Opera Australia grasps The Ring, but plunges to a loss

Liz Hobday |

The world-first fully digital staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Brisbane received five-star reviews.
The world-first fully digital staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Brisbane received five-star reviews.

Wagner’s Ring Cycle was Opera Australia’s most ambitious production yet, but the 16-hour epic helped sink the company’s 2023 finances to an operating deficit of $7.8 million.

“I don’t think any arts company puts on a Ring Cycle and thinks that’s going to be its pathway to financial sustainability,” chief executive Fiona Allan told AAP.

Yet money from the Opera Australia capital fund and NSW government funding were among the factors that helped the company back to an overall net deficit of $1.7 million.

The world-first fully digital staging of the Ring Cycle in Brisbane received five-star reviews and lengthy standing ovations, attracting an average audience of 4746 across each of its four operas.

Opera Australia's 2023 production of Gotterdammerung at QPAC, Brisbane
Expenses climbed as the Ring Cycle production was postponed twice because of the pandemic. (Supplied/AAP PHOTOS)

With 350 cast and crew and 27 semi-trailer loads of set and equipment it was always going to be a hugely expensive undertaking.

Opera Australia can’t say how much it cost because of commercial partnership agreements, but expenses climbed as the production was postponed twice because of the pandemic.

The Ring Cycle made the company’s 2023 losses an anomaly, said Allan, who promised the path to a sustainable financial model was not far away.

More broadly, the deficit was influenced by cost-of-living pressures, reduced international tourism and sustained high inflation, chairman Rod Sims said.

Opera Australia staged 454 performances during 2023 including 14 operas and three musicals, with a total audience of 492,324.

Its slate, with a much-reduced offering in Melbourne, resulted in box office takings of $65.7 million, just more than half of the company’s revenue and less than its 2022 takings of $79.8 million.

The nation’s biggest performing arts company received $30.2 million in government funding.

Its big hits for 2023 were Miss Saigon, which attracted an audience of 145,845 across runs in Melbourne and Sydney, while the Phantom of the Opera at Arts Centre Melbourne had an audience of 94,354.

Rod Sims
Cost-of-living pressures contributed to Opera Australia’s deficit, Rod Sims says. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS)

The results are the first delivered under new artistic director Jo Davies.

As well as staging popular musicals, Opera Australia has also begun scoping ways to develop its Sydney headquarters in the hope of developing another income stream.

The heritage-listed former factory takes up almost a whole block in Surry Hills and the development could involve the nearby Belvoir St Theatre.

Allan hopes the project, which has not yet been financed, could result in better rehearsal spaces and more public access for workshops and performances.

In Melbourne, a lack of access to theatres due to the renovation of the State Theatre has been a “material challenge” with the company staging Tosca at Margaret Court Arena later in May.

Productions in the city’s Regent Theatre, which lacks an orchestra pit, will follow, before the the State Theatre reopens in 2027.

Yet there are bigger problems than finding venues, such as the widening gap between potential income and production costs (including manufacturing, costumes and travel), some of which have soared 70 per cent. 

The company expanded its footprint, with The Barber of Seville touring across five states and territories, and new partnerships with Victorian Opera, Opera Queensland and Queensland Symphony Orchestra.