I AM old enough to remember the founding of Scottish Opera. I can still picture a youthful Alexander Gibson, the Motherwell-born maestro, standing in front of a TV camera in the Assembly Rooms, his eyes shining with excitement, announcing the astonishing news - that Scotland was to have its own national company.
It was 1961, and barely a year later Scottish Opera was launching its first repertoire, with Puccini’s Madam Butterfly and Debussy’s Pellas et Mlisande on the programme. The risks were colossal, but the confidence behind the bid was undoubted. It was an exhilarating time in Scottish national life.
So what, 42 years on, has happened to Gibson’s dream? Later this month - maybe next week, maybe the week after - Scottish Opera will learn what its fate is to be. No one inside the Scottish Arts Council or the Scottish Executive is giving away a thing. The famous review of the arts which will, they say, determine the future direction of culture in Scotland, has yet to be unveiled. The signs are irredeemably gloomy.
Scottish Opera has, for reasons hard to discern, acquired pariah status. No one will speak up for it. Less than a year after the triumphant conclusion of its Ring Cycle, generally held to be one of the great post-war Wagner productions, it is cast in the role of profligate - elitist, unpopular, and irrelevant. Apparently unwilling to conform to the demands of contemporary cultural policy, it has retreated into the ranks of the untouchables, tarred with the great New Labour crime of being non-inclusive. The time has come, say its critics, to shrug it off, to clear it from the desk, to consign it to outer darkness.
Except that no one can quite bring themselves to say so. I wish there was at least one minister in this Executive who would stand up and say what they think, to come out and state once and for all what they really expect from the arts in Scotland. Instead, the silence is deafening. There is also the distinct whiff of double standards. Consider this: last week the Edinburgh Festival unveiled its programme. A whole series of operas from Hanover, including, ironically, a new production of Pellas et Mlisande, was announced; there is to be a sequence of operas by Weber - Der Freischutz, Euryanthe, Capriccio, Orfeo ed Euridyce - not exactly top of the pops.
As usual, however, it was received with fulsome plaudits from the critics, and certainly no criticism from the Executive. The Festival is much favoured by ministers. You will find none of them questioning or attacking its credentials. It is good for Scotland, a beacon of excellence, a great advertisement for the country, and though none of them, I dare say, will be seen dead at a production of Capriccio or Euryanthe, the idea that it is elitist or irrelevant will never pass their lips.
Except that one of the productions is by Scottish Opera - Oberon. How on earth did that get in?
These are the charges laid against the company: it is too expensive; it is irrelevant to modern Scottish audiences; no one wants to go to it; it is arrogant, out of touch with the rest of the country; it has been bailed out too often in the past; it celebrates outdated European art forms; it takes money away from good Scots music.
If that really is what the Executive believes, should it not say so? Instead, what happens is more silence and the slow agonising process of death by a thousand cuts.
The SO grant, of 7.5m, has been frozen. That would allow for no more than six main-scale productions a year. On top of this, however, the company has been asked to pay off its deficit of 3.2m out of its revenue. It is looking to lose around 80 of its 200 staff - a cut-back of 40%. New productions will have to be reduced to a minimum. One suggestion is that the company should simply close its doors and go "dark" for a period of up to two years, then re-open, with its debts cleared off.
The result would almost certainly be slow death for the company. Vital staff would leave, its reputation would decline; and if it did start up again, it would be a shadow of its former self. But that, I suspect, is what ministers want. The idea seems to be that if Scottish Opera became a medium-scale touring company, bringing opera highlights to theatres up and down the country, that would be ideal.
Of course, that is what SO has been doing for at least 25 years, visiting around 50 towns every year, reaching more places than most other European companies ever dream of.
But, as one London critic, who went up to Arbroath last week to see its cut-down production of Eugene Onegin, wrote: "Prioritising social policy over artistic standards is a rotten idea ... in a freezing municipal hall, with its blank acoustics and tiny stage, it can offer only the rawest sketch of Tchaikovsky’s delicate romanticism. This is not the way forward for Scottish Opera. Wouldn’t money be better channelled into providing audiences with free transport to theatres that can accommodate a full orchestra, chorus and staging?" Well, no, actually. We should have both.
As chairman of the SAC I learnt a certain amount about the internal funding of opera, not only in Scotland, but elsewhere. I know, as the Jonas report predicted three years ago, that without additional funding, SO would gradually have to reduce the number and quality of its productions. I equally know that it is not, compared to other companies, greatly over-staffed or over-funded. And I am aware that, confined to this reduced notion of an opera company, Scottish Opera will eventually die.
Is that actually what the Executive wants? If so, it should tell us. Otherwise, it should do the following: announce, first of all, that it still values the idea of a national opera company in Scotland - a vitally important message which it has singularly failed to deliver so far; second, to insist that the company produces a properly budgeted programme for the next three years, and sticks to it; to concede that asking it to pay off its deficit by reducing its output is ultimately self-defeating; to accept that financing an opera company will inevitably mean increased funding in the future, as it does for all the arts in Scotland, most of which are lingering on standstill budgeting; finally, to suggest that if opera is to continue in this country it will need to be done in partnership with government, rather than as a constant and debilitating war of attrition.
What is happening now is simply no way to run an opera company.