Record loss for COVID-hit Opera Australia

·2-min read

Opera Australia has posted a record $22 million operating loss for 2021 after being forced to cancel most of its performances.

But audiences are coming back despite a quiet start to 2022, OA chief executive Fiona Allan told AAP.

"I think we're on the road to better... everything is picking up now with box office, so the rest of the year is actually looking really quite positive," she said.

The country's largest performing arts organisation posted an operating loss of $22.6 million in its 2021 annual report released on Monday.

But $37 million from the recent sale of its warehouse in Alexandria, $21 million of government money and income from its capital fund helped it back to a surplus of $39 million.

Still, the problems facing OA are indeed operatic in scale.

It had to cancel about half its planned 2021 productions - Aida in Sydney, for example, made it onstage for only one night.

The box office took $17 million, significantly down on pre-COVID times.

In 2019, OA sold more than half a million tickets, but this plummeted to 80,000 in 2020 before recovering somewhat to 128,000 in 2021.

OA has higher fixed operating costs than other performing arts bodies, with a full time orchestra and chorus, an ensemble of singers and the costs of its Sydney and Melbourne headquarters.

Earlier in the pandemic it stood down staff on half pay, before showing 56 of its workers the stage door.

Ms Allan said she does not think large-scale job losses will be needed in future, and she wants to rebuild the orchestra and employ more singers.

But the largest employer in the performing arts in Australia is only offering short-term contracts.

"Until we're out the other side of the pandemic, until our income stream is completely certain to us, we won't be putting people on permanent contracts," she said.

Like many companies, OA is returning to crowd pleasers in 2022-23, with The Phantom of the Opera at Sydney Opera House, and an outdoor production of Carmen.

"We're trying to create experiences which will appeal to a much broader audience than might want to sit in a in a theatre, and I guess that's our great push at expanding our traditional audience base," Ms Allan said.

OA's Alexandria warehouse, used to store props and sets, was sold for about $46 million and has been leased back from its new owners.

It still owns its headquarters in Sydney and Ms Allan said the organisation will look at ways to make more money from the site.

Also on Monday, the chair of the OA board, Professor Glyn Davis, was appointed Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

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