Adelaide's Crown Jewels


Barry Humphries was right when he said that Adelaidians like to get their culture over and done with in the space of three weeks every two years. That way you can brace yourself for it, like the death of a cancer-ridden aunt.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

Every so often, there’s a drive from the South Australian Government to convince us that we’re still the Festival State, but that all harks back to the 1960s, to the era of imported English orchestras and Indian dance companies as exotic as Keen’s Curry.

Highlights of Adelaide’s second Festival of Arts in 1960 included the London Philharmonic under Sir Malcolm Sargent, Hephzibah and Yehudi Menuhin, operas by Verdi, Strauss and Britten, Shaw’s Saint Joan and Wendts jeweller’s exhibition of replicas of Britain’s Crown Jewels. A few years later, Don Dunstan built us a theatre but failed to fill us with a desire to make or see our own culture.

This time around, 46 years after the Crown Jewels, we’ve had Nora and the Forsythe Company from Germany, English operas, and Russian symphony orchestras. Sound familiar? Still, perhaps for a few weeks we can all feel like we’re part of the ‘real’ world. The cultural cringe lives on, although it is showing some terminal signs..

So, now that the festivals are over, what sort of culture can we expect in South Australia during the next 101 weeks?

Firstly, Adelaide theatre. The State Theatre Company (STC) a creaky, talcum-scented warhorse and our only ‘professional’ company panders to a subscriber base of eastern suburbs haus fraus who drag their QC husbands to the theatre once a month in order to keep up appearances. Names of shows are dropped as they sip hazelnut cappuccinos in cafes decorated with designer cacti. The STC survives on a diet of Shakespeare in leather and Coward in pinstriped suits, Christmas musicals and a token Australian play every so often to keep the cynics at bay (generally, it’s a disaster the equivalent of the Woomera RSL trialing an all-Motorhead jukebox).

Adelaide ‘s amateur musical theatre companies such as the Therry and Metropolitan work on a rotation of 12 musicals written between 1943-65, meaning they come up at each company every six to eight years. This allows the companies to swap sets and exchange Biology-teacher principals with six-note ranges. In most companies the same people are given the same roles (some people stay in the chorus from childhood to old age) and the same musicians with the same flat notes are re-engaged for another run. A core of ten or so directors take the reins each time. Most of them are good friends and nearly all of them hint at being gay. It’s a Brotherhood of Those Forever In and Out of the Closet, rehashing the same moves until Judgement Day (and let’s hope God’s a critic).

The ‘in’ musical a few years ago was Jesus Christ Superstar. A few years before that it was Les Miserables. These shows are popular because they have a ‘newish’ feel without being too new, they’re tried and tested, uncontroversial, highly melodic, lacking ideas or developed characters and have the potential for everyone’s cousin to sing in the chorus. More than anything, they don’t seem old, as Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe are starting to. They avoid the intimacy and sheer intelligence of someone like Sondheim and completely avoid the issue of new Australian work.

And then there’s South Australian opera. Never have so many paid so much to have uncomfortable, interrupted sleep. They descend from the eastern suburbs in throngs, several hours before the curtain rises, wearing dresses salvaged from the nightmare scene from Fiddler on the Roof. Military officers wear dress uniform and everyone who is anyone in Adelaide society struts like a paralytic peacock on the Festival Centre lawns, recognising each other and making small talk.

Adelaide Arts Festival founder Professor John Bishop
with composer William Walton, 1963

Can it be that these are the only locals with a love of opera? Or maybe it’s the ticket prices. Pre-prepared baskets from the DJ’s food hall are opened and champagne popped. The crowd enters and stands as the Governor arrives to the tune of God Save the Queen. The music begins, an imported Heldentenor steps on stage and everyone switches off until an interval of shared shiraz in the function room.

Apparently the SA Government tries its best to make the Arts professional. It does this by distributing a few hundred thousand dollars between hundreds of emerging and developing artists each year. Even when peer assessment panels do their best to share this money out, it means, at best, only a few hopeful and hardworking writers, poets, glassblowers, composers and rug weavers receive enough money to keep them in baked beans for a few months.

That’s why the best of the Arts in South Australia is in Sydney. Sydney has a marketplace.

If Mike Rann’s Government is serious about keeping clever people in SA, they need to spend; to subsidise artists who don’t have as many opportunities to learn, experiment and present their work as those in other places. But when it comes to the arts, State governments seem to think only in terms of increased revenue. Adelaide’s 2004 ‘Ring Cycle’ (a four-opera cycle of Wagner) was promoted as a great opportunity for local businesses: hotels, snack bars, winery tour operators; everyone was set to benefit.

That is, except for the locals.

The SA Government subsidised each seat to the tune of $318. Out of approximately 5000 seats sold, overseas and interstate visitors filled 4000. That means that a million and a half non opera-goers forked out $1.3 million for a few Chicago dentists to come to Oz for a bit of Götterdämerung and cabernet. I wonder if the other 1000 seats were filled by car-assemblers from Adelaide’s northern suburbs?

Contrast this to the $14,000 that was given out to country writers and writing groups during 2003/2004 by Country Arts SA.

Apparently the Arts are about revenue, not creating challenging, moving, hopeful, reflective theatre and books and concerts and paintings.

So where does this leave us? Sydney.

Meanwhile, the smaller cities and towns remain amateur. And so what? Who really cares? Culture as so much window dressing, serving a trivial function here and there (social status, something for the kids before they get a real job). As the writer Jonathan Franzen said, the financial and ego-boosting rewards of writing are a consolation prize for something society isn’t too interested in any more.

To prevent our young and talented artists giving up on SA (or Tassie or WA or smaller regional centres) and either moving away or giving up on professionalism and joining the ranks of the amateur, we have to do more to support them. Not just governments but we, the public, the concert goers, the readers. We the consumers. We the corporations. This is our chance to have the arts at our core, not as window dressing. To show, at last, that we don’t care for the Wendts’ replicas.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.