- Associated Press - Thursday, October 9, 2014

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) - An Australian opera company is being criticized for banning as part of a sponsorship deal performances of “Carmen” for two years because the 140-year-old French opera depicts smoking.

West Australian Opera had been considering a 2015 staging of the popular opera about a Spanish gypsy named Carmen who works in a cigar factory. The ban lasts the duration of a 400,000 Australian dollar ($355,000) sponsorship deal with a state government health promotion agency, Healthway.

The deal begins in March and was revealed in the media on Wednesday. It has split Australians among those who complain of a nanny state and those who applaud its positive public health message.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Thursday condemned the deal as “political correctness gone crazy.”

Opera is “an exaggeration and if we are running around looking to take offence or looking to spread some politically correct message, just about every opera would be forbidden,” Abbott told Melbourne Radio 3AW.

“We don’t stop the theater from running ‘Macbeth’ because it promotes killing kings,” Abbott told Perth Radio 6PR.

Healthway’s website says it sponsors sports, arts, racing, community event organizations and community groups that encourage healthy lifestyles.

Healthway chairwoman Rosanna Capolingua said her board was “quite surprised” by opera’s general manager Carolyn Chard’s offer of a “Carmen” ban.

“They brought that to us and we said: ‘fine.’ It was their choice and their decision,” Capolingua said. “It’s a clever move to grab the Healthwise dollars for a couple of years.”

“People are very aware of the glamorization and depicting of smoking in the movies which is making a big comeback at the moment mainly because tobacco companies are encouraging that,” she added.

Capolignua said she didn’t believe the Perth-based, state-owned opera company had wanted to stage “Carmen” next year because its preferred lead singer would be performing “Aida” with Opera Australia in Sydney.

WA Opera’s publicist Lynne Burford said the company had proposed staging “Carmen” in its 2015 program. But that program had yet to be finalized.

Chard has described the decision to dump “Carmen” as simple.

“We are about the health and wellbeing of our staff, stage performers and all the opera lovers throughout (Western Australia), which means promoting health messages and not portraying any activities that could be seen to promote unhealthy behavior,” she told The West Australian newspaper.

Chard declined to be interviewed. But Burford said the company plans to perform “Carmen” in 2017 - after the Healthway deal has expired.

Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett vowed to take a personal interest in how Heathway spends its future sponsorship dollars.

“If that sponsorship arrangement through Healthway led to the cancellation of the opera, that is a … serious mistake that smacks of basically arts censorship,” Barnett told reporters. “Arts censorship is not their role.”

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