All Scottish Opera needs is a director with vision, guts and a tight belt

SIR Richard Armstrong has left the building. The distinguished director of 12 years is the only person to have gone voluntarily in an exhausting and shameful year of downsizing at Scottish Opera. While the company seeks a replacement, Armstrong will continue as adviser and guest conductor. Will he have a role in choosing the new music director? Don’t bet against it.

So just who are Scottish Opera looking for to lead them into the brave new world beyond 2006? Their statement last week was a little woolly: "a strong and dynamic leader with passion, insight and musical talent ... to maintain and build the company’s world-class reputation for excellence, creativity... (etc etc) ...with a reputation for giving directors and designers opportunities". All well and good, but this opportunity comes with a huge caveat. Money.

As chief executive Christopher Barron pointed out in The Scotsman last week, Scottish Opera will, by autumn 2006, have paid off its 4m debt. It will start 2006/7 from scratch, with no rise in funding (now a disgraceful six years in a row), and some inflation.

A tight financial belt will not put off the young and keen currently revitalising the European music scene, and there is a opportunity here for a ‘young’ director to make his/her mark. We have seen this kind of renaissance in the last few years at Opera North and Glyndebourne under Richard Farnes and Vladimir Jurowski respectively.

What’s needed is someone with the rare combination of vision and experience to juggle the financial and practical necessities with the artistic skills to successfully fire this esoteric artform. Scottish Opera is there for the taking - and for the making.

Inexperience or mediocrity would be disastrous, as it was for Welsh National Opera, who last year gambled and lost on a monumentally inexperienced boy wonder, the 24-year-old Ossatian conductor Tugan Sokhiev. He racked up 19 months of increasingly mediocre productions that tumbled the once omnipotent Welsh company’s stock.

But there is precedent for a turnabout in fortune. WNO ‘lucked out’ in reappointing Sokhiev’s immediate predecessor, knight in shining armour Carlo Rizzi, who will take over until 2006. When the Royal Opera House’s woes of the late 1990s were played out on primetime TV, few would have predicted the ensuing raft of highly acclaimed, packed-out productions, whatever the ticket price.

A key question for Scottish Opera is whether, in 2006, there will be anything for a music director to direct. SO plans to reinstate a full-time chorus as soon as it can run a full year’s season, but there are no guarantees. Certainly not in 2006/7, with just four mainscale productions and no financial room for manoeuvre.

There is also the question of ‘where’. SO lost their Glasgow home to the Ambassador Theatre Group last month as part of a refinancing package - a blow which countered the far more positive trend for multi-million-pound revamps over the Border. ENO, WNO and Opera North have all gained, either with brand new purpose-built buildings (the Welsh Millennium Centre, Glyndebourne’s new Opera House) or multi-million-pound rebuilding packages, at ENO and Opera North. Worst-case scenario is that Scottish Opera downsizes substantially to the remit of the ‘touring company’ it was founded as in 1961, which would of course affect who applies for the job.

The possibility for innovation and the revival of an acclaimed artistic powerhouse is going to be highly attractive. A quick glance around the other nationals shows a raft of inspiring reinvention that could show SO the way forward. One current success story is Opera North, with its consistently imaginative programming, broaching crowd-pleasing operetta alongside new opera, to its notable Eight Little Greats season of critically acclaimed one-act performances.

At the other extreme is the supplementation of Grand Opera with opera/musical theatre cross-over as both Opera North and the Royal Operas have done with recent sell-out stagings of Sweeney Todd.

It’s too early to speculate on candidates. A glance over the list of SO guest conductors from the past few years shows the strongest contender, Richard Farnes, who directed last year’s musically acclaimed La Boheme, has been scooped up by Opera North. But what is really interesting is that WNO is also looking for an MD to start in 2006 as a successor to Carlo Rizzi. It will be interesting to watch who goes where.

WNO is, at this moment, a far more enticing prospect for an ambitious conductor, but all that could change in 2006. Scottish Opera has a very strong card up its sleeve with this year’s joint Edinburgh International Festival production. If they can pull off the British premiere of John Adam’s Death of Klinghoffer under an intense international spotlight this summer, the offputting logistical problems will fade against the glare of top-drawer artistic achievement. The Ring Cycle, after all, was only two short years ago.

It’s high risk, but then risk-taking is Scottish Opera’s forte. Edward Gardner’s Scottish Opera debut with Klinghoffer should be revelatory. And with 18 long months until the deadline for the Scottish Opera post, Gardner himself may fancy a punt.

Failing that, I hear Carlo Rizzi’s free in 2006.

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