Final curtain looms for Scottish Opera staff

SCOTTISH Opera is considering axing a third of its staff in a desperate bid to avert financial meltdown, it was claimed last night.

Around 80 of the 240 people who are employed by the troubled national operatic company face losing their jobs, according to actors’ union Scottish Equity.

The union says that it has seen details of a crisis management plan sent by Scottish Opera to the Scottish Executive,

which it claims would make the entire 34-strong chorus redundant, along with dozens of musicians, technicians and administrative staff.

Scottish Opera’s troubled financial position has already led to the company asking for a 4m advance on next year’s 7.5m grant from the Scottish Arts Council (SAC).

Many anxious staff are said to be looking for jobs elsewhere, fuelling union fears that the plans will spell the demise of Scottish Opera completely, leaving Scotland with no national opera company and bringing an end to the largest professional arts organisation in the country.

Lorne Boswell, Scottish Equity secretary, said: "We are aware that management have plans for this [the 80 job losses] to happen. We have seen some paperwork.

"They say that the plans are not finalised, but what they have said to the Executive is somewhat different.

"We believe that they have two ‘plans’, with the second ‘plan’ being to lay everyone off. The only point of that second ‘plan’ is to make the first one look more attractive.

"Jobs are under threat across the board: the chorus, orchestra, administration staff, technicians.

"I think it’s a very uncertain time for staff. They feel that they have been told next to nothing. It is hugely destabilising and a lot of people are already looking for jobs elsewhere.

"I hope it is not the end of Scottish Opera. But if current leadership continues as they are, taking the company apart piece by piece, we will never be able to put it back together again."

He added: "It would be cruel and unfair if lots of people were to lose their jobs as a result of mismanagement of the company."

Scottish Opera has been struggling for some time to stay within its annual budget from the SAC.

While unions blame mismanagement, industry professionals believe that the company is losing several hundred thousand pounds a year because it is simply not receiving enough funding to cover costs. It is currently said to have debts of around 3m, even after taking a 4m advance from the SAC at the start of this year against its 7.5m SAC allocation for next year, in a desperate bid to make ends meet.

The Scottish Executive is understood to have given Scottish Opera two years to pay back the 4m advance - a demand that will effectively cut the opera’s annual budget to 5.5m. The current wages bill alone is said to be over 6m.

However, culture minister Frank McAveety has previously made it clear to the board of Scottish Opera that their requests for increased funding are unlikely to be granted in the foreseeable future.

The impact of the situation has become increasingly clear at ground level.

While Scottish Opera received critical acclaim for its recent Edinburgh Festival production of Wagner’s The Ring, observers have noticed that recent seasons have declined steadily, fuelling concern that with funding effectively being slashed the national opera will struggle to put on even a skeleton main programme next season.

The main company is currently rehearsing for the last full-scale production of the season, Puccini’s La Bohme.

Critics of management at the opera have called on bosses to enlist either the Scottish Chamber Orchestra or the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to play in the pit at opera performances, to reduce costs incurred through employing the existing ‘in-house’ orchestra.

However, the union believes that unless full-scale works are suspended completely in the short term, the company will have no long-term future.

Other ways to cut costs that have been suggested by the union include selling off assets such as the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, which, at an estimated value of 5m, has been branded "the most expensive rehearsal room in Europe" by Scottish Equity.

It has submitted its own plans to both the Scottish Executive and the SAC to that effect, but has yet to hear back from either body.

Lorne Boswell of Scottish Equity added: "It is full-scale works that are causing these problems. Macbeth caused huge problems, and, despite what they are saying, The Ring obviously caused major problems as well or they would not be 3m in debt again.

"Our plans inevitably involve compromise, but they would mean that all the skills could be kept in Scotland, which would allow the company to realign at some point in the future.

"In the meantime they have got to prove themselves financially competent. It [the company] must be able to live within its means."

Referring to the sale of the Theatre Royal, he added: "We have been calling on them to sell it off for years. It is a huge drain on their resources. They only use it as a rehearsal room. It’s a luxury that they cannot afford, given their financial position."

Scottish Opera’s full-time employees include chorus and orchestra members, carpenters and prop makers, as well as production design and management staff, plus finance, IT and HR workers.

The opera company’s website states: "As Scotland’s National Opera Company and the largest professional arts organisation in the country, we are committed to excellence in our productions and our people."

No-one from Scottish Opera was available for comment.

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