CEO Fiona Allan Talks on the Transformation of Opera Australia

Fiona Allan

The boss of Opera Australia is a fan of radical candour, total transformation and challenging long-held traditions.

Current role: Chief Executive Officer, Opera Australia
Tenure: Two years
Previous roles: President, UK Theatre; artistic director and chief executive, Birmingham Hippodrome; chair, The Space; chief executive, Curve Theatre.

How do you define good leadership?

Good leadership makes some sort of change or difference but does so in a way that brings people along in a supported and respectful way.

You’ve been at Opera Australia for more than two years. What’s been the biggest surprise?

How busy the company is and what it feels like to be in a performing arts company of this scale. We are by far the largest performing arts company in this country and we’re also one of the busiest companies on the planet. The schedule is relentless but our people have such professionalism.

And do you thrive on that relentlessness?

I do. That’s what drew me into this career. I thrive when there are a lot of challenges and multiple things to do at once.

Let’s talk about some of those challenges because when you joined, OA was going through a very tough time – job cuts, financial strife and internal wrangling. What was the first thing you had to address?

Returning to the stage [after the pandemic]. The first major challenge was how do we get this snowball rolling down the hill again, how do we regain momentum and our capability and resilience. Our audiences were very diminished to start with.

And how are your audiences now?

Really, really good. We feel like we’re back. We’ve also seen a return of tourism and, of course, when we’re performing in Sydney, our audiences are very tourist-driven – it’s a bucket-list experience. You go to the Sydney Opera House and what do you want to see? Opera.

You conducted an internal survey soon after you started, which revealed allegations of bullying in OA. What have you done about that?

I’ve instigated a lot of new programs to support transformational cultural shifts. When I chaired UK Theatre, the national industry body for performing arts and theatres, I launched the 10 Principles for Safe and Inclusive Workplaces, which was rapidly taken up as a code of conduct for the whole industry. It’s something I’m very proud of. I think this organisation had probably been so busy putting on operas that it hadn’t invested a lot in looking internally at its people and culture, which is why I did that first survey. We’ve done all sorts of programs around respect at work, anti-bullying and First Nations cultural appreciation. We’ve also tried to make our communication process more transparent and regular and I think doing all of that has helped to create trust in the leadership.

I understand you’ve also hosted “radical candour” training to encourage people to speak honestly with each other.

We did. I love that book [Radical Candor by Kim Scott] because the key to good leadership is the ability to have candid and difficult conversations in a way where people feel safe and won’t get defensive or threatened if one of their colleagues gives them a hard fact. It was super to be able to do that as a group and learn the guidelines of how we can speak to each other in a supported environment but tell truths.

I imagine that when people hear the term “radical candour”, they might raise an eyebrow.

It sounds like a self-help book, doesn’t it? It really isn’t – it’s a framework for having truthful conversations. But you can’t just train one person to do it [laughs]. They’d probably offend everyone around them. What you have to do is some group training, where everyone gets a baseline understanding of how it works and then it opens up a path for people to have these more truthful conversations in a way that can move the conversation along very quickly.

How do you personally handle difficult conversations?

I prepare for them. I prepare by thinking about what’s going on for the other person, trying to put myself in their shoes and understand their different point of view, then how I can meet them in the middle. It’s a totally different thing, of course, when you’re surprised by a difficult conversation. Listening is really important. Usually the person is telling  you how they’re feeling and you just have to be receptive to it. I have an executive coach and they have been trying to encourage a sense of curiosity in me. Don’t go with an emotional reaction or a first-reflex emotion. Instead, go with curiosity and think, “Why did they say that?” or “How did that come about?” Focus on that rather than how you feel about it. Then you can depersonalise it.

You’re the first female chief executive at OA, in an industry where gender inequity can be an issue, both in the content of shows and the workforce who produces them. How do you set about changing that?

Employ more women. We need women in our industry in decision-making roles and not just in administration. It’s the creative leadership, too. Who’s telling the stories? The top 20 operas are written by dead white men and were written in the 18th and 19th centuries. If that’s the case then how do we make them relevant for a 21st-century Australia that’s incredibly diverse? You’ve got to get different people directing the shows and being the musical directors and the designers. Gender balance in creative teams is one of the most important things so that the stories can be interpreted and told in different ways.

Is it hard to achieve?

If you look at this year’s program, we’ve already achieved it. It was very much the brief for Lindy Hume, who is our guest creative director for the summer season. We’re also engaging more Australian companies to tell the stories. Culturally we’re different. You don’t have to have someone bring out a tray of lamingtons with a Hills Hoist in the background but there is a way that Australian theatre can be Australian – and authentically so – simply by the way we communicate with each other.

You lived in the United Kingdom for 18 years. How do you challenge the idea that international talent is somehow superior to our homegrown performers?

By showing audiences great homegrown performers. We obviously want to support people who are making their careers in this country but there’s also some amazing Australian talent working abroad. Our job as a national opera company is to bring that talent back and give them a platform so audiences here can see them. Obviously they’re as good as any European or North American equivalent.

And how do you make the business of opera financially sound? Are you still heavily reliant on the box office or are you being creative about new revenue streams?

Both. We’re incredibly reliant on box office but one of the things we’re looking at is how we might develop this building [the Sydney Opera Centre in inner-city Surry Hills]. We own almost the entire city block and we could be using this space differently. How can we develop this space into an income stream for us? The longer term financial stability of opera is not a quick fix. We’re talking a three- to five-year plan because like everyone else, we’ve been decimated by COVID. We’ve been well supported by the federal government but we do need to rebuild and the cost of production has dramatically increased.

Lobbying the government is a huge part of your role. Are you good at it?

I think I’m as good at it as the next person [laughs]. There are some really powerful arguments for why opera is vital in the cultural landscape of this country. The challenge is always to get in front of the politicians to be able to explain that but, yes, I’m good at it.

You’ve got a lot of stakeholders, from government to creatives to donors. Do you adjust your style to suit?

Most definitely. I adjust both my communication style and leadership style. I don’t think you can be stuck in one style. Flexibility and agility is paramount to good leadership.

And what about managing creatives because that can sometimes be challenging.

Exhilarating and challenging but it’s something I’ve been doing my whole life. I started life as a clarinet player and did a degree in music so I’ve always been working in a creative sphere. Some creatives just need a lot of reassurance but I respect that because they’re putting their lives out there every night. What could be more soul-baring than standing on a stage with nothing between you and 2000 people?

What would you say is your greatest strength as a leader?

Adaptability. Agility. Flexibility. That’s a lot of adverbs but I can move with a changing environment.

And is that something that came naturally to you?

No, it’s definitely something that has developed over time. I’ve done a lot of self-examination and training. When I was a younger leader, I was much more rigid and less open to other people’s ideas. I thought I was right about a lot more things! I’ve mellowed as I’ve gotten older but I’ve also learnt to be more nimble. I’ve never been afraid to say that I don’t know something and I’ve never been afraid to employ people who are better than me.

And what about your biggest gap as a leader?

Overestimating the amount that I can do. It’s not about failure to delegate as I already delegate a lot. It’s about taking on too much under the misguided belief that I somehow have no human needs to slot in, like sleeping or time-out.

Do you turn to the clarinet to wind down?

Absolutely not. I made a full break with the clarinet when I was in my twenties. But I listen to classical music to wind down.

How else do you look after your mental health?

I would have said horseriding but that was before I broke two vertebrae and was in hospital for more than a month. I’ve been a passionate horserider and was a low-level competitor when I lived in the UK. I love spending a portion of my day outdoors. I also love contemporary theatre and dance.

What advice would you give someone who wants to become a CEO?

Think about what your passions are and where you think you could do your best work. Be clear – what is your talent and where can you make the most impact? If you’re doing something that you love then the work becomes easy.


Personal motto: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Email approach: “All email that’s cc’d to me goes into a special folder and I only look at it once or twice a week at a time of my choosing. It will change your life because it halves your emails.”
Motivation tactic: “Tell a compelling story and paint a picture of how you see the future. You’ve got to excite people’s imaginations.”
Business book or podcast: “I listen to All the Rest is Politics. It’s got some great people talking about some great recollections and it’s told with such humour.”
Productivity hack: “I set aside some chunky periods each week for doing the bigger thinking work. I have two three-hour blocks a week that are just for writing a paper or for larger projects.”
Hard and fast rule :“There is no single truth.”
Favourite piece of advice: “From my father: Never stop learning – it’s the quest of a lifetime.”

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Image credit: Marc Némorin

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