LAST Thursday night, Scottish Opera was forced into a last-minute change of venue for the public launch in Glasgow of its 2006-7 subscription series. The reason? Oversubscription. Instead of the 250 expected to attend, 500 had signed up. Not surprisingly, Alex Reedijk, Scottish Opera's new general director, had a smile on his face. There is, he rightly argues, an audience in Scotland thirsty for opera.
New Zealand-born Reedijk is four months into a post that most other potential contenders would probably have seen as a poisoned chalice. So far, he has kept his cards close to his chest, but within minutes of talking to him last week, it became clear to me how much he is relishing the challenge.
"I don't see it as a need to 'rebuild' audiences, more a need to 'reconnect' with them," he says, choosing his words with noticeable care. "The issue is not that we haven't connected with Scotland, we just haven't been noticed." He neatly avoids as much mention as possible of the recent wilderness period and the company's wild-spending past. The bank balance is now positive, and his thoughts are on what he expects to be a bright, debt-free future.
Is optimism enough? The season he announced last week is nothing if not predictable. Predictably skeletal, it includes a mere two new productions and two revivals: John La Bouchardire directs Handel's bristly Tamerlano, while John Doyle tries his award-winning Broadway hand at Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Both the revivals are in the safe hands of David McVicar - his faithful but imaginative productions of Strauss's Rosenkavalier and Puccini's Madame Butterfly.
"It's a season that lives up to our mantra of 'living within our means'," Reedijk says. It is not one he had much to do with personally, of course, and it will be a year or two before Reedijk's own ambitions for Scottish Opera properly take hold. His priority is to appoint a new musical director. "This is the most important decision I'll help to make," he says. "That role has to be the artistic heartbeat of the company. But it's not something that should be done in a hurry. If you get it wrong, the pain is with you for a long time. Whoever we get needs to have a degree of opera house experience, needs to know the repertoire, and has to be passionate about Scotland. They have to be part of the fabric of life in Scotland."
The impressive young Edward Gardner, who conducted Scottish Opera in John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer at last year's Edinburgh International Festival, was being sounded out. But English National Opera got there first. All Reedijk will confirm is that, of three being considered, one accepted a job elsewhere and the other two decided to concentrate on symphonic conducting. So, it's back to the drawing board.
There are some interesting young names among next season's line-up. Both the young Glaswegian Rory Macdonald and the slightly older and more experienced Gary Walker will be directing concerts with the Orchestra of Scottish Opera. Still in his mid-twenties, Macdonald has already made his Covent Garden debut. Walker - the principal guest conductor of the RSNO and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra - will be conducting the Royal Opera House in the world premiere of Stuart MacRae's The Assassin Tree - which is a coproduction with Scottish Opera - at this year's Edinburgh Festival.
Young blood should be on the cards for some level of major involvement with the company, especially when Reedijk has let it be known he intends to commission a series of short new works from Scottish composers. His plan is to present a series of 20-minute works commissioned from a range of composers not necessarily from a classical background, and which might simply involve three or four singers, a chamber ensemble, or possibly be staged in Glasgow's Tramway.
It's no token gesture. He views these proposed "shorts" as potential "works in progress". Discussions are already underway with some composers. The idea is to present these as operatic embryos, which might then be "fleshed out" into major stage works.
It's clear Reedijk understands the huge size and complexity of his challenge. In his mind, traditional main-scale opera is sacrosanct, and his ambition is to take the seasonal diet to "five, six, even seven" productions. He'll be looking for more of the kind of sponsorship that is making next year's Lucia di Lammermoor possible - a significant personal donation by the wealthy industrialist Lord Irvine Laidlaw. The Scottish Executive - soon to be funding Scottish Opera directly - is behind him, though he is savvy enough to know it won't be throwing loose cash at him.
Buying in productions will also be part of the strategy, as will the company's commitment to education and tours of mid-scale productions to halls and small theatres around Scotland. A reduced Die Fledermaus will take in 19 venues in September and October.
Perhaps Reedijk's trump card is his past. "At New Zealand Opera, I learnt to live within the company's means," he says. "We didn't have the luxury of secure state funding, but were funded on a contract basis." Scottish Opera's future depends on matching fiscal ingenuity and prudence with significantly greater artistic imagination than it is currently showing. If Reedijk gets the balance right, the reconnection he is after could easily be within reach.
The season ahead
SCOTTISH Opera's 2006-7 season at a glance. Shows are listed in chronological order:
THE ASSASSIN TREE
A MUCH talked-about collaboration with the Edinburgh International Festival and the Royal Opera House, this is Stuart MacRae's first opera, with words by Simon Armitage. Garry Walker conducts; Emio Greco and Pieter C Scholten direct, as well as designing the set.
September to October, 19 dates across Scotland, beginning in Clydebank on 6 September
SMALL-SCALE production of Strauss's opera, directed by Lee Blakeley, making his company debut. Scottish sopranos Kate Valentine and Gail Johnston also make their debuts.
October to December, Glasgow and Edinburgh
A STRAUSS revival, conducted by Sir Richard Armstrong and directed by David McVicar, responsible for the company's original production. Rebecca Nash plays the Feldmarschallin and Sarah Connolly makes her debut as Octavian.
November, Edinburgh and Glasgow
NEW production of Handel's opera, conducted by Christian Curnyn, conductor of last year's Semele, and directed by John La Bouchardire. Includes three Scottish Opera debuts - Max Cencic in the lead role, William Purefoy, who plays Andronico, and designer Gideon Davey.
March to June 2007, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Stoke-on-Trent
FRANCESCO Corti conducts Puccini's opera, along with Scottish Opera's head of music, Derek Clark. David McVicar directs.
LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR
May and June 2007, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Stoke-on-Trent
A NEW production of Donizetti's opera, conducted by Julian Smith and James Grossmith, and directed by Inverness-born John Doyle, making his Scottish Opera debut.