Mimed opera shocks Sydney

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The Independent Online
NO ONE doubts that the Sydney Opera House is Australia's greatest 20th century building. But while the sail-like exterior may be a masterpiece, what goes on inside is more contentious.

The house was built to provide Australian musicians with a world-class stage on which to demonstrate their skills without leaving home. But government penny-pinching is crippling artistic endeavour. To the horror of purists, part of a live performance of Verdi's Don Carlo which opens next month will be mimed to a back-up tape.

Verdi's work, set in Spain in the 1550s, includes a major setpiece in which a parade of heretics crosses the stage to be burned at the stake. The opera demands the processional music to be played by 13 musicians. Opera Australia, however, has calculated that putting the 13 performers on stage for seven minutes would cost A$23,000 (pounds 10,000). The company says it cannot afford this, given that it ran up deficits of A$4.6m in 1997 and A$1.4m in 1998.

Instead, the top-drawer production, directed by the Australian expatriate Elijah Moshinsky and conducted by Australia's greatest opera talent, Simone Young, will include a recording, for which the bill will only be A$9,128. During the heretics' scene, Sydney operagoers will hear taped music, mimed by performers on stage.

Horrified musicians are calling this the "Milli Vanilli" of opera, after the pop duo that famously didn't sing on their own records. The Musicians Union of Australia is appalled, and is planning protests to coincide with the opening.

"It wouldn't happen at Covent Garden or New York," said John Macauliffe, the union's secretary. "It is the bean counters in the opera company overruling artistic standards. It's a short-sighted policy. But companies like Opera Australia are not being funded by the federal government to the level they should be."

Defending the decision, the company's manager, Adrian Collette, said Sydney was by no means the first to resort to taped music: "Even in the much better-funded European houses it is becoming the custom and practice to do this."

None the less, it has not been a good month for the Opera House. News of piped "live" music followed a threat by the chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to decamp to another venue if acoustics in the concert hall were not improved. Edo de Waart said the hall detracted from the orchestra's sound, and described the sonic doughnuts, hung from the hall's ceiling to help the orchestra to hear itself, as "toilet seats".

Then, last week, the hope of securing a World Heritage listing was dashed when the New South Wales government realised that, because of new federal environmental laws, such a listing would deliver the Opera House and its immediate surroundings into the jurisdiction of the federal government.

The application, which should have been lodged in Paris by 30 June, was blocked at the last minute by the New South Wales premier, Bob Carr, a surprise decision in the light of his record as one of the Opera House's champions.