Next year’s Sydney Festival is hosting one of its biggest ever stage productions, with a crew of 76 performers, technicians and crew all working towards the musical centrepiece for the 2014 edition of the arts and music event.

But rather than being able to showcase the strength of Australia’s musical performers, Sydney Festival’s artistic director Lieven Bertels tells the Sydney Morning Herald that the production will use foreign musicians because it’s less costly than employing local performers.

Hosting a full-scale performance of Dido & Aeneas, a three-act production based on a Henry Purcell opera that features an enormous aquarium filled with dancers will use a German orchestra iinstead of the Sydney-based Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, because it actually works out to “a considerably lower cost,” says Bertels.

“We tried to do it with a local orchestra, the Australian Brandenburg, but it turned out to be more expensive with them than a German orchestra,” he says. “That’s the competition position this poor orchestra is in.”

Paying for flights, accommodation, and a performance fee for the Akademie fuer Alte Musik Berlin orchestra to play in Dido & Aeneas works out cheaper because “these companies come well-oiled by European subsidy,” explains Bertels, with the German orchestra enjoying a healthy financial boost from their government through European arts organisations that far outweigh those of Australia’s. “We tried to do it with a local orchestra… but it turned out to be more expensive with them than a German orchestra,” – Lieven Bertels, Sydney Festival

“Oh, my god, are they ever,” exclaims Bruce Applebaum, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s General Manager, “German companies receive something like up to 75 per cent of their costs from the government,” he says. “The German model is the one we all love.”

By contrast, the Sydney orchestra receives just 16% of its revenue from Federal Government subsidies, which isn’t enough to incur the significant financial cost of hiring the Brandenburg for the Sydney Festival production, which would mean paying for 17 musicians to fly from around Australia to rehearse and play in Sydney for two weeks, explains Applebaum.

“We have a different business model from any other orchestra in Australia,” he says. “We only have 10 musicians on salary. We augment everything we do with casual musicians.”

The Federal Government’s National Cultural Policy revealed earlier in the year that there would be a $75m overhaul to the Arts Grants Council which handles such subsidies, including pledging a 30% increase in funding to $20.8 million for not-for-profit training organisations – including the Australian Youth Orchestra – though, those changes and figures are slightly up in the air following the leadership spill that brought Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to power in late June.

Bertels would not reveal the budget for the Sydney Festival 2014 performance of Dido & Aeneas, but remarked “this is not the most expensive production we bring the Sydney Festival, by far.” The artistic director pointing out that “one of the biggest festival projects ever was All Tomorrow’s Parties on Cockatoo Island, surprisingly;” referring to the Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds-curated Australian debut of the boutique festival held in January 2009.

Even without divulging the production costs, the size and scale of Dido & Aeneas demonstrates the mammoth performance likely comes with an equally enormous pricetag. As well the German orchestra, a full chamber choir, guest singers, unique baroque instruments that require special care and transport, there’s also the  7.5 tonnes of water needed to fill the stage-sized water tank used in the opera.

“The stage at the Opera House is simply too small for this project,” Bertels tells The Agewhich will instead be hosted at the Sydney Lryic theatre at the Star Casino centre, with tickets for the event going for up to $199 for the five performances running between 16th to the 21st January, 2014.

The rest of the 2014 Sydney Festival’s musical lineup – which last year featured international bands Dirty Projectors, David Byrne & St Vincent, Perfume Genius, and Lianne LA Havas – will be revealed this October.

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