Revealed: the Arts Council plot to kill off Scottish Opera

Key Points

• Scottish Arts Council's Head of Music suggested scrapping Scottish Opera

• Alternative proposed option was to boost yearly budget to 10 million

• Arts Council say compromise position not justifiable for value for money

Key quote “A yes-no answer isn’t there. There were different scenarios put up and different scenarios given.” James Boyle – Chairman of Scottish Arts Council

Story in full A SECRET plan to scrap Scottish Opera, with the loss of 200 jobs, and replace it with a new organisation run by a skeleton staff was proposed by the Scottish Arts Council (SAC), according to a confidential document obtained by The Scotsman.

The revelation will be a severe embarrassment to James Boyle, who heads the Scottish Executive’s commission reviewing arts policy and funding.

At the time of the proposal to axe its orchestra and chorus, as well as the artistic and production teams, and replace them with a handful of administrators who would have commissioned productions on an ad-hoc basis, Mr Boyle was the SAC’s chairman.

The document shows that last summer, as Scottish Opera was preparing to stage its most successful production to date, Wagner’s Ring Cycle, SAC executives were plotting to bring the curtain down on the award-winning company.

In the document suggesting Scottish Opera could be scrapped, the SAC’s head of music, Nod Knowles, said there were two options facing the Opera. The first was to continue in its present guise, but boost the company’s funding to 10 million a year, as recommended by a report presented to the SAC in 2000.

The second, suggested Mr Knowles, was to sack the existing staff and create a new organisation called Opera for Scotland, run by a "small core of professionals" on a budget of 2 million a year. In April, the SAC again embraced a version of the "Doomsday scenario" with a proposal to the Executive that would have effectively closed down Scottish Opera.

A middle way - precisely the kind of compromise now adopted by the Scottish Executive - was, according to Mr Knowles "impossible to justify in terms of value for money". Earlier this month, the Executive chose to negotiate a compromise directly with the Opera board and announced this month a plan which involves the loss of nearly half the company’s staff and a halt to major productions for a year.

Mr Knowles’ Opera for Scotland proposal included the composer James MacMillan among a long list of Scottish luminaries who might be persuaded to sign up. Last week, Mr MacMillan described the SAC and the Executive’s handling of the opera as "f*****g stupid" and said Mr Boyle would go down in history as the man under whom the Opera had been destroyed.

Yesterday, the SAC insisted the document was only a "novel way forward" that was not accepted as policy. But a note at the top of the document says that it was presented "with some minor alterations" to the Scottish Executive last August.

The current crisis was precipitated in the middle of 2003, when the Scottish Executive made plain to the Opera that its annual grant of 7.5 million would not be increased, and subsequently that it would have to pay back 4.5 million advanced by the SAC to cover its debts.

Asked yesterday if the council had recommended that the Opera be shut down, Mr Boyle, said: "A yes-no answer isn’t there. There were different scenarios put up and different scenarios given." He said there was "a series of recommendations" and laid the decision-making at the door of the council officers.

The SAC’s position over the past year appears increasingly clear. It was to agree with the findings of the prestigious Nolan report, that the Opera could not operate on less than 9.5 million a year. But with the Opera’s 7.5 million subsidy already swallowing 20 per cent of the SAC’s budget, pushing up its share by another 2 million was seen as impossible.

SAC sources said yesterday that the Scottish Executive’s demand that the Opera’s debts be repaid within two years left the council facing the choice of shutting the Opera or letting it stagger on. But a source close to the Opera insisted the alternative, put forward by the board, was for a four-year repayment.

"There had been early signals that people were prepared to listen," the source said. "For the arts council to turn around and say we thought the Executive was insisting on two years is just rewriting history."

Faced with the SAC’s recommendation, the Executive went directly to the Opera. The First Minister, Jack McConnell, reached a deal with the Opera’s chairman, Duncan McGhie, which he was later accused of leaking to a Sunday newspaper. It involved making 88 members of the opera redundant.

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