Soprano sounds off about 'disrespectful' Briton in charge of Opera Australia

There is more drama off-stage than on at Opera Australia as a serious rift is developing between the company's star singer and its British musical director.

The mezzo-soprano Fiona Janes has accused the company of sliding into "an abyss of mediocrity" as musical, vocal and artistic standards fall.

Adding an additional note of tension is the fact that there is a Briton at the centre of the row.

In a leaked email, she blamed Richard Hickox, the musical director who joined Opera Australia in 2005, for the company's decline. In the email, she alleged that under his directorship, the company has hired "second- and third-rate singers" from overseas, placed younger singers in roles that are too big for them and neglected older artists over 40, especially women.

Janes also accused Mr Hickox, who created the City of London Sinfonia, of being away too much and of showing disrespect to established local singers.

"As our national company we should all be proud of Opera Australia, however, as it stands now, not many people are," she wrote in the email, which was obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald. "Let's not destroy it for generations to come, allowing it to fall into an abyss of mediocrity."

Janes's views do not appear to be shared by the board, which is due to meet next week. The company's chief executive, Adrian Collette, said: "Certain allegations have been made and the board expressed complete confidence in the music director and the management of the company."

The appointment of Mr Hickox, who is due to return to Sydney next week, was not without its controversy. When the internationally acclaimed Australian conductor Simone Young was not reappointed when her contract expired in 2002, her fans were infuriated. Opera Australia's view was that her artistic vision was unaffordable.

Mr Hickox, who is regarded as one of Britain's most gifted and versatile conductors, was not able to take up his appointment until 2005, but then he attempted to placate those who claimed the company's artistic integrity was being compromised by Young's departure. In a radio interview he said: "With my ... work internationally, I don't think that you could possibly say I don't have my standards." Asked how he would juggle economics with artistic integrity, he explained: "We have to balance doing really exciting new work with a standard repertoire, but whatever we do, we have to do it absolutely excellently."

Janes has decided to wait for the outcome of next week's board meeting before making any further comment but the publication of her email could not have come at a worse time. Opera Australia's latest production of Handel's opera Orlando opens at the Sydney Opera House on Monday. The next day the company will herald its 2009 season at a reception for artists and the media. The party promises to have all the melodrama of classic opera, only this time the leading players will not be on stage.

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