The Sunday Herald [Glasgow] By Douglas Fraser GLASGOW, 16 May ó Scottish Opera is to be bailed out of its severe financial crisis with a further injection of up to £5 million of public cash on condition that its chorus members go part-time and it relinquishes the running of its Glasgow base, the Theatre Royal.
Its youth work, as with that of the other national companies, is expected to be handed over to a proposed National Youth Arts Company, which has emerged as a new idea to bring arts education expertise under one organisation.
Although a decision to scrap the 53-member orchestra has been vetoed, the 35 members of the opera chorus can expect to see their permanent contracts ended and replaced in most cases with the offer of part-time work. Adminstrative staff will also be scaled back.
The option of closing down Scottish Opera was considered by the Scottish Arts Council, but rejected by the Executive. The Scottish Opera board is to meet on June 2 to consider the emergency survival and restructuring package for the beleaguered company. It was hammered out last week by its chairman, Duncan McGhie, and culture minister Frank McAveety. The details were first presented to other board members on Friday. Much of the £5 million will be used to fund "transistional costs" including redundancy payments.
The move comes after weeks of mounting criticism of the sluggish approach to a new arts strategy taken by the Executive, which, after five months, reached the decision to announce another major review. Ministers have also been stung by the strong criticism from the arts community and the artistic director of Scottish Opera, Sir Richard Armstrong, that the company cannot survive on reviews, working parties and "political attacks".
McAveety and other ministers have been arguing that the company will have to learn to live within its state subsidy ó a £7.4 million annual grant ó and end its chronic deficits. The company has taken a £4.5 million advance on its grant to pay off debts incurred by its ambitious productions of Wagner's Ring cycle. It has annual staff costs of £4 million and is reckoned to have only £10.5 million of its remaining grant to last nearly two years.
It is understood that the Scottish Opera board, along with the Scottish Arts Council, put forward a more radical plan that would have seen the orchestra broken up and its 53 members put on more flexible temporary contracts. That was vetoed by ministers because of the damage they feared it would do to their policy of giving every school pupil an opportunity for instrumental music tuition.
Commenting on the bail-out, First Minister Jack McConnell said: "We are investing millions of pounds in rebuilding school music tuition to give all young Scots the chance to develop their talents. I want our national opera company and orchestras to be the motivations for young people to develop their talents to the full."
McConnell told the Sunday Herald: "It would be an entirely wrong signal for Scottish Opera, who have been responsible for excellent productions in recent years, to reach such a stage of crisis that the future of the company is in doubt. It would be wrong here in Scotland because of the message it would send to young musicians, but it also would be wrong internationally as a signal about the kind of Scotland we want to create."
In the background, it is understood that the culture commission ó set up last month by culture minister Frank McAveety and headed by former BBC radio controller James Boyle ó is being asked to look at taking the youth work of all the national arts companies and putting them under the banner of a new National Youth Arts Company.
This would include the work done by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet and the Scottish National Theatre, which is only now being set up. It would also include groups such as the Scottish Youth Theatre and the Scottish National Youth Orchestra, and would work closely with the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. The plan would continue to use the expertise of the national companies, but would let them focus their resources on professional performance.
Allied to this is a proposal ó at a very early stage and for consideration by the Boyle commission, which is due to report next June ó which could see a new multi-arts performing centre, probably in Glasgow, replacing venues such as the Theatre Royal.
Long before that, the restructuring plan is expected to take the Theatre Royal out of the control of Scottish Opera and have it run by a specialist venue manager, Ambassador Theatres Group, which recently took over the running of the King's Theatre in Glasgow. A wider-ranging programme is expected to result, with more professional marketing that draws on the company's UK-wide resources.
McConnell added yesterday: "I want Scotland to have an internationally successful opera company, both for the pursuit of excellence at home in Scotland, but also for the promotion of Scotland and our cultural excellence abroad.
"We are considering options that range from very drastic changes to Scottish Opera to changes that would ensure a more flexible structure where the company might stay within budget from year to year. Like any other public organisation, Scottish Opera has to live within the budget it receives and the company cannot continue to build up year-on-year deficits which ultimately have to be paid for from resources that could go to other national companies or other arts groups. If the company can restructure and provide the ability to manage a budget then clearly extra investment in the future will be much easier to justify."
McGhie said last night that board members had only heard on Friday of the rescue plan, and that they would evaluate it and consider the implications. A decision is expected on June 2.
Why opera's got the blues
Scottish Opera has a long history of financial troubles. In the past year it has weathered the following difficulties:
  • August 2003: The sell-out performances of Wagner's Ring cycle at the Edinburgh International Festival stretch finances to the limit, despite considerable support from sponsors. Scottish Opera enters talks with the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Executive. It receives £750,000 from the SAC in lottery funding. Reports suggest it has debts of nearly £3 million.
  • September 2003: A plan for a Scottish National Theatre is announced, which will include Scottish Opera.
  • October 2003: Chris Barron, chief executive of Scottish Opera, claims funding for the company is at "drastic" levels and the future looks "grim". Culture minister Frank McAveety refuses to increase funding, turning down a request for an extra £1.5 million. The company is left with a grant of £7.4 million for the coming year.
  • April 2004: Barron admits the company will be forced to cut jobs, saying in a letter that future plans would include a "need to downsize".

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