Marcus Westbury argues in today’s Sydney Morning Herald that orchestras/opera companies/chamber music groups are nothing more than Golden Oldie cover bands and should not get as much funding as they do.
It’s not that covers bands aren’t talented, don’t make good music, don’t entertain or even have a good time. Hell, put enough drinks in me and I’ll hit the dance floor to an ’80s pop classic or wave a lighter with half a tear in my eye to, say, Flame Trees.
But no one seriously goes out of their way to suggest that covers bands are the most vital or important part of the music scene. Why then are covers bands – of the high-culture variety – receiving the bulk of arts funding?
In one sense, art music ensembles are the ultimate cover bands because they don’t create their own material. In every other sense, however, the comparison falls down.
Even if, as Mr Westbury suggests, the ensembles in question play more contemporary Australian music, after the premiere it is impossible to do anything other than cover it. Art music doesn’t have a definitive performance or gold standard by which all other performances are judged to be a variation on.
My argument isn’t about form and it isn’t an extreme one. It’s about scale, equity and magnitude. I do think it would be a loss if Australians were to lose all connection with our vast and glorious European cultural heritage.
Opera Australia receives more than $10 million a year from the Australia Council. Sure, opera is lavish, expensive and glorious but I simply cannot think of a single sensible, logical or sane reason why one opera company is valued roughly on par with more than 400 separate organisations supported by the music, dance, literature and inter-arts boards of the same organisation.
There is a reason Roger Hargreaves didn’t create a Little Miss Obvious character: no one likes to be told something they already know but are choosing to ignore. Nevertheless, Miss Mussel will bear her burden without complaint and say Marcus, honey, opera is lavish, expensive and glorious, that’s why it costs $10 million a year. Shaving the budget to $7 million does no one any good because the season will still cost $10 million.
The amount of funding alloted doesn’t indicate the relative worthyness (pronounced like truthiness) of an art form. Tap classes down a the local community centre only cost $10,000 a year to subsidise. Does that mean those lessons are only worth 0.01% of the opera season? Realistically, most of the children who take tap won’t end up at the opera so really, their lessons are worth far more.
It’s true, shutting down the opera and/or symphony would leave a lot of money for other, smaller arts programs but what good is community singing or school based instrumental tuition if there is nowhere to listen to the highest level of performance? Sydney might as well tear down the Opera House and roll its maintenance costs into the tap dancing budget as well.
Perhaps Miss Mussel is overreacting. Demolition of one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World for the sake of some arts funding does seem a bit silly. At the very least, the building could be painted blue and transformed into the world’s most stylish IKEA.