible taste and no respect for the art form.

      • Anmarie says:

        You clearly are unfamiliar with Sally.

      • Novagerio says:

        AngloGerman: Mr.Borstlap is a troll who on top of that tries to promote his own “New Age” nonsense-music. Anything that doesn’t sound like his own music is considered trash.
        Well, don’t even bother with his “music”, his constant daily trolling here says it all.

    • Urs says:

      You are wrong John Bortslap, opera music is beautiful and opera is passionate and emotional art. I love it.

      • Steven Holloway says:

        Methinks you don’t know a joke when you read one. Sally is John’s rather perverse alter ego, you see. For a joke-free evening, get in touch with AngloGerman above.

    • Paul Pellay says:

      Oh for crying out loud! I’ve read a great many comments of yours with which I’ve disagreed, and I’ve always concluded ‘de gustibus non disputandum’ and let it go at that, but this kind of sweeping generalisation is beyond ludicrous! Status has nothing to do with my going to Billy Budd or Otello or Der Rosenkavalier or Il Trittico or Le Grand Macabre, and the same goes for Showboat or Camelot or The King and I or On the Town or Sweeney Todd. Quality is quality and you find it in both genres if you have ears to hear with!

    • Sol L Siegel says:

      Such a statement is rather like saying that all musicals are far less good than “Pygmalion”.

      Corno di Bassetto

    • Jonathan E says:

      John Borstlap, “composer of the people”. Shame your pedantic music doesn’t reflect that.

  • I agree, and some truly charming works fit right in between Opera, Operetta, and Musical such the modern reconstruction and revival of the once highly popular “Burlesque Opera Tabasco” from 1894 which is in the style of Gilbert & Sullivan 🙂


  • Rob Keeley says:

    Well of course they are – it’s hardly a controversial claim. But they also have different purposes and audiences. Whether or not opera houses should be going down the populist route in staging them – another matter. ‘Lady in the Dark’, for example should be done at the NT not ENO, plus Opera singers rarely make good musical theatre performers, who need to be able to act rather than sing. Stephen Sondheim hates opera, although I believe he makes and exception for L’Enfant et les Sortileges.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    It is a matter of taste. He referred to some of Donizetti comic operas as example of inferior works. I myself never get tired of these works, but I am already bored by West Side Story, which is often referred to as the best musical ever written.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It seems to me that one should experience and judge works according to their genre, and exercising standards of opera to musicals is quite unfair, as applying standards of classical music to something like jazz, or the other way around. Within the context of the genre, or the tradition, one can compare with the examples of the better, or best works. But one does not need to like any work in any genre….
      Pluralism, also in taste, is something to be cultivated, which is something different from the egalitarian world view which claims that there are no standards and that any taste is as good as any other.

  • Sixtus says:

    I’d take South Pacific and My Fair Lady (as well as Carousel, Oklahoma, Chicago etc.) over any of Donizetti’s comic operas (especially over Elisir and Don Pasquale) any day.

    And as an emotionally satisfying conclusion to an evening of musical drama, I’d take Rose’s Turn from Gypsy over any operatic mad scene except for Isolde’s “Transfiguration” (Wagner’s designation for the Liebestod) and the finale of Salome.

  • Jim says:

    Nothing controversial here; remember Sturgeon’s Law which asserts that 90% of everything is crap.
    The Met, and just about every other opera company, will not stray far from the 10% and your local musical theatre group will do likewise.
    If you would like a more juicy discussion, try to decide which side of the line Sturgeon’s Law falls.

  • drummerman says:

    I’ve always considered “West Side Story” to be THE greatest American opera.

  • Allen says:

    Pretty safe claim since few people will be inclined to argue – that would be elitist, wouldn’t it?

    Can’t wait for My Fair Lady to get the regietheater treatment.

    • Nick2 says:

      The fact is it is never likely to receive such treatment. The musicals audience would never stand for it and the producers would be staring at a huge loss. Surely it’s about time opera bosses took a leaf out of that particular book!

    • Paul Brownsey says:

      It will be about the English language as a tool of imperialism. It will be set in India just after the Indian ‘mutiny’.

    • John Borstlap says:


  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    The other thing with musicals is that singers use microphones to sing, which takes away much of the pleasure of listening to a live performance.

    • AnySchiffInAStorm says:

      [[ with musicals is that singers use microphones ]]

      Far from always. Don’t base everything on your own (microscopic) experience.

    • John Rook says:

      The use of microphones is recent, dating back to Les Mis at the RSC in the early 1980s. The classic musicals were always sung without. The presence of microphones is merely to increase dramatic possibilities between stage and pit. If you can’t sing, a microphone won’t help you.

  • Caranome says:

    Forget about the classics such as My Fair Lady etc. Many middling shows are more tolerable then the modern drivel that’s called opera nowadays. Ex: every John Adams piece sounds like “ding ding dong dong”, with variation of “dong dong ding ding” or “ding dong ding dong”, for 2 hours! if this is Minimalism, I want to minimize hearing about it.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    The difference lies in this. No matter how trivial the opera, a great singer , singing without a microphone can bring tears to the eyes. A musical theatre singer, with the use of microphones, will never achieve that with the use of voice alone.

    • AnySchiffInAStorm says:

      You’ve been to some very crap musicals, Mustafa.

    • AnySchiffInAStorm says:

      Pure balderdash. You know NOTHING about musicals at all.

      Go away and listen to Kurt Weill’s ‘Love Life’. Listen to the baritone solo scene ‘This Is The Life!” – in which a man who has run out on his wife and family tries to convince himself he is better off on his own. It dissolves into sobbing by the end.

      First LEARN something about musicals, before you type any more crap about them???

  • Gordon Freeman says:

    Teraccini’s statement may contain a grain of truth, but it doesn’t address the main issue which is that, if opera companies spend a quarter of their year and a quarter of their budget* producing musical theatre while musical theatre companies don’t reciprocate by spending a quarter of their year and their budget producing Written on Skin, Bluebeard’s Castle and Brett Dean’s Hamlet, then we are going to start losing significant chunks of the already massively dumbed down repertoire, and what we will be left with is a partial representation of an already diluted culture rather than an actual culture, in addition to the fact that the more “adventurous” operas which OA presents (Salome gasp *faints*) are using old productions which age heinously.

    But the focus on OA as being the worst culprit in Australia when it comes to this issue is perhaps misplaced. The administrations of the symphony orchestras are the real issue; the constant bombardment of orchestral karaoke concerts (ie where they perform film soundtracks while the film plays in the background) is ridiculous, not to mention the plethora of concerts where the symphony orchestras act as backing strings for a “serious” pop artist. All this would be well and good were it not for the fact that in most cases this again leads to large portions of the repertoire becoming seemingly lost forever; where one orchestra used to play perhaps three or four or five Sibelius or Bruckner or Shostakovich symphonies, now they only ever play the more popular one or two or three, and the same ones for every five year cycle. Not to mention “lesser” composers who have completely disappeared due to there simply not being enough room left in a year’s programming to fit in all the classical hits and pop gigs in addition to lesser known works. Ben Folds and Nick Cave et al are hardly reciprocating this “crossover” by introducing their audiences to Reger.

    It doesn’t appear though that orchestral musicians are either aware of or seem to mind that the classical repertoire is reduced by a third, otherwise they would perhaps be doing something about it. If they, as told by their administrators, cling to the idea that these pop concerts provide funds vital to the survival of the orchestra, how do they then explain that certain performances of these hugely expensive productions such as one orchestra’s Wallace and Gromit actually lost significant amounts of money and that another orchestra were giving tickets away to what should have been a surefire hit in The Force Awakens? And what happens when a company bases its revenue budgeting on something that turns out to be a fad that people have grown tired of? Performing Mahler and Strauss and Tchaikovsky every week is hard work for musicians, but they do it, because it’s their job and it’s what they care about. The publicists and general managers need to realise that while it’s difficult to sell Bruckner and Bartok, that’s their freaking job and if they can’t do it they really absolutely should go flip burgers or knit sweaters instead.

    *Obviously this is not QUITE the case just yet but given the rate of expansion which popular music seems to have in the programs of Australian symphony orchestras and OA over the last ten years it’s absolutely undeniable that this will soon be the case.

    • AnySchiffInAStorm says:

      I’ll swap you Written On Skin for Sweeney Todd, and never regret it for a second.

      • Gordon Freeman says:

        I think they’re both fantastic! A shame that only one of them will ever get a run in Australia, for those of us who are lucky enough to be able to enjoy both!

        • Ulex Xane says:

          Gordon, as a regular concertgoer of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, your comment on administration and programming is spot on and I agree with you 100%!

    • Bruce says:

      My (American) orchestra is doing I think 3 movies this season plus another show comprised of scenes from Pixar movies — accompanied by live symphony orchestra! — as well as the obligatory Harry Potter concert, and we have also added a Rock series (“The Music Of” Elton John, David Bowie, etc.). I feel like we’re becoming pretty evenly divided between classical and popular concerts — or, as someone in management might say, concerts that make money and concerts that lose money.

    • Cubs Fan says:

      I can’t disagree with anything you wrote. The insidious takeover of the classical concerts and opera by more popular, mass-audience friendly shows is very disturbing. But…what are you, we, going to do about it? What can be done to bring classical audiences back? Mahler used to be a huge draw, but in the US he’s not at all anymore. I wish someone had an answer, and it may well be there is none. The culture wars are over – pop culture won. It makes me very sad.

    • Nick2 says:

      I’m curious. If opera companies spend a quarter of their time producing musicals, why should companies producing musicals spend an equal amount of time on opera, the more so when the operas suggested are far from popular repertoire? Opera companies are heavily subsidised in one way or another. The vast majority of musicals producers operate in the private sector and have very different funding models.

      The fact is that musicals historically have required vast capitalisation before the curtain first goes up. To recoup those funds and start to make any degree of profit, a musical has to run for 8 performances a week for many months if not years. (Try getting any opera singer to fill thet schedule without amplification!) Does Gordon Freeman seriously consider that 200 or so performances over six months of Bluebeard’s Castle will sell so many seats it starts to make a profit? I certainly don’t.

      So what if some of the repertoire is lost almost forever? The same is true for both genres. I can recall when Scottish Opera commissioned four operas to be performed in consecutive years in the mid-1970s. One, Thea Musgrave’s Mary Queen of Scots, is a splendid work which has seen performances quite a number of times since by several opera companies. The other three are virtually dead. Why? I would submit because they are not sufficiently interesting musically and dramatically to warrant the very large expenditure required nowadays to mount what would be just a handful of performances.

      Equally, the first musical I saw was by Lionel Bart whose Oliver is a splendid work and was still playing in London when I went to see his Blitz. Noel Coward called Blitz twice as boring and twice as loud as the real thing! The show was a moderate success. As far as I am aware it has never been revived and, in my view, never will. The same is true of Carrie, The Red Shoes, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and many hundreds of other musicals.

      The fact is that presenting new operas and new musicals in the present day requires a great deal of funding and a belief that audiences will be attracted to them. Producers of musicals do far more research and are far more prepared to take the financial risk. By comparison, opera companies generally can not afford to do so!

    • Emma McGrath says:

      Hi Gordon! Not all Australian orchestras are succumbing to the creep of popular music/film music. Here at the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra it is not as easy for us to do the usual Harry Potter/Star Wars type series, due to the size of our orchestra and the size of our hall. We take great pride in our carefully constructed season, of which the vast majority is great classical music. Our family concerts usually feature lots of classical music as well, and we have fantastic initiatives for emerging Australian composers and conductors. There are some shows with artists such as Kate Miller-Heidke, that pepper the season, but definitely don’t make up 1/3 of it!
      I’m a recent import to Tasmania, so I do understand what you’re talking about, not just in Australia but around the world. I have to say that many musicians are not thrilled at doing more and more of this stuff – and many do everything they can, with their voices on various committees, to readdress the balance. Sadly I think that usually money talks, and most managements view the movies and the popular music as potentially being far more safe and lucrative, so change could be difficult.

      • Gordon Freeman says:

        Similarly SSO appears to still have quite a broad range of repertoire. It makes one wonder how much richer their audience’s cultural experience would be if they used however many weeks of the year they spend playing James Bond or with Lior etc playing a concert instead.

        I realise that players are doing their best on commitees etc but the fact of the matter is that ultimately all power lies with the players because if all diplomatic channels have been exhausted between them and admin the musicians are the ones who can simply say enough is enough and go on strike for the projects that the majority of players decide shouldn’t be in the job description, if the artistic integrity of the orchestra gets low enough. Of course this potentially places a significant financial risk/burden on the players and their families, but the integrity of the culture we raise our kids in, as well as the integrity of the individual to do the right thing as an example for our kids, should probably be paramount. But as you say, money talks.

        American orchestras appear to have had reasonable success striking over the past few years.

    • Eleganza says:

      I agree with much of what you say, but I do take issue with one statement about OA:

      “in addition to the fact that the more “adventurous” operas which OA presents (Salome gasp *faints*) are using old productions which age heinously.”

      I’m struggling to think of a recent “adventurous” opera staged by OA that used an old production – including the Salome which was a production by Australian Gale Edwards that was done once in 2012 I think, and repeated now in 2019 – I don’t think that counts as an old production.

      In 2019 the “adventurous” repertoire would’ve been:

      – Wozzeck – new production from Salzburg Festival/MET dir. William Kentridge

      – The aforementioned Salome

      – Il Viaggio a Reims – new production from Netherlands/Roma dir. Damiano Michieletto

      Whiteley – new commission about artist Brett Whiteley

      Anna Bolena – new production dir. Davide Livermore

      2018 had:

      The Nose – from ROH new production dir. Barry Kosky

      Turco in Italia – Australian Production Simon Phillips, first stages 2014 revived 2018 (not “old”)

      2017 had King Roger – from ROH, dir Kasper Holten (admittedly not much else “adventurous”, with the Sydney Opera House closed for much of the year OA didn’t stage much repertoire at all.)

      Looking ahead, 2020 sees:

      Attila – from La Scala, new production dir. Davide Livermore

      Roberto Devereux – new OA production dir. Davide Livermore

      La Juive – from Lyon, new production dir. Olivier Py

      And the Ring, in a brand new production by Chen Shi-Zheng

      So I really don’t see any evidence at all of your statement than anything “adventurous“ is tired and old.

      • Gordon Freeman says:

        Glad to hear it! I remember seeing the Salome production in 2012 or 2013 and for some reason thought it was already an old one then, my mistake.

    • TubaMinimum says:

      Orchestras have done a core classical subscription series and a pops series since the early 1900s. Movie karaoke and collaborations with Ben Folds or Nick Cave are just an evolution of that business reality as the old idea of “pops,” playing show-tunes or with a crooner who was always backed by an orchestra, has kind of become increasingly amorphous and less popular. I’ve yet to see real numbers that suggest orchestras are in any way shortening their core classical subscription series weeks (i.e. short changing anyone the classical part of their season.) But these new versions of pops probably stick out more, just because they are a new trend. Again, I’m only familiar with the American industry, so unsure how things look in Australia.

      Additionally, pretty much any concert that seats ~2,000 patrons and involves ~100 orchestra musicians and a conductor on stage is going to lose money. That’s just the reality of it. So even these movie karaoke or pop artist concerts lose money unless there are ridiculously high ticket prices. But, that’s not all the math that is involved. At a high end American orchestra, you are contracted to pay your musicians for 50-52 weeks of work. In just about any city, there was a realization that you couldn’t do your core product and tap your core ticket audience every week of the year. Even in big cities, you are over-saturating your market. So you need shows in your portfolio that reach a different part of the market to keep your filled percentage high. Additionally, because you are reaching some casual audiences, maybe they discover they like the experience and want to try a classical week (we can dream). Maybe they want to donate some. Also, you buy yourself some political cover. It’s super important when you are run off donations and limited government support that you show that you are trying to offer something for everyone. So all of that goes into the math of why you do this financially.

      • Gordon Freeman says:

        Yes, these are all mostly good points. The pop shows have always been present, and you might have a point about the number of weeks per year spent performing classical music remaining the same in some cases. But surely there’s no doubt that the repertoire is thinning out in most cases and that this is also a symptom of sell out culture.

    • John Borstlap says:

      One of the problems is that orchestral management staff consists of people who are not musicians and have a restricted idea about music, and are there to make ends meet and organise the complex process which is presenting concerts, instead of thinking about content. Also the orchestral performance culture is not a business but an investment into something immaterial: a musical experience, so running it as a business is ruining the art form.

  • Brettermeier says:

    “Opera boss: Some musicals are better than many operas”

    That is a true (and meaningless) statement.

    Another true (and meaningless) statement: Some operas are better than many musicals.

    To sum it up:

    1. A good musical is better than a bad opera
    2. A good opera is better than a bad musical
    3. People prefer to pay for good music

    I learned so much today! 😀

  • Leporello says:

    Alas, most (all?) operas composed in recent decades are designed for (a) the ego of the composer, or (b) an application for some sort of grant or (c) to assist opera companies in justifying their public funding. These invariably painful works are usually performed once to a largely invited audience and are never heard of again – thank goodness.

    • John Borstlap says:

      But that is a very strange situation, which has never occurred before. In former ages, there also have been operas which happened not to be very good, but they were never bad. The problem with contemporary opera is a very simple but very big elephant in the room: the music deemed contemporary is not suited to the art form. I remember an opera director explaining this in some German article, a little balloon which got up and was, of course, ignored, because being too painful. Where music is reduced to mere acoustic effects or raw sound scapes without any expressive meaning, the very raison d’etre of opera is lost. Also sheer representing ‘reality’ without artful stylization, is not real opera, not even works like ‘Die Soldaten’. It is no coincidence that a most unsettling and musically chaotic opera like Schoenberg’s Erwartung is so effective: there is still the tonal tradition in the background and the subject is psychic disintegration and insanity. One can do that only once, as an end point.

      The minimal music of Adams brought a relief, but its monomane repetitiveness creates an inaccessible wall of sound which cannot follow psychology in detail, as old music (still) does. Sometimes one gets the impression that the art form has to be reinvented all over again, as in the 16th century.

  • kjpmaestro says:

    I am compelled to offer some thoughts on this piece.

    The issue as Lyndon sees it is that he can’t make budget in Australia unless he diversifies his income stream with musical theatre offerings. My criticism of this is not his click-bait statements about the merits of some musicals over some operas (the comparison is moot for obvious reasons) my concern is for the subsequent decline in work for Australian opera singers and opera creative artists with the increase in musical theatre offerings. It is not as if there is a surfeit of work available for Australian artists as it stands!

    Nonetheless, if this is the way of the future for OA; to be clear, a direction I personally diasgree with, of far greater concern is the unspoken rejection of pursuing Australian musicals to prop up the OA season at the expense of US product (and, only then, those shows that have known box-office draw). Moreover, It is further lamentable that Lyndon believes that ‘Bridges of…” is a show of comparative worth to MFL or WSS (and others too numerous to mention) serving only to demonstrate his overall ignorance of contemporary musical theatre product. it’s clearly not his métier, nor is he meant to be an expert on this repertoire but it is, perversely, damning in and of itself.

    It is an indisputable fact that Lyndon is up against the wall in a climate of chronic Arts underfunding in Australia. I do, however, challenge the thinking that proposes the solution to presenting Opera as a viable, living, artform is best met by importing commercial musicals and putting one’s faith in the contentious virtue of digital scenography.

    OA remains a Australian, tax-payer funded, major performing Arts organisation. We deserve to have an articulate, brave, audience-creating design strategy to develop and grow the artform neither reliant nor predicated upon popular entertainment vehicles. We already have numerous companies who provide this service from the commercial and community theatre sectors.

  • Hunding says:

    Maybe in Australia….

  • luciano tanto says:

    …y viceversa. O sea, observación ridícula.

  • Robin Worth says:

    If you saw Schikaneder in Vienna a couple of years ago you might wonder if there is that much of a gap between two art/entertainment forms which have much in common (sad that it has never been done in English or had an outing since then)

    • John Borstlap says:

      Shikaneder’s premiere production of Die Zauberfloete in the 18th century was BOTH entertainment and high art, but that was only possible in a cultural climate where these two things were not that much apart. Some movements in late Beethoven string quartets are sheer entertainment, but on a very high level – like opus 130, 3rd mvt:


  • Alan Hewitt says:

    Absolutely right, and he might also have mentioned “High Society” , “Oklahoma”, “Top Hat” and “Porgy and Bess”, to name just a few which are more inventive and enjoyable than many operas.

  • Jack says:

    Probably. And probably better box office.

  • BrianB says:

    But not one single musical, even the greatest, reaches he heights and complexity of expression and meaning of the greatest operas. So what’s Terracini’s point?