WA Opera’s new Artistic Director Brad Cohen spoke with Samuel J. Cox about his first season at the helm.

Presenting its season in His Majesty’s Theatre each year, as well as Opera in the Park in the Supreme Court Gardens, West Australian Opera (WAO) is now only one-year shy of its 50th anniversary. Established in 1967, WA’s only full-time professional opera company sees its 2016 season programmed for the first time by new Artistic Director Brad Cohen.

The Australian conductor has carved an international career for himself, conducting the London Philharmonic, Stuttgarter Philharmoniker and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, among many others. He takes over from New Yorker Joseph Colaneri, who parted ways with WAO after only two-and-a-half years in the job.

Previously a guest conductor with WAO, Cohen was awarded a three-year contract at the end of January 2015, by which point the 2016 program should already have been finalized. When it was finally locked down mid-year, Cohen’s first season hoped to indicate to audiences a consistent and well-articulated programming strategy.

“I came into this position with two artistic priorities: the first was to renew the repertoire that the company offers, and the second was to connect more strongly with our audiences. It’s not enough to just offer Puccini and Verdi in the same old format and expect that people will come. It’s not enough to do Carmen six times, bringing it back every two years. You get audience fatigue. My programming is about refreshing what we offer and changing our casting to be more strongly West Australian in nature. I structured this season to ensure each of the four productions had some new element in it. Either it was an old opera with a fresh cast, an entirely new piece or an opera that was new to the company. At Opera in the Park we presented Puccini’s last completed opera, Gianni Schicchi, which had never been done here before. The Riders is an entirely new opera that didn’t exist until we commissioned it eighteen months ago. The Elixir of Love is a well-known piece that is popular with audiences, and while I did it with Opera Australia a few years ago it has never been seen in Perth. Finally, The Pearl Fishers is another well-loved piece, but is an entirely new production.”

As Artistic Director, Cohen is responsible for the artistic standards and vision for the company. He is involved in the choice of repertoire, casting of artists and engagement of creative teams (including directors, lighting and costume designers, choreographers, etc.), while personally conducting the orchestra during the season.

Before becoming a conductor, Cohen played all sorts of instruments, bar brass and woodwind. “I started violin when I was four, then became a choir boy at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney before taking up the organ and piano when my voice broke. I became a baritone singer when I was 17 or 18, and at one time thought I might go into opera. I learnt percussion and then I started to work as a répétiteur [rehearsal pianist] while also acting as an assistant conductor,” Cohen says. “As a conductor, my primary responsibility is to be the composer’s representative on earth (even if they’re still living). My job is to try and understand their vison and make it as powerful and as clear as I can to the singers, and ultimately the audiences.”

This year Cohen has ended all guest conducting and confined his activity to WAO. “The older I get, the more I have to be persuaded that something is worth doing. While having Covent Garden [where The Royal Opera House is located], the Met [New York Metropolitan Opera] and Vienna [State Opera] on my resume would be super glamorous, I know that the higher you go, the more compromised things can become artistically. It’s not intentional, it’s just a function of the very large amounts of money at stake. Do I have ambitions? I do, but I’m not sure that they can be expressed by ‘ticking boxes’ by guesting with certain companies or venues,” Cohen says. “What I’m looking for is a real belief in opera, a complete conviction that it has value and a future, and a really clear artistic framework within which I can do my best work. That’s what I try to provide here as AD, a safe space in which the emotionally complex people in this business can be the best artists that they can.”

WAO is part of the Opera Conference, a consortium composed of State Opera South Australia, Opera Queensland and Opera Australia. The Conference collaborates on commissioning a production which they all share in the following year. This year that production is The Pearl Fishers, last year it was Faust. Each member of the Conference has come under scrutiny thanks to the National Opera Review, which was jointly commissioned by the Australia Council for the Arts and the government, to strategically assess the national funding and allocation of resources for Australian opera. Long overdue, Cohen hopes Federal funding will come to reflect the state’s growth and the size of WAO’s audiences.

“In a sense it’s a historical adjustment of the way the funding has been previously allocated and whether that’s appropriate going forward. It hasn’t published its final findings yet, but we have an early draft. They refer to WAO as a fiscally responsible, model company, with a good artistic vision. It is also examining the status of Victorian Opera – currently not part of the Opera Conference – and questioning whether Opera Australia should continue performing in both in Sydney and Melbourne, or whether it should it retrench its Melbourne season and leave it to Victorian Opera,” Cohen says.

The review was instigated in part by the Hon. George Brandis QC (Attorney General and ex-Minister for the Arts – the crusader against illegal downloading) during the same period in which the 2015-16 Federal budget re-distributed funds from the Australia Council for the Arts to establish the poorly-received National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA). Without delving too deeply into industry politics, this change meant that Australia’s small to medium arts sector lost access to much-needed funding grants that no longer existed.

Operatic, 'The Riders' Rehearsals, Victorian Opera Malthouse Theatre 2014, Jeff Bubsy

‘The Riders’ Rehearsals, Victorian Opera Malthouse Theatre 2014, Image by Jeff Bubsy

In the age of digital media, Cohen believes that the “value of live performance is becoming clearer than ever. Television, film, CGI, special effects; they’re all fantastically engaging and immersive. However, what has become clear is that physical, live engagement in a space is really powerful. That’s why increasingly major artists, like Madonna, are touring live again. You can own all the Prince albums you like, but it’s not the same as being in the room with him as he does it live,” Cohen says. “That’s what opera is about for me. I’ve done a lot of TV opera for the BBC, and I maintain that it’s a really valuable, genuine operatic experience. But the visceral experience of the human voice can’t be guaranteed without being in a real space. Opera complements all the digital technology, but it is not replaced by it.”

“The Met live broadcasts, which you can see regularly at Luna Leederville, are a great thing that allows more people to see those performances than can actually go and sit in the audience. However, it causes problems for other opera companies around the world. You’re able to hear the most expensive singers in the world at the peak of their career; how does a local opera experience compete with that? You might try and imitate the Met, just cheaper, by aiming to get the best international artists you can afford involved, but I think that has very limited potential because there’s no value in being a watered down imitation. The second approach is to seek a distinctively Australian operatic sensibility, something truly indigenous to who we are, where we live and the landscape and culture around us. The last 30 years has seen some important premiers in Australian operatic history; we’ve had Voss, Batavia, The Love of the Nightingale, The Rabbits and now The Riders. They share this attempt to tell a truly Australian story. I’m not talking about Lamingtons, or the kitsch side of Australian culture. I mean a sensibility that genuinely reflects our history and place in this landscape.”

For those who have never been, Cohen describes the opera as “telling stories through the power of the human singing voice. That’s why you can call [Gaetano] Donizetti ‘opera’, but you can also include West Side Story, Porgy and Bess and [Claudio] Monteverdi. Some people would say there’s a difference between musicals and operas, but if it uses the human voice to tell a story then I say it has something operatic in it. Opera is a broad umbrella term and an inclusive art form, and it shouldn’t be constrained to 19thC Italian bel canto, that’s ridiculous.”

“You could also think of opera as blue cheese – after all, they’re both forms of culture! You can talk about blue cheese all you like and you can present it to people while declaring it’s really fantastic. However, while some people will fall in love with it on their first taste, others will take some time to acquire the palate, and others will just always hate it. Regardless, it is our responsibility, obligation and mission as the State Opera Company to provide opera of the highest possible standard to our state audience.”


Interview by Samuel J. Cox