Cardiff-born opera and musical theatre director Jo Davies has been appointed artistic director of Opera Australia — the first woman to hold the role in the company’s 66-year history.
The 52-year-old will take up the post formally in November next year, when she and her wife plan to relocate to Australia.
The position has been vacant since October, when former artistic director (AD) Lyndon Terracini unexpectedly stepped down after 13 years at the helm.
Speaking to ABC Arts ahead of the announcement on Monday afternoon, Davies said: “I’m very, very proud to be the first [woman to lead Opera Australia], although it’s long overdue.”
Davies has lived and worked primarily in London, New York, and Paris over her 20-year career, directing shows on the West End and Broadway, and for major international opera companies including London’s Barbican, Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, Washington National Opera, English National Opera, Dutch National Opera and Opera North in Leeds.
While she hasn’t worked in Australia before, Davies plans to spend time in the country from early next year, to develop her relationships within Opera Australia and with local artists and organisations.
She says gender parity, Australian content and new work are her key priorities.
“I’m looking forward to collaborating and creating a vision with the people that I’ve already met at Opera Australia,” Davies told ABC Arts.
“I’m not going to be in a vacuum. I’m going to be working and collaborating with a whole community of artists and that’s a really big part of the excitement.”
Her appointment comes 16 months after Opera Australia (OA) appointed its first female CEO, Fiona Allan.
Allan says OA is entering “a new era”.
“I do still think that would be true whether or not we’d appointed a female artistic director, because we’re trying to enter a time of change and transition to become much more Australian-focused and much more about talent development and collaboration with the other companies,” she says.
“But this feels like a moment in time for Opera Australia with new leadership, new board members, new AD, everything. I’m really excited.”
Overdue cultural change
Davies’s appointment is one of a handful of artistic leadership positions among major performing arts organisations awarded to women for the first time this year, including Frances Rings at Bangarra Dance Theatre and Anne-Louise Sarks at Melbourne Theatre Company.
These appointments reflect a broader trend toward improving diversity and gender parity within Australia’s major cultural institutions – and, in the case of OA, an overdue changing of the guard.
The company has in recent years been beleaguered by gender inequity issues both in terms of the content of shows produced and who has produced them. For example, their 2019 program featured more productions directed by men named David than by women.
Improving gender parity within OA is one of Davies’s top priorities.
“The stats [for Opera Australia] reveal something like 13 to 14 per cent of women in roles of responsibility or creative positions. If you take those down to conductor and director, it’s nearer 8 per cent, which is nowhere near the UN decree of gender parity by 2030,” she says.
“It needs action, and I think it’s quite possibly the easiest thing to action because there are hundreds of brilliant, talented women working in international opera.”
Allan has also publicly acknowledged the company’s gender inequity issues, chiefly among its top-ranking creatives and administrators.
“I can’t put any good spin on that, but what we have now in the company – and it’s palpable [feedback] from people all over the organisation – is this real sense of optimism and change, and that we are headed in the right direction,” says Allan.
OA has also been subject to allegations of bullying this year, following an internal survey initiated by Allan.
There have also been a string of high-profile resignations – Terracini’s sudden departure was the fifth this year. (He was meant to see out the 2023 season but stepped down 15 months early.)
Terracini told ABC News at the time: “I think we all agree it’s probably a good time for me to go, with the new artistic director coming in, and I’m free to pursue the next phase of my life.”
While Terracini has been praised for doubling revenue during his tenure and adding innovative and high-tech productions to the company’s repertoire, notably the Handa series of operas on Sydney Harbour, he has been equally criticised for programming decisions — in particular, shows that have perpetuated racist tropes, including a production of Turandot this year, in which several performers appeared in yellowface.
Allan concedes it has been a difficult year for OA.
Since joining the company she has introduced workplace training initiatives around Indigenous cultural awareness and bullying and harassment mitigation; she’s also introduced ‘radical candor’ training to provide a framework for conflict resolution.
“We have had problems in the past and, while we have seen a massive amount of change in the past year, we recognise that we need a framework with which we can talk about [these issues],” she says.
“But you can’t fix culture overnight – this is all ongoing. What we have now, especially at the executive level, is a team that is really committed to this work, and really committed to internal cultural change and zero tolerance for bullying and harassment. We are committed to doing the hard work personally to make that happen.”
Allan is hopeful that Davies will bring renewed energy and vision to OA.
“I’m very confident that the announcement will be well received. I think she [Davies] is going to be a complete breath of fresh air, not just for OA, but for the cultural community in Australia. It’s important to have fresh input.”
Musicals here to stay
Davies says she is excited to expand the scope of OA’s repertoire.
Under Terracini’s directorship, the company began programming musical co-productions — an initially contentious move (particularly among diehard opera conservatives), but one that literally paid off for the company and, along with its popular annual Handa series, bankrolled the commissioning of new Australian works such as Whiteley, The Rabbits and The Divorce.
This breadth of programming is part of what inspired Davies, who originally trained in musical theatre as a singer, to apply for the role.
“While I’ve been approached before about running companies, I’ve never really felt that the range of repertoire really matched the diversity and breadth of my skill set,” she says.
“But Opera Australia has built a brilliant reputation, not just for opera, but for producing musical theatre and reaching new audiences through it.”
Davies says this metamorphosis of opera to include musicals has been echoed by many international producers over the past decade.
“In part, that’s about trying to drive new audiences [and] getting different people to connect to music in another way, which I think is really exciting,” she explains.
She stresses that musicals are not a replacement for the more traditionally programmed canonical operas (think: La Boheme, Aida, Madama Butterfly), however, but an add-on.
“I don’t feel at all that there’s anything elitist about opera, and conversely, I don’t feel that there’s anything that’s not special about musicals. They sit in the same world for me and always have done,” she says.
“[And] I am one of those in the narrow-but-possibly-increasing margin of opera practitioners who do believe that music theatre audiences will buy tickets to opera.”
Opera’s gender problem
While she’s committed to Opera Australia’s presentation of opera, Davies says the canon needs a rethink if it is to remain relevant to modern audiences.
“If we’re constantly striving for opera to be relevant, is it sensible that we box things up and put them in a store for 20 years and then bring them out? How does that fit with [an organisation] that’s trying to create cultural relevance?”
Connecting with and reflecting the diversity of modern audiences is an ongoing challenge for opera producers, she says.
Particularly challenging is the prevalence of outdated and misogynistic depictions of women, often culminating in a heroine’s harrowing death.
“As a feminist, I am deeply challenged by anything I see that glorifies violence against women,” Davies says.
“But at the same time, I don’t think that we can ignore that for years there has been violence against women and sadly, for some women, it’s still part of their story.
“I don’t think it’s about trying to eradicate any violence against women on our stages; it’s about how it’s presented [and] the lens through which it is viewed.”
In staging works that depict gendered violence and other problematic stereotypes, opera companies need to be both thoughtful and critical in their approach, says Davies.
“Art isn’t static; it shifts and moves through different social attitudes and different politics, and I don’t think opera can place itself as exempt from that — because if it refuses to adapt or change, it’s not likely to succeed.
“For me, it feels really important that we keep looking at stories in new ways through our own social and cultural awareness.”
A focus on Australian stories
Allan says Davies’s record of developing new artists and new work is one of the key reasons she got the job.
“We were really looking for someone who had a real commitment to developing talent, and Jo stood out because she’s done so much of it … not just singing talent, but directing talent and composing talent.
“I think we need to be much better at that and identifying Australian talent that we can then be commissioning to tell stories,” says Allan.
When Davies takes over the directorship next year, one of her core priorities will be elevating new works and Australian stories.
“I am very interested in developing and nurturing new artists, Australian artists and Australian stories. I’m interested in stories that really have a sense of place; stories that couldn’t originate anywhere else but that can speak with a universal voice,” she says.
“I think that’s what the international industry wants. I think it’s interested in pieces that speak from home; that speak their communities; that speak from place.”
Developing new works presents greater opportunities to share Australian stories with international audiences too.
“What’s really interesting to me about Opera Australia is that they are bold in their ideas, and Lyndon [Terracini] has proved that exciting and innovative ideas — like the Handa opera [series] — can really take fire and suddenly ignite for audiences.
“I think that’s really exciting because it implies that there’s a hunger there for new innovative and creative ideas and a reception for it.”
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-12-19/opera-australia-new-artistic-director-jo-davies/101775468 Jo Davies set to become Opera Australia’s first female artistic director