Desperate Measures

In the role of artistic director of an arts company, you can regard the business side of things as an imposition or burden, or you can choose to think of the whole organisation as an artwork. There are many practical ways to do this. You can employ artists when and wherever possible, even if they have job titles that sound as unartistic as Personal Assistant or Business Manager. There can be elegant beauty in a database, and satisfyingly dramatic climaxes to budgets and key performance indicators. Boards need balance and harmony, with the judicious use of discord and tension. Mission statements require dramaturgical coherence.

When I was left in charge of the company at Chamber Made Opera, I resorted to some desperate measures in order to salvage the situation, and kick start the process of rejuvenation. Whether your focus is the running of a whole organisation or directly creating an artwork, I have found that the underlying principles apply equally.


“We would like to offer you the job. There’s just one thing. The Arts Victoria [renamed Creative Victoria in 2014] funding assessment panels are meeting soon, and they’d like some kind of statement from you about your plans for the company.” I sighed inwardly for a moment, then took a deep breath.

“Sure. That shouldn’t be a problem. When do they need it?” I asked.

“Um. Well…they are meeting the day after tomorrow, so it would be great if we could get something to them first thing.”

2009 was Chamber Made Opera’s nadir. As Australia’s only contemporary chamber opera company, the organisation at that time had a reputation for presenting fairly lavish new opera productions, usually one every year or so, under the artistic directorship of Douglas Horton. Now I was being offered the chance to be the company’s second artistic director just as the company had lost half of its government subsidy (over $200,000 which it had been receiving from the Australia Council). Furthermore, the company was in disarray and hadn’t presented any new work—indeed any work at all—for over a year.

With the Australia Council funding gone, and no sign of anything like that level of funding being possible for years, if ever, the company was looking extremely vulnerable. Arts Victoria remained its sole supporter, and with intense pressure on every arts funding source in the country at an all-time high, getting together a compelling, clear and inspiring statement of my “plans for the company” was obviously critically important, rather daunting, and had an edge of futility about it. But what the heck. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

If you want to make God laugh, tell Her your plans. I don’t remember exactly what ended up in my statement of intent, but for better or worse the Victorian State Government granted Chamber Made Opera a year’s grace. I had 12 months to re-establish strong ties with funders, secure diversified and sustainable income streams, revamp the company structure, get back old audiences and find new ones, put my own stamp on the company’s brand and reputation. Oh, and make some art.

I won’t lie. They were exciting and exacting times, as I wrapped up my final program for Aphids (the cross-artform company that I had co-founded and directed for the previous 16 years), and began the recruitment process for Aphids’ new artistic director (the remarkable Willoh S. Weiland who continues to lead Aphids into the future and outer space, but that’s another story). Meanwhile I started looking behind-the-scenes of the company that I had long dreamt of running.

Act I – Commit all your crimes at once

“The first ice is especially interesting and perfect, being hard, dark, and transparent, and affords the best opportunity that ever offers for examining the bottom where it is shallow; for you can lie at your length on ice only an inch thick, like a skater insect on the surface of the water, and study the bottom at your leisure, only two or three inches distant, like a picture behind glass, and the water is always smooth then.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods

It was a strange time of feeling elated, terrified, nauseous and thrilled, a state of suspended animation as we embarked on the process of “orderly transition” (that’s how I’d described it in the statement for Arts Victoria). However I quickly found that I had to break the ice and start paddling fast. There were urgent and very practical challenges and problems that needed addressing in almost every field relating to the company’s operation, internal and external relationships, and its finances.

During that orderly transition, not everything was handled as well as it could have been. There were false starts and red herrings and cul-de-sacs and plenty of clunky moments. But there was also a hell of lot achieved in a very short space of time, and looking back I am convinced that tackling so many of the structural, awkward, welded-on and gristly knots in the company’s make-up simultaneously was the best, perhaps the only way of going about things. As Machiavelli said, “Commit all your crimes at once.”

The first six months of 2010 saw radical changes in personnel, indeed a near total turnover of staff, from chair of the board to bookkeeper. We moved to a smaller office. Phone lines were disconnected. Insurance policies were renegotiated. Most of the archive was donated to the Performing Arts Museum. The longterm storage was let go. The coffee machine rental was cancelled. Meanwhile a new website was under construction. New board members were being groomed. New job descriptions and titles were fantasized about. And new relationships were forming.

One such relationship that proved to be hugely enabling, powerful and enduring was our partnership with the design and branding studio, Sweet Creative. The second phone call I received on the job was from Fiona Sweet (the first was from Elizabeth Walsh who ended up commissioning the first part of The Minotaur Trilogy for Ten Days on the Island). Sweet had done some design work for Chamber Made Opera’s production of Crossing Live a few years earlier. Fiona declared that she wanted to help rebrand the company, and from that moment began a collaboration that continues to this day.

Fiona’s studio always made us look good. Everything from logo to press shots to signage had a style and clarity and freshness that was a very big part of Chamber Made Opera’s reimagining and reawakening. But this relationship was not just about innovative, high quality graphic design. Fiona was genuinely excited by the company’s track record of artistic boundary-riding, and equally inspired by the prospect of taking the company into its next, as-yet-unknown iteration. In the course of a design-focused meeting, I outlined for Fiona the proposed artistic program, mentioning my idea of approaching people to donate space in their homes and commission fees for new small-scale domestic operas.

“I love it,” enthused Fiona. “I want the first one at my place!”

The Living Room Operas were born.

Scene change – GOOD, QUICK, CHEAP

The only other job in Melbourne that I had ever had my eye on—apart from Chamber Made Opera and Aphids—was as director of Next Wave (Melbourne’s contemporary multi-artform festival for young artists) which I did in 2002. While I was there, hurtling towards the exhilaratingly terrifying ski-jump that is the lead up to an arts festival, I remember the marketing manager drawing a triangle with a word at each point: GOOD, CHEAP, QUICK. “You can only have two,” she said. And boy did we manage to get a lot of stuff that was good, very quickly by paying a lot; or good and cheap if we waited a while; or cheap and fast and not that good.

Exactly ten years later, in May 2012, Chamber Made Opera presented Swiss percussionist Fritz Hauser’s living room opera, The Box. This work stands out as a most refined and exquisite example of the Living Room Opera genre, with its impeccable design by Swiss architect Boa Baumann, the prismatic poetry of Willoh (yes, the artistic director of Aphids Willoh), the other-worldly voice of soprano Deborah Kayser, and the hypnotic, virtuosic magic of Speak Percussion.

Everything about this production raised the bar in terms of the company’s output since I’d been there. The work received critical acclaim, with a satisfyingly polarized range of views which is always a sign of a great work of art. Remarkably the season sold out before we opened, and although capacity was limited to a strict 50 people, the tickets were set at a premium ($75 a head), making this the best grossing production to date. The budget ended in a respectable surplus. The marketing was beautiful and the media exposure pervasive. The Box set-piece itself was perfectly enigmatic—a conundrum of carpentry, harmony with its surroundings and the best (and most fiddly) wallpapering job of all time.

But the star of the show was the house in which this Living Room Opera took place. Designed and built in the 1950s by Melbourne architect Robin Boyd, The Iris nestles on a slope down to a bend in the Yarra River. Formed elliptically in the shape of an eye, this deceptively simple dwelling looks a bit like a plain white caravan from the street. Upon entering one is led down a sweeping staircase that penetrates the centre of the living room which is the major part of the elegant and beautifully proportioned house. The steep gradient of the slope means that once inside, one looks out the wall-to-ceiling windows through treetops of ghost gums and wattles.

We were introduced to the current owner of the house by the leader of Speak Percussion and a site-visit was arranged within days. Julie generously invited us into her home and permitted us to literally take over the entire building in order to stage The Box: the ideal theatrical setting for an uncompromising new chamber opera.

And now I had new triangle to work with: PERFECT, FREE, NOW.

Act II – Charity begins at home

“Charity begins at home, but should not end there.”

Thomas Fuller, British clergyman, 1600s

With only 12 months grace from the company’s major (indeed sole) funder Arts Victoria, it was clear that new sources of support were urgently needed. As I pored over the financial report and budgets, a grim fact slowly imposed its irrefutable reality upon me. After all the basic fixed costs, even with all the downsizing, savings and staff cuts including me going down to four days a week, there was literally no money left for the artistic program. Not a bean. We were an opera company with no “opera” budget line.

Of course I was coming from a situation at Aphids where we had never had any reliable income or funding—most arts companies in Australia operate like this, from project to project, grant to grant, not knowing if they will be able to keep running or employ anyone next year, month, week. In order to apply for funding, these artists and companies are required to prepare business plans, but any small business like a café or milk bar that operated on this basis would stop trading immediately, file for bankruptcy and possibly be indicted for trading insolvent.

The big difference was the annual, supposedly ongoing funding that Chamber Made Opera received from Arts Victoria. But with that kind of funding came an expectation, often a requirement, to have fixed costs, primarily wages for staff. And more often than not, the priority would be given to wages for the management and administrative staff over the artistic personnel, who are frequently employed on a casual, freelance basis. There are many, many variations and exceptions, but this is unquestionably the tendency.

So I had an opera company, but I needed to find a model that would allow us to create the truly experimental, weird and scary kind of art that I loved and for which company had built a reputation. A clue came in a passing comment from the former-chair of the board, Karen Hadfield: “I have a big living room at my place. It’s a converted warehouse. You are welcome to do something there anytime.” This offhand comment planted a seed in my mind, which took root during the planning of the artistic program.

I had been toying with the idea of doing improvised mini-operas in people’s living rooms when I was still at Aphids, and as the lack of artistic programming budget loomed ever larger, I started to take the idea more seriously. Living room. It had the right ring to it. Friendly, human-scale and still breathing. So when I floated the idea past our new graphic designer, and Fiona said “I love it. I want it,” there was no need to hesitate.

The Living Room Opera model promised an elegant response to the budget situation. Free venue. Small-scale production. New financial resource. Great audience development and education opportunity. And the stakes not so high as to deter artistic risk-taking.

Five reasons why we like Living Room Operas [as listed in Manifesto One, the small marketing publication that introduced the idea to the world]

1 You get to sticky beak into other people’s homes.

2 The hosts donate their living room and a commission fee—it’s a new way of creating art.

3 The performance is so close you can reach out and touch it.

4 Get up close and personal with the artists, composers, writers, performers, musicians and other audience members.

5 Fabulous food and wine (and beer, and the mineral water is excellent too, seriously).’

Tucked away in point number two is the sometimes delicate, but utterly critical key to the model: the donation of a commission fee. In the course of the 18 years leading up to 2010 Chamber Made Opera had received less than $1,000 in donations in total. However donations were about to become a big part of the lives of everyone associated with Chamber Made Opera. I’m still very proud of the fact that by the end of my tenure, everyone in the company had an appreciation of the importance of donors and was actively engaged in nurturing them. This is still the case, and the company has now earned a reputation in Melbourne for being a leader and innovator in this field too.

My first experience with the world of private giving was as philanthropy manager at the Australian Music Centre. I was learning on the job, mentored by the director of Artsupport, Louise Walsh, who is a philanthropy Top Gun, but most importantly taught me the importance of the process being fun, for everyone. With a six month crash-apprenticeship in Sydney under my belt, I applied my newfound insights to Aphids. I am still humbled when I think about all the people who so generously, and most importantly, who so passionately supported Aphids’ work and the principles behind that work: beautiful, new art; art for art’s sake. Thank you!

Money is still kind of a dirty word in Australia, especially in the arts. Europe is even further entrenched in government subsidies and individual giving remains a taboo. Private donations are still regarded as an American idea, crass and compromising. Somehow it’s ok to take money from a centralist, dogma-driven arts minister, but not ok to approach your neighbour who may be genuinely inspired by the thought of helping an artwork come into being. Peter Sellars, during his misunderstood term as artistic director of the Adelaide Festival, proclaimed that money is like sausage meat: don’t ask where it comes from. I think he also said something about it being artists’ job to clean money. He is American so he can say things like that.

Frankly I believe that all of that is a side issue, a distraction from the point of it all, which is to make art. Artists will find a way to out their art, despite or because of the circumstances they find themselves in. Engaging genuinely with people in the process of making that art is rewarding for everyone. Sometimes money changes hands, but this is not unusual. I can appreciate a beautifully handcrafted espresso made by an artisanal barista. And I’m happy to pay for it. And tip.

There is an art to everything, and philanthropy is no exception. It is an endless and endlessly fascinating field, one from which I have learnt a great deal. Although the majority of Chamber Made Opera’s income still came from Arts Victoria, after three years private donations had been established as an important and increasing percentage of turnover, a percentage that went straight to the “opera” budget line, and enabled the commissioning of more than ten new Living Room Operas.

Five reasons why we like private donations:

1. You get to seek out and spend time with people who are genuinely excited about your art.

There is no use asking people who are not interested in the art to make a contribution. Sometimes people give money for other reasons such as status, glamour, seeing their name in lights or on a whim. However the relationship with a donor is ideally an enduring one, not just a one-night-stand, and the enduring connection should always be the art. Look for the people who get off on the work, who are flushed and animated after shows, and who want more. These are the people who are dying to get more involved, and that includes giving financially.

2. Donations by definition come with no strings attached and therefore can go towards projects and ideas that might never get past a panel or committee.

Much of the arts has subliminally been turned into an industry by government and business agendas with their funding programs requiring all sorts of prerequisites and justifications. As a result, there are many amazing artistic visions that are self-censored, cramped or simply never see the light of day because they are forced through the restrictive filter of assessment panels or funding guidelines. The power of working closely with a private donor is that this bureaucratic and often politicized process can be completely sidestepped, creating room for true artistic experimentation, research and exploration. Artists need conceptual space in order to create visionary work. Donors are able to help carve out a bit more space.

3. All you need is a simple system for keeping track of your donors and donations, and to stick to it, for guaranteed success.

There are piles of fancy software programs on the marketing such as DonMan (short for Donor Management), but I’ve always just used a simple spreadsheet with contact details and notes. There is nothing mysterious about managing donors. It is exactly the same as managing any kind of relationship, whether it is a lover or real estate agent or Facebook friend. Keep in touch. Communicate about things that you are both interested in. Do things together. Repeat. Regularly. When you are running a small arts company, it helps to make some notes to help keep track of when you last spoke to Ms X or when Mr Y last came to a show. The more rigorous you are with the list, the more satisfying your relationships will be. Simple.

4. Your future private donors are not mythical tycoons and duchesses, but the people you already know, and are possibly even related to.

Charity really does begin at home. One of the first donation requests was to my parents. Many people imagine that they have to meet Bill Gates, but the fact is that you already know most of your future donors. They are your audience members, subscribers, colleagues, friends, fellow artists, all the people who come into contact with the company and love it. The size of a donation is never in proportion to someone’s wealth or income, it is always directly in proportion to their level of passion for the art.

5. Spending time with donors and potential donors, sharing ideas and plans, dreaming about possible futures together, looking for ways to make things happen, all over a cup of tea, is much more fun than writing funding applications.

For small under-resourced arts company, time is precious and in short supply. So you have to be incredibly strategic and careful with where you put your energy. And philanthropy takes time and energy, so this needs to be weighed up carefully. But when I think of all the time and energy that goes into preparing funding applications, the meetings with program managers, the lobbying of politicians and other influencers, the reporting and ‘We regret to inform you’ letters, there is no doubt in my mind that investing in donors is worthwhile however you look at it. Of course funding applications are a necessary evil, and donors also warrant written proposals and reports at times. But somehow it always seems more fun to write a card or email to thank a donor, than completing an online funding acquittal report.

Act III – Just think about things

“What is it? I have a crab on my face and I don’t have the question to see it. Get me a lever so I can get it off, open, turn, get perspective, show and tell, quicken, surprise, take delight, change my mind … . To avoid ‘getting stuck’ I want a methodology to provide strategies that give the artist leverage. In essence it is a quest to gain space and time.”

Margaret Cameron, I Shudder To Think, Brisbane: Ladyfinger Press, 2016

During the long (or short depending on your perspective) process of creating The Minotaur Trilogy with Margaret Cameron, we had many adventures, such as our search for the perfect foghorn for Part Three of the Trilogy, Minotaur: The Boats. The score that we had written together called for a loud foghorn to blast for three and a half minutes, summoning the audience back into the auditorium for the final act of the opera. We had fantasised about the foghorn being heard all over Melbourne, each night of the season resonating far and wide, letting people know that the Minotaur opera was beginning the last stage of its voyage.

Margaret’s and my creative process was energetic and required considerable stamina. Like dogs with a bone, if we started wrestling with a concept or idea, neither of us would let it go until a satisfactory solution could be found. We were unafraid of spending huge amounts of time driving around looking in op shops, or reading books, or surfing the web, hunting for the impulses of energy that would fuel our artistic vision. But the foghorn was proving tricky.

For sale online we found a nautical foghorn used on oil rigs that would technically have fit the bill, but unfortunately it failed the FREE and NOW triangle test. We visited lighthouses and maritime museums and boatyards and instrument-makers. We scoured eBay and Port Phillip Bay. The closest thing available, it seemed, was a handheld aerosol-driven plastic horn that is perfect for football matches, not so great for our opera. Following a lead from a local resident, we headed for the Japanese warehouse in Ocean Grove, an Aladdin’s cave of kimonos and tea-chests and Buddha statues. We eventually found the guy whom we’d spoken to on the phone, who distractedly led us upstairs to the small, cluttered admin office.

“Petal, you still got those foghorns?” he called as we climbed the stairs.

Petal, whose job title was probably office manager, but who clearly kept the whole show on the road, was furiously entering invoices into a PC. “Yeah, there’s still a few left,” and with that, Petal reached down next to her desk and produced what appeared to be an old hand-driven pump, a cross between a detonator and a vacuum cleaner. “This one was from the ferry,” she explained, pushing the device in our direction and gesturing for us to try it out. As I wrestled with the pumping action that created a whining, but satisfyingly low foghorn-like note, Petal started pointing around the room. “This one is newer. Not sure if it’s working very well. And those two are almost the same as the pump one. Is the barrel one still here, Bernie?” she asked her colleague.

In the end, Petal produced 12 different foghorns, in varying states of condition and musicality. As Margaret and I said in our postmodern ultimate audience participation work So You Think You Can Cow, “Cow it up! Moo-ve it, moo-ve it! Everything is everywhere! If you think about things, they tend to appear. Come on, give it up for Cow!”

It is a scientific fact that our brains filter out the vast majority of stimuli that bombards our senses, very selectively allowing only a tiny fraction of information to reach our consciousness. This means that there is a lot happening right in front of us that we have no idea about, unless for some reason our brains decide to let us in on a certain sound, colour, scent or other sensation. This is an enormous relief, otherwise the world would resemble a multi-screen Cremaster series on fast-forward. It also goes some way to explaining one of the mysterious rules of the universe that they don’t teach you at school: if you think about things, they tend to appear.

Have you ever had the experience of learning a new word, and suddenly you start hearing it everywhere? It is as though everyone just learnt that word today too, and has started using it in conversation, in ads on the radio and on book covers. Somehow either the brain has blocked out that particular word up until the moment you ‘learnt’ it, or you are manifesting this new word into existence by the power of thinking. I suspect it is probably somewhere in between, and I have become less concerned with how or why this happens, and more interested in the fact that it does, and how it can be used as an artistic tool, or lever.

Time is a parameter in this process that merits contemplation. It took years from first having the idea to get all way to The Itch, the first Living Room Opera (composed by Alex Garsden and commissioned by Fiona and Paul Sweet). On the other hand, a new word can start popping up instantly. Foghorns are probably somewhere in the middle. So we are dealing with a tendency, rather than a causal, linear phenomenon, and one that can take years or seconds.

Through the process of my many collaborations with Margaret, I learnt her gentle art of thinking about things in order that they may appear. She would ask herself, “What if where I am is what I need?”

Act IV – Do nothing

‘31. Harsh Interventions

“There are times when it seems as if one must intervene powerfully, suddenly, and even harshly. The wise leader does this only when all else fails.”

The Tao of Leadership (trans. John Heider)

At the beginning of my term as artistic director of Chamber Made Opera, I unleashed a volley of harsh interventions. This is what the situation called for, and I have no doubt that had I hesitated, and had I not had luck and a veritable army of passionate people behind me, Chamber Made Opera would have had to close its doors forever. As the storm slowly passed, and the water beneath the good ship CMO began to calm, there was more opportunity to exercise the most powerful of acts, to do nothing.

This is not just ancient Chinese pop-wisdom, it is a practical tool that I have used in every conceivable situation. I have lost count of the number times I was faced with a complicated and tense situation that demanded my attention and response. When I managed to find the wherewithal to stop, breathe, do nothing, then every time, honestly every single time, the situation would resolve itself without me getting involved.

In the tangled myth of the labyrinth and its Minotaur comes a curious tale of an architect. Daedelus drew up the plans for the labyrinth but soon fell out with his commissioning patron, King Minos, and escaped with his son, Icarus, leading to the too-close-to-the-sun fatality. Daedelus went into hiding, and Minos set about hunting him down with a lure: a puzzle to be solved. He put about that he would reward whoever could pass a thread through a shell. Daedelus couldn’t resist the challenge and furnished a solution, resulting in his capture: tie a thread to the leg of an ant, drill a hole in the shell and place a drop of honey at the mouth. The ant will then thread the shell. If only Daedelus had resisted the honeyed lure and done nothing.

The Minotaur Trilogy also lured an architect. To follow the foghorn announcing the beginning of Part Three, Minotaur: The Boats, we started imagining towering and elaborate staging for the third and final act of the opera. What started as a real sailing boat cut in two, transformed in our minds to a bespoke, handcrafted wooden sailing vessel, then a huge piece of furniture, and then just the mast, but massive and impossibly high. In our reveries of planning and designing the opera, we sailed from huge hanging sheets of toffee in the form of a Paul Klee painting, to helicopter-sized glass Flensted Bauhaus mobiles. At some point we called in an architect to help draw up the plans.

Michael Roper, of Architecture Architecture, joined our conversation. When we first met, the only materials we had so far sourced were some wooden stumps from the Portarlington Pier, and white shoes with feather sails balancing on the heads of the performers, intended as a topsy-turvy flotilla of poetic vessels, suspended above the ceiling of thought. For nights and days with Michael we talked through building structures and drafting stairways and constructing planes.

In the end the wooden stumps were cut into pieces so the musicians could stand on them, just off the ground. “Shoes are on heads now,” said the architect of ideas, doing himself out of a job.


“Fasten your seatbelts, low and tight.”

In 2013 I had already handed the reins of the company over to the new Creative Director, Tim Stitz, and I was shepherding through the last of the Living Room Operas which I’d had the great honour and good fortune to be able to commission. The last of these was Turbulence, composed by Juliana Hodkinson with text by Cynthia Troup. Set on an airplane, perhaps one of the first commercial flights, this Living Room Opera had its maiden voyage in the apartment of actor Caroline Lee, also a staff member at Chamber Made Opera, who starred in The Minotaur Trilogy.

Slender in design, with the real feel of an aircraft, Caroline’s apartment was the ideal launching place for this mother-and-daughter conflict-and-resolution drama in the sky. Following the premiere season, Turbulence travelled to the Macedon Ranges out of Melbourne to another very different home where it played in the kitchen, overlooking grassy fields and gum trees. In 2015 it was transformed into a digital e-book chapter, in a cinematic version by film-maker Peter Humble, demonstrating another of the key principles of the Living Room Opera model: that the works might begin their lives in living rooms, and then can take flight to other living rooms, stages, venues and iterations beyond their initial productions.

For the world premiere Juliana flew from her home in Berlin all the way to Melbourne with her young daughter Emilia, in a strange way enacting the story within the opera itself. She landed with the musical score’s ink still drying, having put the finishing touches on the work during the long-haul flight. “Well here it is,” she said breathlessly and jetlagged straight off the plane.

“Looks like it’s going to be quite a ride,” I replied, taking the score so it could be photocopied and passed on to the performers. Chamber Made Opera has always been serious about presenting new, fresh, never-had-before experiences, and I knew this would be no exception.

In my relatively brief period as artistic director of Chamber Made Opera from 2009 to 2013, an initially desperate situation called for some fairly desperate measures. By committing all my crimes at once, looking for charity at home, just thinking about things, and doing nothing whenever possible, a remarkable amount of truly contemporary art was created and put in front of passionate and hungry audiences.

“Let’s hear that song, the song we don’t know yet. Let’s go beyond the world, to the home, to the net, to write and sing, and hear the thousands tiny songs we don’t yet know. Yes.”

Juliana Hodkinson, ‘Let It Happen’, Manifesto One, Chamber Made Opera

David Young, Berlin, December 2015

Desperate Measures Feb 2018 (pdf 122.33 KB)

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