Hassall right at home as Opera Australia chief
Opera Australia's new CEO Craig Hassall.
Craig Hassall remembers little about his first day at work at Opera Australia in 1987, beyond being a fresh-faced production co-ordinator "with no idea what I was doing".
In September he will return to work for his former employer as its newly appointed chief executive, charged with running the biggest arts company in the country.
"Who wouldn't want to have the chance to take that company somewhere? It's a no-brainer," Hassall says, of a job that has lured him home to Sydney after eight years as a member of the so-called "Aussie arts mafia" in London, firstly as managing director of the English National Ballet and then as chief operating officer of international promoter Raymond Gubbay.
Hassall's appointment, announced on Friday by Opera Australia Chairman Ziggy Switkowski, followed a four-month search to fill the position vacated by long-standing chief executive Adrian Collette, who stepped down in September after 16 years to take a new job with Melbourne University.
It will be the third time Hassall, whose resume also boasts stints with the London and Sydney Olympic Arts Festivals, Bell Shakespeare and Sydney Theatre Company, has been employed by Opera Australia. He last worked there 15 years ago as the company's marketing manager.
"I have a great fondness for the company," he says.
Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini says he is pleased with the appointment. "Obviously he has big shoes to fill, because Adrian Collette was an outstanding CEO. But Craig is very well credentialled."
Hassall, in turn, describes Terracini as clever. "He has a sound business head and his business head never curbs his creativity."
Terracini has made international performers a pillar of his programming and the pair, who have never worked together previously, already sound in-step.
"One thing I would like us to do is really make [the company] a world player on the opera stage," Hassall says. "By that I mean [casting] international artists, who value the company and help give the company an international profile."
He would also like to increase the opera's prominence at home.
"Of course Sydney and Melbourne are the priority and that probably won't ever change because of the population base there, but it doesn't mean the company can't be a national resource, a truly national company."
Hassall's departure from Australia in 2005, came with a parting shot at the then Coalition federal government, which he accused of being nonchalant about the arts. Government funding accounts for about a quarter of Opera Australia's annual operating revenue of $100 million.
"I'm probably more realistic about government funding these days," he says. "I don't expect handouts from government but I do expect government to be animated and active in its support of the performing arts. And vice versa.
"The performing arts has an obligation to be responsive to government objectives and priorities and to achieve a greater visibility for the arts across the country."
The former Scots College boarder from the central west NSW town of Gilgandra ("I played the bagpipes at school. That's my only claim to any kind of creative talent at all") nominates The Turn of the Screw, Benjamin Britten's adaptation of Henry James' boarding school ghost story, as his favourite opera.
"And this Opera on the Harbour sounds like a great thing," he says, with the enthusiasm of a hopeful ticket buyer, rather than an incoming CEO.
He will visit Sydney in March to see Opera Australia's production of Carmen on Sydney Harbour, no doubt guaranteed opening night seats. Good ones.