Like most opera companies, it is funded by a combination of government money, corporate sponsorship, private philanthropy, and ticket sales. The proportion of its revenue from ticket sales is considerably higher than that of most companies, approximately 75 per cent. The company is perhaps best known internationally for its association with Dame Joan Sutherland, for Baz Luhrmann's production of Puccini's La bohme in the early 1990s and more recently, for, apart from performances inside the opera house, large scale outdoor performances on Sydney Harbour.
By the end of 2004, Opera Australia provided employment to approximately 1,300 Australians. Oz Opera, now called Opera Australia Touring and Outreach, (Opera Australia's education, access and development arm) presented the La bohme production in Victoria, Northern Territory and Western Australia, attended by 13,350 people, while OzOpera's Schools Company performed to over 63,500 primary age children in more than 360 performances in urban and regional New South Wales and Victoria. Since then the touring and outreach arm of the company has performed to a great many more people around Australia and toured other states, including South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania making it a truly national entity. Many thousands of Australians also experienced the work of their national opera company through television, radio, video, compact disc, DVD, and the annual free performance of opera in the Domain in Sydney.The company also performs regularly in a range of venues, including the outdoor event at Mrs Macquarie's Chair, "Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour", where since 2012 operas such as La Traviata, Madama Butterfly, Turandot, Aida and Carmen have played to new audiences.
Opera Australia (OA) was formed by the merger of the Australian Opera and the Victoria State Opera (VSO) companies in 1996, following the financial collapse of the Melbourne-based VSO. Adrian Collette was appointed General Manager of the new company, and evolved a three-year plan to restructure the company involving twice yearly seasons in both Sydney and Melbourne, integrating the OA and VSO staff and planning a viable financial structure so as to manage the inherited debt.
The first few years of the present century saw the retirement of Moffatt Oxenbould, Opera Australia's Artistic Director for 15 years, and the appointment of Simone Young as Musical Director. To honour the retiring director, the Young Artists' Program was renamed the "Moffatt Oxenbould Young Artists' Development Program". Immediately on taking up her position in 2001, Simone Young appointed the Australian director Stuart Maunder to the position of Artistic Director. Young proceeded to develop the company's core repertoire, including more German operas in the repertoire and diversifying the types of productions mounted and the standards of international and local artists employed. By late 2002 however, the OA Board, faced with mounting deficits, announced that Young's future visions for the company were 'unsustainable' and decided not to renew her contract after the end of 2003.
At the end of 2003, Richard Hickox was named Music Director-designate of Opera Australia, and took up the post full-time from January 2005. During his tenure, Hickox diversified the repertoire with the addition of more 20th century works such as The Love for Three Oranges, Rusalka and Arabella, recording live performances of many of these works for Chandos Records. The company's 50th anniversary was celebrated in 2006 with a Gala Concert in which tributes were paid to Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge, the principal artists, the chorus, production staff and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra (the AOBO) for their 'artistry and talent' and the 'ensemble nature' of the company. In mid-2008, Hickox and Opera Australia were criticised for what was perceived as a decline in artistic standards since the start of Hickox's tenure. On returning to the UK in November 2008 following the Sydney Winter Season, Hickox died suddenly from a heart attack after conducting a rehearsal in Swansea. On 30 June 2009, Lyndon Terracini was announced as the new Artistic Director.
In 2011, Lyndon Terracini gave a controversial speech as part of the annual Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address, in which he announced that Opera Australia had to change in order to survive. "Opera companies and orchestras of significance world wide are closing at an alarming rate ... We can blithely ignore the fact ... or we can change....brave programming is having the courage to programme what critics will criticise you for, but will make a genuine connection to a real audience."
The Artistic Director has pursued a program designed to bring opera to wider audiences. In 2012 through the sponsorship of Dr Haruhisa Handa and Destination NSW, Opera Australia staged the first 'Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour', a three-week season of a fully produced and staged opera, designed to be an opera 'event'. The production of La Traviata was directed by Francesca Zambello and attracted an audience of 40,000 people. In 2013, Opera Australia staged a production of Carmen on Sydney Harbour, directed by Gale Edwards. It reached similar audience numbers. The Harbour has since received annual stagings, followed by Madama Butterfly (2014), Aida (2015), and Turandot (2016).
In 2012, Opera Australia began to stage Broadway musicals for the first time, replacing the regular Gilbert and Sullivan productions that had formed part of the company's repertoire for some years. A Lincoln Center Theatre production of South Pacific played at the Sydney Opera House and Melbourne's Princess Theatre in 2012 to huge audiences, kicking off a national tour which will continued in 2013.
An extensive philanthropic drive enabled the company to program its first full-length Ring Cycle, which was performed in Melbourne over four weeks at the end of 2013. After tickets to the event sold out in just one day, ABC Classic FM and Opera Australia announced the radio station would live broadcast the Ring Cycle to audiences across the country.
In April 2013, Opera Australia announced a 44 per cent growth in total revenue based on an increase in box office sales of more than 55 per cent. For the second year in a row, the company reported an operating profit following two successive deficits.
In January 2013, the board of Opera Australia announced they would extend Lyndon Terracini's contract as Artistic Director for five more years. Later that year, Terracini announced that singers on 12-month contracts will be "rested" without pay for a period of six to twelve weeks in 2014.