Follow the money

Photography by Stephen Langdon

A third of NZ Opera’s board, directors Murray Shaw, Rachael Walkinton, and Witi Ihimaera, have resigned, exposing turmoil in the local opera world. In a statement the former directors noted a “huge swelling of discontent and confusion about the artistic direction of the company.”

Simon O’Neill (Cap #25), an international opera star and one of the world’s few Helden-tenors, has questions for the administrators about spending and transparency.

That great movie from the ‘70s All the President’s Men coined the phrase “Follow the money” as a clue to uncovering the political corruption of that day. It’s a useful way to try and understand how organisations with limited transparency are operating too.

People say opera is an expensive art form. It can be. Certainly that’s the case for professional mainstage opera (a complete live performance with full orchestra, a chorus of 50 singers, conductor, multiple principal roles trained in vocal production without microphones, designers, makeup, costume, directors, stage crew, electricians, set builders etc). For this reason companies that produce opera are funded by Creative New Zealand, financially supported by our city councils and benefit from many donors’ personal generosity. The opera companies then distribute those funds across their operation and thereby become the gatekeepers who decide what proportion of the opera funding makes it into the pockets of the artists.  I believe that New Zealanders are generous in their support of opera because of the large numbers of international-level opera singers that we produce.  We punch above our weight on the international opera stage because of our singers, and that isn’t by chance either – it is because of our incredible school choirs, youth choirs, and opera choruses. We grow great opera singers here!

People also say opera is elite. I’m the son of an Ashburton freezing worker and primary school teacher, who mortgaged the family home so I could continue my studies in New York. “Elite” is not a word I heard too much growing up and so I’ve looked it up. It means “a select group that is superior in terms of ability to the rest of a group or society”. Then yes, our opera singers are elite – just like our yachties, our filmmakers, our golfers, our rugby players, and just like our Olympic athletes. 

Last month Wellington was treated to a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni by a brand new and administratively lean opera company run by musicians for musicians.  Against all recent trends they produced a full opera and made a profit. Eight principal roles (performed by the finest New Zealand talent), Wellington Opera Chorus, and Orchestra Wellington were engaged. Full opera, full chorus, full orchestra. I am overjoyed that a good many artists performing in an opera after spending years of training for it got work and income (instead of needing to apply to Work and Income). As usual Wellington audiences gave huge support to the production. Bravo!

Unfortunately, however, that story is unusual in the national opera landscape in recent years, where the opera gatekeeper is measured on all sorts of grounds (new audiences, innovation and “reimagination”) but not measured on how much money they actually spend on artistic output or how many artists they helped keep the wolf from the door. There is no publicly available measure that I can find which shows how much of the arts funding an organisation has spent on the relevant artists rather than administration. It seems that it doesn’t matter if you have a staff of over 20 administrators yet stage one-singer “operas” – you’re still considered to be delivering. 

There is little transparency (and consequently reduced accountability) as to the proportion of money which actually ends up being spent on the opera artist rather than the office functions or expensive add-ons such as production video recordings. Equally, funding appeals promoted as “Opera for Everyone” with hierarchies of value such as “500 bucks for the singer, 5,000 for the cameraman and 50,000 for the video company” send a crystal clear message as to the value – literally – placed on the performer by the company.

Uncomfortably, as the artists are reliant on the gatekeeper company for future engagements and income, they have little power to complain. Especially in these lean performance times. Whilst feeding at the trough of public funds, one arts organisation manager even asked me, “What is the market rate for opera singers who cannot perform during the Covid19 pandemic?”.  

Turns out I was not the first person to recognise the dreadful low-balling of our “elite” artists.  The Creative New Zealand report on Sustainable Careers for Artists and Arts Practitioners expresses a similar sentiment:

“Creativity and creative work are characterised by seemingly intractable issues associated with low pay, an expectation that creative professionals will work for free or for ‘exposure’, and a lack of recognition and valuing of creative input. In addition, there are only a small number of full-time jobs available within the sector, leaving most practitioners vulnerable as contract or ‘gig economy’ workers.”

Damned straight CNZ! However, have you looked at who you are funding, and whether they actually depend on these same factors as an integral part of their business model?

I am reminded of the furore which hit London in the late ‘90s in the charity sector when investigations revealed the embarrassingly low proportion of the donated money being spent on the cause rather than administration. It caused a sector shake-up, increased transparency, and now results in published statistics. I returned home at the start of the pandemic in 2020 and began to ask questions because I was approached by opera singers distressed by the fees they were being offered. I’ve yet to see full transparency on the issue despite my persistent questioning.

Any artist in this country (from whichever discipline, be it comedy or opera) should be concerned that significant arts funding is not going to the artists but rather to those who sit at desks drawing down their government- and donor-subsidised wages. It’s time for a shake-up of the arts sector in New Zealand so that we can all see where the funding actually ends up. I challenge Creative New Zealand to take notice of its Sustainable Careers paper and spearhead the process required to “follow the money”.

A native of Ashburton, Simon O’Neill is recognised as one of the world’s finest Helden-tenors. He has appeared in leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Teatro alla Scala, Berlin, Munich and Vienna Staatsoper, Carnegie Hall, the BBC Proms and the Edinburgh, Salzburg and Bayreuth Festivals. He is a Fulbright Scholar, an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, alumnus of The Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music and University of Otago, he holds a Doctor of Music from Victoria University (Honoris Causa), Arts Foundation Laureate, and is a Grammy nominated recording artist. Simon lives in Auckland with his wife, Carmel and their three children. 

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