This year the West Australian Opera celebrates its 50th anniversary and at the helm is Carolyn Chard, general manager for nearly two decades. Carolyn worked in arts management across multiple platforms in Perth before discovering opera. She shares a glimpse of the inner workings of the company and why ‘music is the strongest form of magic’.

What music gets your heart racing?

Dance music with a heavy beat, the kind you feel in your body on a dance floor.
Beautiful music, music that speaks to your soul  (too many to name plus depends what mood I am in; today maybe Parsifal overture, Mahler 5; tomorrow I would name others). Some renditions of Ave Maria just melt me; at other times I dissolve listening to Nick Cave’s Into My Arms.

What calms you down?

Walking on the beach
Beautiful music

What do you sing along to?

‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams (although you don’t want me to).

This year WA Opera celebrates its 50th year. The company has been collecting stories and memories from past cast and audience members. What have you learned about WA Opera from these?

That there is an appreciation for the company and a memory bank that is very personal and individual to many patrons; that the company has made an impact on collective memory. The stories are all on the website and worth reading at

Carolyn with the ‘hero image’ marketing team

What is the role of an opera company in a city like Perth?

To present the artform in a beautiful theatre, to maintain the tradition of grand opera in an isolated city.

You walk something of a tightrope balancing traditional repertoire with bold contemporary repertoire like new works by Richard Mills and Iain Grandage. How do you navigate the responsibilities of expanding your audience while also retaining traditional subscribers?

It’s a risk every time and actually hard to navigate or balance through the level of risk you are willing to expose the company to. How do you measure what that success looks like? Is it financial success at the box office? Artistic success? What if you have one without the other? Is it still worth the investment event at the cost of forgoing other work?

The WA Opera team is a small family. International singers often talk about the warm welcome they receive when performing here. What is special for you about your team?

I try to engender a caring culture where we welcome and look after people, Many years ago a theatre director pointed out to me that we trade in human emotion, that’s our widget, our product. It means that we have to look after that carefully and that boils down to looking after people. I work with some wonderful, committed, energetic and enthusiastic people who love the company and the theatre, who have a passion for opera and who take great  pride in our singers, our chorus, our creative colleagues and WASO musicians.

In your other life (before opera) you were in banking and fashion design. You worked in management roles for Barking Gecko and Deckchair before heading into opera in 2001. What was the appeal of opera?

At Wesfarmers Centenary Dinner with her daughter

I studied fashion design. I worked in banking. I promoted bands, events and DJs in clubs during the dance music and rave scene in the eighties and nineties (The Prodigy, Blackbox, Kevin Saunderson, Dream Frequency, Sasha). I did the arts management degree at WAAPA and moved into theatre management at Deckchair Theatre and Barking Gecko Theatre (during this tenure we established the Awesome Festival). I worked with Black Swan Theatre, Perth Theatre Company and Kulcha. I met Richard Mills when we co-produced the Britten children’s opera Noyes Fludde/Noah’s Flood and he encouraged me to consider the management role with opera. He taught me much about the artform and engendered a passion for producing and presenting opera. I worked with my Australian opera colleagues at Opera Conference and was invited to a dual senior management position with Opera Australian based out of Sydney and Melbourne offices. I was invited to resume the general manager’s role with WAO when my successor moved to the CEO position with WASO.

What are you proudest of in your years with WA Opera?

I have worked in opera now for almost two decades, in two stints as General Manager with this company split by a few years with the national opera company based out of both Sydney and Melbourne. I am proud of presenting and producing two of Richard Mills’s works, both new operas with the Perth Festival – Batavia, which was commissioned by Opera Australia as part of the Centenary of Federation and first presented in Melbourne in 2000, and The Love of the Nightingale which was part of the Wesfarmers Arts Commissioning Series. Both operas were composed and conducted by Richard Mills and both directed by Lindy Hume. They had a special rapport which translated well on stage. On opening night of Batavia in Perth the CEO of Opera Australia turned to me and shook my hand and congratulated me on getting the work into the theatre and onto the stage (it was a production that I had been told ‘would not fit the Maj’ and, with my clever Production Manager Mandy Farmer, we found a way to store some of the scenery between Acts in containers on the street)

You are one of a very few women heading up an arts company in WA. Any ideas why there aren’t more women in management roles?

Sometimes it just cyclical – there have been times when the four major companies in WA have been headed by women. Right now three of the four majors have women leaders (Nat Jenkins at Black Swan and Jess Machin at the ballet while my predecessor Craig Whitehead heads WASO).

WA Opera’s first mainstage production for the year is opera Tosca which opens on March 28th with Antoinette Halloran in the title role, Paul O’Neill as Cavaradossi and Teddy Tahu Rhodes returning as Scarpia. Perth audiences last saw Tosca in 2011. What does this New Zealand production by Stuart Maunder have to offer?

Stuart is a wonderful colleague with great insights into character and story as well as understanding the music and the genius of it. For this particular season Stuart and I actually negotiated a production swap – he has enabled us to present the New Zealand Opera production of Tosca which he directs and I have enabled him to take the WAO Lindy Hume production of Carmen so effectively we swapped productions.

Teddy has sung Scarpia here for me before and I am so pleased that we have Antoinette in her debut with this company – and in role suited so well to her – and also delighted to welcome Paul O’Neill back after many years in Germany (he left as a young man and has returned, with his beautiful family including four children, to make his home base in Western Australia again)

Mark Applebaum says music should be above all else be interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?

I think music should make you feel. Or just ‘does’ make you feel.

I love a quote from Marilyn Manson that ‘music is the strongest form of magic’.

I mentioned the song ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams and there’s a quote from Rusty Rueff contemplating why that song become such a global hit; he said ‘I think its because at the time the world was looking for something…we were recovering from a recession, war and many other things…and we needed a movement of hopefulness that allowed us to stop the madness for a moment and pick us up. Will it be timeless? Maybe for the generation who were in the heart of the trouble. Maybe they will reflect back on this time and remember this song and make it timeless’.

Where did you learn the skills to manage an opera company?

I did the three-year arts management degree at WAAPA which, some twenty five years ago, included foundations of law, economics, human resource management, marketing, business management in the main ECU stream as well as full involvement in arts campus life doing front of house, publicity, ticketing and so on. Before that and after that it was about learning on the job. Plus I think you need a natural aptitude for the skills required. You need to have a passion and love for the work each day. The hours are long and there is no corporate paypack so it’s usually an intrinsic reward we chase.

You were involved in the #artsmatters push to get arts into the pre-election political debate. What’s it going to take to get arts on the radar of our major political parties? 

The central premise of that campaign is very simple; that the arts matter. The arts matter to all of us. We all need to lead on this. Everyone is impacted by the arts. It’s up to each of us to engage, promote and participate in the arts, all arts: performing arts, visual arts, literary arts, music, film, design, libraries, dance, comedy, circus, puppetry, mime, books, magazines, apps, games, fashion, writing, singing, dancing, acting.

With a new state government we have a fresh start to engage. I want everyone to get the message that so many others articulate better than me:

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life
 (Pablo Picasso)

Art is the only serious thing in the world
 (Oscar Wilde)

If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams 
(Yann Martel, Life of Pi)

Running through Melbourne streets to an Opera Australia meeting.

What do you have a soft spot for?

I love words and music. Two of my favourite quotes are from The Little Prince: ‘The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart’. And another, which to me applies not only to music but to values I hold true like kindness and truth and love, is: ‘And now here is my secret, a very simple secret; it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye’.

Thank you to Carolyn Chard for participating in the Celebrity Soft Spot series. Tosca opens on March 28th. For more information go to WA Opera