Scottish Opera Chorus Members Turn Ire on 'Extravagant' Artistic Director Richard Armstrong
Tuesday, June 15, 2004
The Herald [Glasgow]
By Senay Boztas
The Scottish Opera chorus, who face redundancy as part of an agreed £7 million rescue package, have bitterly attacked their music director Sir Richard Armstrong claiming his extravagance has cost them their jobs.
Ever since the curtain fell on the announcement of Scottish Opera's radical restructuring, missiles have been aimed at a number of heads.
Chris Barron, head of the opera, Duncan McGhie, head of the board, James Boyle, ex-head of the Scottish Arts Council, Frank McAveety, head of culture, and the biggest of them all, Jack McConnell, are all targeted with charges of cultural "vandalism" for the roles they played.
But the 34 members of the opera chorus ó all of whom are expected to lose their jobs ó believe that their celebrated music director, Sir Richard Armstrong, should shoulder much of the blame.
Richard Armstrong, artistic director of Scottish Opera. Armstrong was knighted in the New Year honours, picked up the Royal Philharmonic Society opera award last month for staging Wagner's Ring cycle, and collected a South Bank Show opera award for the company in January.
But many in the chorus believe his apparent unwillingness to sacrifice artistic standards to meet a budget, "inappropriate and elitist" programming, and only partial use of the chorus led to last Monday's denouement: bankruptcy avoided with a £7 million Executive rescue package to make 88 job losses, a dark period of nine months next year, and negotiations to give the running of the Theatre Royal to another firm.
At performances of La BohËme, chorus members have petitioned for signatures to save their jobs and will present more than 6000 names to the Scottish Executive tomorrow, including Barron, planning director Jenny Slack and Catherine Lockerbie, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Conductor Richard Farnes took his bow wearing their campaign T-shirt in Glasgow on Friday, at what could be the chorus's last performance at their Theatre Royal home.
Barron refused them permission to sing an encore of "Auld Lang Syne" to the audience but the crowd spontaneously began to sing the anthem after the curtain fell.
Members of the chorus, restricted by contractual gagging orders, have made their case against Armstrong to their MSPs and their union, Equity. They accuse him of 11 years of "extravagance" and "prima donna tantrums", sidelining the professional chorus in favour of hired singers, and "systematically excluding" them from programmes.
"He is unwilling to sacrifice his artistic standards," said one member of the chorus. "We are desperate to work but have been vastly under-used to keep us out of the public eye. In the last 10 years our essential role as soloists and understudies has declined and we scarcely participated in the Ring cycle. "We are pawns in their chess game, everyone bows to Armstrong and we believe he should take the blame."
Chorus members describe a catalogue of "unnecessary" spending over the years. La BohËme costs around £20,000 a night to perform and although wardrobe figures are not available, staff claim players were given £270 Versace shoes to wear ó scarcely visible beyond the third row. For performances of the Ring cycle, one chorus member wore a £50 Jenners belt that was "invisible to the audience".
Staff talk of Armstrong insisting on a £10,000 raised stage for La BohËme. They claim two eight-foot mannequins for the performance cost £10,000, and a dozen mannequins to bolster the ranks of the band at the end of Act II are said to have cost £700 each, with real musical instruments ruined by being glued to their hands.
Plasma screens, computers and projectors used are said to have been top-of-the-range, while two plasma screens for the children's opera The Minotaur are thought to have cost £10,000.
Although Armstrong said he deplored the loss of the chorus earlier this week, staff resent his lack of support and the fact that he has refused to meet them face to face.
Armstrong was not available for comment, but a spokeswoman for Scottish Opera said that he works within budgets allocated by opera management. "The company strongly refutes allegations of overspending its budgets," she said. "Scottish Opera's financial problems have revolved around extraordinary one-off costs, like health and safety issues at the Theatre Royal, and unstable public funding.
"Sir Richard is not a budget holder, but is allocated a budget for each production ó and La BohËme has not exceeded its budget. His talents have been recognised both in the UK and internationally, and he is considered to be the best Wagnerian of his generation."
Other experts say the financial problems of the opera go back to its very beginnings. A former senior figure in Scottish Opera said: "On 16 occasions, the annual accounts of Scottish Opera have required special action to keep it going. But nobody [in the executive or Scottish Arts Council] has been clear that we cannot afford the company.
"There is a more logical way to make cuts. The country doesn't need a fourth symphony orchestra and a smaller company doesn't mean cutting out a piece, but looking at the structure. You cannot run an opera without a chorus because chorus availability is always the limiting factor."
The Executive is nonetheless adamant that it supports a national company. At the arts and business annual awards last week, McAveety insisted that "we want an opera company to serve and to build audiences", but others say even if the opera survives, the whole controversy has put off audiences forever.
John Stalker, general manager of the Festival Theatre, created especially to house 12 weeks of Scottish Opera and 12 of Scottish Ballet performances each year, said: "No performances for nine months will cost me £120,000, and although there is provision in the Scottish Executive's business plan to compensate this loss, I am actively courting companies such as Welsh National Opera and Opera North.
"There is an enormous thirst for mainscale opera in Edinburgh, but Scottish Opera has not been providing an adequate level and the current domestic accountancy has put audiences off Scottish Opera, maybe for good."
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