Ken Walton: main stage productions limited in Scottish Opera’s new season

Stuart Stratford, Alex Reedijk and Sir Thomas Allen. Scottish Opera 2015.
Stuart Stratford, Alex Reedijk and Sir Thomas Allen. Scottish Opera 2015.
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To what lengths are we prepared to go to see opera performed as it was intended? That will be the question once again on many opera lovers’ lips as they ponder Scottish Opera’s 2015-16 programme, which was released this week.

Scottish Opera is calling it a package of “10 shows”, which is a convenient catch-all description for what amounts to four main scale opera productions, a new chamber opera by Stuart MacRae for four singers and chamber ensemble, a portable piano-accompanied Cosi fan tutte touring small venues, the annual concert party-styled Opera Highlights tour, another KidO for 3-4 year-olds, another new work for Scottish Opera Connect (young singers and players aged 14-21), and this summer’s one-off concert performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore at the Edinburgh International Festival, which has curiously earned itself equal billing with the main “shows” in the new season brochure.

Picture: Scottish Opera

Picture: Scottish Opera

“If you include the small scale Opera Highlights and The Cabinet of Dr Caldari – a follow-on for Connect to Dr Ferret’s Bad Medicine Road Show – these are more ‘show’ than ‘opera,’” general director Alex Reedijk explains. “We can’t say we’re doing ten operas, but we are doing ten pieces of work.”

It is no more, no less than we expected. Over the past year, and in the face of fierce criticism, Scottish Opera has continually reaffirmed its operating policy, which is to focus a considerable portion of its annual activity and resources on non-main scale activity, such as miniaturised piano-accompanied touring productions, its youth and children’s projects and its concert party tours to the remotest parts of Scotland.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with these activities. They should be happening. But is Scottish Opera the most appropriate organisation to be undertaking them, especially when you consider the growing presence of flexible touring companies in Scotland like Opera Bohemia or remote initiatives such as Cromarty Youth Opera, which is staging Britten’s The Little Sweep this summer?

As things stand, Scottish Opera has made this all-things-to-all-people approach a major part of its programming strategy, and the consequence is that the main operatic season remains skeletal and thinly representative of the key operatic styles.

The main programme opens 
with a restaging by Benjamin Davis, in October and November, of the 
old 1999 production of Carmen. There’s a very brief run in January of Stuart MacRae’s newly-commissioned chamber opera The Devil Inside – two performances each in Glasgow and Edinburgh – followed by Handel’s Ariodante in February, under the director-designer team of Harry Fehr and Yannis Thavoris.

April brings us Dvorak’s Rusalka, designed and directed by Antony McDonald, followed in May and June by the latest dose of Gilbert and Sullivan from Scottish Opera, The Mikado, a new co-production with D’Oyly Carte by Martin Lloyd-Evans.

The management is unwavering in this approach. Reedijk has consistently defended his policy in the face of intense media criticism over the past 18 months. New chairman Peter Lawson endorsed his general director’s view in an aggressive response to a recent stinging attack in Opera magazine, which accused the company of “being in creative limbo”.

It’s too early to know what incoming music director Stuart Stratford’s policy views really are. The company is not yet permitting him to do solo interviews with the press. I requested one in relation to last week’s season launch, but was told it won’t happen until July at the earliest.

Instead, I was faced with a panel of three – Reedijk, artistic adviser Sir Thomas Allen and Stratford – and I got a distinct feeling that this trio were singing from the same old hymn book. “It’s all about balancing our basket,” was once again Reedijk’s mantra, to the accompaniment of echoing nods.

We’ll need to wait and see what Stratford’s influence will be. He’s already expressed his wish to explore full scale opera in different venues, ie. away from the traditional theatre. That could be an exciting prospect. We’ll see him conduct once next season in Rusalka – an opera he has done with Opera Holland Park, but which Scottish Opera has never staged – so even as a performer it could be a while before his impact is truly felt.

So if things are remaining as they are in the meantime, and gaps in main scale performance are going to be just as frequent, is there anything serious opera goers can do to satisfy their thirst for the full operatic experience? I know of many who are addressing it in their own ways – from going to Scottish cinemas where New York Met productions are regularly screened live, to planning London trips around operas they want to see – but I’m wondering if there’s a more convenient, less expensive way of plugging the gap.

So consider this: it’s not that far to Newcastle, especially from Edinburgh and south-east Scotland, and Opera North makes regular visits to the Theatre Royal there – a stomping ground of Scottish Opera in its former cross-border touring days – with its significantly larger main season. Take a look at what’s on offer when Scottish Opera is off air.

In November, there’s Giles Havergal’s production of The Barber of Seville, and guess who’s conducting? Stuart Stratford. During that other big Scottish Opera gap in March, there’s a choice over one single week of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore under the baton of Tobias Ringborg, another Scottish Opera favourite, a new production of Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, and a full-blown version of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, directed by Tim Albery, creator of Scottish Opera’s last Ring cycle.

And if that whets your appetite for Wagner, Opera North are closing their season in July with a semi-staged performance of the Ring at the Sage, Gateshead.

I’m not saying desert Scottish Opera for Opera North. But if you’re gagging for the full opera season Scottish Opera isn’t providing, maybe the next best option is to construct your own.

For Scottish Opera’s 2015-16 Season, visit www.scottishopera.org.uk