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Sydney Opera House

Oz Opera Manager wants to go (new) places

Oz Opera Manager wants to go (new) places

Oz Opera’s recently appointed new manager, Sandra Willis, was brought up with a strong work ethic. ‘My parents used to tell me that work was one of the main things that I was going to do with my adult life, and that I wanted to enjoy it. ‘Find something that you like, then work hard at it,’ they used to say.’

Wise words, and they have underpinned much of the career success that led Willis to her current position. ‘I didn’t plan a great deal; I immersed myself in every opportunity and was lucky to have spent a lot of time around people who encouraged me in my career path,’ she says. But she always knew that she wanted to work in the performing arts, and took time deciding what it was exactly that she wanted to do within the field. ‘I started out thinking perhaps an actor or a dancer, but I always knew I wouldn’t be a very good opera singer! ‘

Having completed an arts degree and a diploma in theatre technology, Willis did a secondment as stage manager at OA in 1995, an experience that convinced her that her future lay in Arts Management. After a Bachelor of Dramatic Art in Technical Production at NIDA, she returned to OA, working as stage manager and freelancing for other companies until 2006. In this time she worked as stage manager for Oz Opera’s 2002 La bohème production. By the time she left to manage a two-year Priscilla Queen of the Desert national tour, she understood exactly what it took to put on an opera, and knew Opera Australia very well. ‘Stage Management is like traffic control for the theatre,’ she says, with a laugh. ‘And opera is harder than most because the set is dismantled after each performance. You can never get complacent.’

After Priscilla, Willis was appointed as a  manager for Bell Shakespeare, a company with many similarities to Oz Opera. ‘Like Oz Opera, it has a regional tour and schools companies. Working there gave me an in-depth understanding of how a touring company’s production process works.’

Now settled at Oz Opera (she was appointed in November last year), what Willis most admires about OA’s touring arm is that it turns the idea that opera is elitist on its head. ‘Oz Opera is all about giving people geographic and financial access, which means a great deal to me.’

She loves the schools company for the same reason. ‘Plus, for so many artists Schools Company provides an opportunity to start their careers in small venues, surrounded by professionalism and enthusiasm.’

If Willis loves her job (the best part, she says, is seeing the shows, and being part of a team that makes her feel great pride), she concedes that it has its challenges. The biggest one is managing people at a distance. ‘They’re on the road, at the end of a phone. If they explain a problem to you, you have to have a very good idea of what they’re going through to be able to ensure that the show goes on.’

Willis is excited about the prospect of expanding Oz Opera’s touring circuit. This year, with the support of Oz Opera sponsor Australia Post, the Company is doing a free performance of La traviata in Chinchilla, Queensland, as a response to the flood devastation that the Western Downs Regional Area recently suffered. It is also debuting in a new performing arts centre in Albany, Western Australia. ‘The more you go off the beaten track, the more you bring opera to people who would not normally have an opportunity to see it,’ she says, adding: ‘We don’t only want to go back to the towns and venues where we went the last time; our aim is to reach new communities and develop new audiences, including as many schools as possible, especially in underprivileged areas and in regional areas that don’t get to see a lot of theatre.’

As Oz Opera is self-sufficient, it only needs a big enough space to be able to perform in off-the-beaten-track venues. ‘We can build our own stage and provide our own lighting.’

If the Company is about exposing students to live theatre, so that they learn an appreciation of it, it is also about killing the notion that opera, classical music and live theatre are only for the privileged few.

‘Opera is for everyone,’ Willis says.