This may be the end of opera as we know it

Opera Australia will abandon its traditional seasons in Sydney and Melbourne in favour of producing more money-spinning musical theatre, outdoor events, indoor bespoke performances and even films.

The proposed "new artistic and operating model," outlined in a document shared with staff and driven by the COVID-19 shutdown, represents the biggest shake-up in OA's history and has thrown the company into disarray.

The document, written by OA management, says the changes are expected to "completely disrupt" the traditional model and has alarmed surviving staff by proposing yet-to-be-detailed changes to their employment terms.

Members of the Opera Australia orchestra protest in March outside OA headquarters after they were stood down without pay.Credit:Louise Kennerley

Last month, OA announced it would slash 25 per cent of its workforce, including 16 members of the OA orchestra and eight singers from the chorus, provoking an outcry from musicians and a flood of letters of support from local and international music colleagues.

Oboist Mark Bruwel, president of the Symphony Orchestra Musicians' Association and one of the players who lost their jobs, said legal challenges were being pursued over the way redundancies were allegedly carried out.

"It is felt as though certain people were targeted because they were the union rep or they were vocal on health and safety issues – that sort of thing," he said. "There is very strong feeling that in most cases positions were targeted not because of the actual instrument but because of the personality."

Among the 16 positions scrapped were the principal clarinet, four violins, bass trombone and tuba.

"You can't have an orchestra without a principal clarinet," said Mr Bruwel. "You can't have an orchestra with no low brass at all."

Mr Bruwel claimed there had been minimal consultation with orchestral players.

"The orchestra has been utterly betrayed by people who were put in charge to nurture and develop our artform," he said.

In a written statement, OA said positions in the orchestra were selected for redundancy following a review of what roles were no longer needed on a full-time basis. OA strongly denied decisions were made on the basis of individuals in those positions.

"OA consulted directly with all those whose positions were being considered for redundancy – both directly and with the MEAA, where that was preferred by the employee," continued the statement.

Players' roles were made redundant because they were "no longer required on a permanent basis in the new structure based on the new model".

Letters of support for the players have come from as far afield as New York, Texas, the UK and Senegal as well as from players in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, who have opted to take pay cuts in order to avoid redundancies.

"We urge Opera Australia to do the same for their orchestral musicians in the Opera Australia orchestra," said a letter from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Musicians' Association. "The future health of the arts sector depends on being able to preserve jobs and skills for when we are able to perform again."

Another letter, from the prestigious International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, which represents 52 orchestras across the US, also condemned the redundancies at the "world-renowned opera company" and urged OA to renegotiate.

"With a very few exceptions our ICSOM orchestras have negotiated interim agreements that maintain the integrity of their artistic associations and preserve the historic and cultural value of these storied arts organisations for future generations," said the letter.

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