Opera 'is as Scottish as art or literature'

THE director of the British Museum has weighed into the debate over Scottish Opera, telling an international audience of commentators and musicians that opera is as much a Scottish art form as literature or music.

Neil MacGregor, one of the most prominent Scots in the international cultural arena, said he regarded the Opera as a flagship company which defined Scotland to the world.

At the Royal Philharmonic Society awards in London, where the company’s music director Sir Richard Armstrong won the opera award, Mr MacGregor said it would be "extremely worrying" if the perception that opera was not a Scottish national art form had put its future in jeopardy.

He told The Scotsman: "Scottish Opera is, for those outside Scotland, one of the great cultural achievements of Scotland, and one of the great ambassadors for Scotland’s commitment to high culture.

"The Scottish Parliament is now the custodian of one of the great cultural institutions of the United Kingdom and people will be looking from all round the world to see how Scottish Opera now fares under this new autonomous government."

Mr MacGregor was speaking as Scottish Opera finally filed its accounts for the financial year 2003. They were delayed because of uncertainty over whether the company was still a going concern.

The documents confirmed the depth of the Opera’s financial problems. As of 31 March 2004, the opera had drawn 4.5 million in advance from the Scottish Arts Council of its 7.5 million annual grant. That left just 10.6 million in funding for the two years left to run out of a three-year funding cycle. The opera has submitted plans to the executive allowing it to operate within that funding, but they are reported to include 80 or more redundancies.

The Scottish Executive has told the Opera it will meet the "one-off exceptional costs" of a restructuring package.

The costs of the plan would presumably hang on the number of redundancies. The Opera has no redundancy agreement with unions, and if more than ten jobs were lost, would have to enter negotiations.

The Executive confirmed last night: "If Ministers accept Scottish Opera’s submitted plans and there are additional costs in delivering their new vision, ministers would endeavour to do their best to find resources to deal with the costs attached to delivering that vision."

There has been speculation that the cost of the transition deal is delaying a final decision from the Executive.

Lorne Boswell, of the actors’ union Equity, which represents chorus members, said: "I think it would be a disaster if the executive were to fund redundancies rather than to look at creative proposals to keep the whole company going."

The Opera’s chairman, Duncan McGhie, said in a statement accompanying the accounts: "The directors have delayed finalising these accounts until the very last minute possible in the hope that the discussions currently going on with the Scottish Arts Council and the Scottish Executive would have been concluded and that I could have reported to you on the way forward. This is not the position we find ourselves in today."

The accounts include the cost of the new production of Siegfried, the fourth part of The Ring Cycle, which together with the opera Orfeo ed Euridice cost more than 1 million. It underlined how the cost of maintaining Glasgow’s Theatre Royal has been a drain on the accounts - 1,148,191 in a year. By March 2003, it showed the Opera already 2 million in debt.

Mr McGhie blamed the company’s troubles on the failure of additional funding to materialise in summer 2002.

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