Scottish Opera plan puts future in doubt

THE sad and tangled saga of Scottish Opera took another twist yesterday. The company - providing few details - confirmed that it aims to spend more than a third of any future budget on education and "outreach" programmes.

The opera is funded with a 7.5 million annual grant from the Scottish Arts Council. It currently spends about 11 per cent of its core budget on such programmes.

The company’s board has produced two plans for the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) to meet demands that it repay a 4 million advance on its grant that it was forced to take after difficulties earlier this year.

The proposals are reported to include redundancies - from 80 up to more than twice that figure. But the company has confirmed the plans also include a move to boost spending on education and "outreach" to 34 per cent.

Earlier this year Scottish Opera’s chief executive, Christopher Barron, warned in a letter to the opera’s supporters that demands for "social inclusion" and "widening engagement" would further stretch the company’s ability to stage grand opera.

Few would question the aim of introducing opera to as broad an audience as possible - particularly children.

The Green Party’s culture spokesman, Chris Ballance, who argues the opera simply needs more funding to be effective, also praises "excellent" programmes that send out small groups of singers round primary schools. "It is a matter of making more people aware that opera is not just for people in suits and twin sets and on business accounts," he said.

The Executive has put education and "social inclusion" at the heart of its arts policy, while insisting it can combine "access and excellence". The First Minister, Jack McConnell, has been praised for his vision of culture in Scotland.

But the plans from Scottish Opera will raise anew the question as to how far art for art’s sake is coming second to social, economic, and educational goals.

The Executive is being urged on all sides to reach an early decision on the two plans. The opera’s accounts for 2003-4 have not been signed off by an auditor, and the opera has yet to announce its season for 2004-5.

There is inevitable speculation that the Executive will fudge a final decision by extending the repayment time for the company to pay off the advance. But there appears little sympathy within the top ranks of the Executive or the SAC with the opera’s current management team.

An Executive spokesman said: "The proposals in the business plan are being considered by the arts council and the executive and we will make an announcement in due course."

Scottish Opera already boasts that Scottish Opera For All (SOFA) - its education and outreach department - "is the most extensive opera-in-education unit in the UK".

The company has already spent 250,000 on its first opera created especially for children, The Minotaur, to be toured to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Inverness, and Aberdeen.

A list of its education and outreach programmes ranges from a programme of primary school tours launched in 1971 to a project in partnership with Glasgow’s oldest youth club.

Scottish Opera on Tour takes an opera with a reduced orchestra to mid-scale venues; Scottish Opera Go Round and Essential Scottish Opera serve smaller- scale venues.

SOFA serves primary schools, while the Community Programme takes operas to Gorbals in Glasgow and Tollcross in Edinburgh.

There have been complaints that Scottish Opera has kept its critics in the dark about its finances even as its funding dwarfs that of other theatre companies and orchestras.

But a 2001 report commissioned by the SAC, from the international opera consultant Peter Jonas, said that the company would need 10 million a year to keep up what was then its level of productions.

The opera already insists that its current funding of 7.5 million a year is simply not enough to deliver the scale of work it is expected to.

Its current state compares badly with one close neighbour, Opera North. Its season begins with a new co-production of Orfeo ed Euridice at the Edinburgh International Festival in early September.

Opera North will have an estimated turnover for 2003-4 of 12.3 million, including a 7.6 million grant from the Arts Council of England, 1.2 million in local authority grants, close to 1 million in sponsorship and more than 2 million in earned revenue.

The company will stage seven productions next year, six of them new, to theatres across England, as well as reaching Edinburgh and Belfast. The programme underlines Scottish Opera’s primary reliance on Edinburgh and Glasgow.

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