By Luke Hughes
Lyndon Terracini AM has enjoyed a highly successful international opera career as well as a successful career as an actor, director and writer.
A former opera singer himself, Lyndon performed in opera houses around the world before retiring from the stage to run the Queensland Music Festival (2000-2005), the Brisbane Festival (2006-2009) and since 2009, Opera Australia.
In 2014 Lyndon’s service to the performing arts as an opera performer, director and administrator was recognised with a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
In recent years Terracini has concentrated part of his efforts on how to attract audiences from new immigrants, mainly Chinese and other Asian backgrounds. The continuing popularity of Opera Australia is a testament to the success of Lyndon’s approach.
He shared his passion with New Land recently.
Q: In many ways the approach you’ve taken with Opera Australia has proven successful.
Terracin: When I came here, which was about 6 years ago, the turnover was $50,000,000 so we’ve more than doubled the turnover, doubled the audience and done things like Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, which means we play to a much wider and broader audience. We had to find a younger audience, and we’ve done that, and we had to find a new audience too because Sydney and Melbourne have changed so much. They’re both virtually Asian cities now and so we needed to connect to that audience rather than the audience that had made up Australia fifty years ago.
Q: So the Handa Operas are funded by a Japanese businessman, how did that collaboration come about?
Terracin: It was my idea and I had to find people to pay for it. I heard about Dr Handa in Japan so I got on a plane with the then CEO of Opera Australia, Adrian Collette, and we went to see him. Sat down, told him about it, he loved it and said he would do it. He’s only seen one production, he’s been a most fantastic supporter, incredibly generous and not only financially but it’s a great generosity of spirit. He’s very keen for us to be playing to as many people as possible.He loves Western opera and he wants Western opera to be appreciated by as many people as possible. That’s really, I think, one of the fundamental reasons why he’s being so incredibly generous.
Q: That is quite a grand gesture on his behalf coming from an Asian culture, but in a sense trying to preserve all of the world’s traditional or classical cultures.
Terracin: Yes, he’s a Shinto priest and that’s part of his philosophy, he gives away virtually everything that he earns and he’s really an exceptional human being. I was very fortunate to be able to meet him.
Q: You have taken some criticism in the past from some over the way you’ve approached the programming. It’s a tough job you’ve got here, where it could be said that you are in a position to preserve classical Western culture.
Terracin: It’s very easy to program in a way that will appeal to a very small audience and when you do that people will think your’re being brave and daring, well you’re not. If you do that what happens is what’s happening to opera companies all over the world, they close. It’s our responsibility and I believe it’s the responsibility of every organisation that receives money from the public purse to play to as many people as possible, and in our society that meant that this company had to change and it had to change significantly. It wasn’t acceptable any more for us to just play to a European audience.
Australia has changed dramatically and in a really wonderful way. The major cities are far more predominately Asian and we need to put forward an artistic product that’s interesting to those people. The form has always been a popular form, when Verdi and Puccini were writing operas there was no government support. They worked because the operas were successful.
Its only in recent times we’ve created this notion that it’s an elite form, it’s not. You need elite artists to sing and play it because it’s incredibly difficult, but the music is incredibly accessible and the fact now that we sell 650,000 tickets a year, as I said more than any other opera company in the world, means that we must be doing something right.
Q: You have an Italian heritage, and spent some time in Italy. What do you see as the differences between the cultural lives of people there compared to Australia?
Terracin: In Italy people grow up listening to opera. Even in the tiny villages they’ll take a big bus and go to the Arena in Verona every year, so it’s a kind of holiday to go and see operas.
Opera now is becoming much more popular here, it hasn’t been in the DNA of the very different ethnic groups that make up Australia and so often people have never heard a note until they’re adults.
This year we did this production of Turandot on the harbour that Chen Shi-Zheng directed, a Chinese director which was fantastic, with Mandarin surtitles. We had a lot of people from China coming out to see it and also Chinese people that have grown up in Australia wanting to see it. It was a huge success for us. We will have surtitles on every opera we do in Mandarin, on the harbour every year now and we’ll continue with that. We’re getting more tourists from China every year now, it’s been terrific.
Q: You’ve been quite open about your battle with depression. Part of the Chinese character for medicine is the character for music. Would you say music has been a powerful therapeutic device for you?
Terracin: That’s a really interesting question. Yes it has been, there’s no doubt about it. When you sing you release really positive endorphins and so you feel better when you sing and as a singer, when you’re singing well, that positivity is really magnified, so it’s not just the act of singing that you think is really working well. Playing music is a fantastic antidote for depression and the other thing I found is that if I’m really busy, particularly intellectually busy, it helps me enormously. If I’m busy and if I’m making music, well, it’s a fantastic medicine… plants even grow better with classical music. I’ve been incredibly lucky throughout my whole life, I mean I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t of been a musician and a singer.
Opera Australia has launched its 2017 season. For full details go to opera-australia.org.au.
This article is also available in: Chinese traditional