Alex Reedijk: Comparing companies is unfair criticism

Don Giovanni is at the Festival Theatre Edinburgh. Picture: Contributed
Don Giovanni is at the Festival Theatre Edinburgh. Picture: Contributed
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Scottish Opera’s scale means a comparison with Bergen National Opera is not helpful, writes Alex Reedijk

IT SAYS a powerful thing of our artform that people are passionate enough about opera to travel to Norway for lessons in how the Bergen Nasjonale Opera run their company.

Frequent Scottish Opera reviewer and Scotsman writer Ken Walton did just that and wrote about it at the weekend, but his comparison of the two companies is simplistic and belies a surprising lack of understanding about the work of Scotland’s national opera company.

Scottish Opera is no more like Bergen National Opera than it is the Royal Opera. BNO is doubtless a great asset to western Norway, but they have a different job from Scottish Opera, which is where clumsy comparisons fall short. Rejecting a like-for-like comparison is not intended as a criticism of BNO, who no doubt work as hard as we do to produce as much opera as possible for the people of Bergen from the money available to them. But the truth is that Scottish Opera simply operates on a different scale. Providing excellent opera in Scotland is something that I know Ken Walton and I both care deeply about. It is all the more important then, that when we look abroad to examine the delivery models of other opera companies, we should make those comparisons with a healthy dose of diligence.

Comparisons are rarely clear-cut, but for clarity’s sake, it is worth pointing out that Scottish Opera is giving 181 performances all across Scotland in our current season. From a look at their website, BNO seem to put on a total of 14 performances over the course of a season.

In a normal season, we produce four main stage opera productions, which open in our Glasgow home, the Theatre Royal. Each year, we give around 40 performances of these main stage operas in four Scottish cities, as we also tour to Edinburgh, Inverness and Aberdeen. As I write, Don Giovanni is at the Festival Theatre Edinburgh, finishing off a successful run that ends on Saturday. Over 15,000 people across Scotland will have seen it by the time it closes. Although it may be possible to draw some comparison on the cost of creating a main stage opera, Ken has overlooked the significant incremental cost of each additional performance, especially when toured to multiple cities.

On top of this, we also visit smaller communities around Scotland with opera tailored to the local venue. Touring at this scale has been central to Scottish Opera’s work for over 30 years and serves to take high quality live opera to people and places where it would not otherwise be experienced. Our 2013 touring production of Rodelinda closed just a few weeks ago after visiting 16 venues, from Aboyne to Stornoway and Kelso to Ullapool. Last year, our UK Theatre Award-winning 50 Venues for 50 Years tour brought a Scottish Opera production within a 30 minute drive of 90 per cent of Scotland’s population. Certain opera critics have a tendency to marginalise this work. I don’t think it’s marginal at all. It’s central to our remit as a truly national opera company and I am proud of the impact opera makes when we visit these communities.

In addition, our education team operates an extensive programme of outreach and education work designed to help make opera mean something to people for the first time, or to present it in ways which are new and inspiring – essential to sustaining an opera audience in Scotland. Our primary schools tour has been introducing children to opera and performance for over 30 years, and right now, we are preparing to unveil our latest opera for children aged three to five years old. In the new year we get ready to contribute to the 2014 Commonwealth Games’ cultural programme, with a newly commissioned community opera, Anamchara – songs of friendship.

Our audience is our most valued critic and I’m pleased to say we have grown our audience numbers by 17 per cent year-on-year and have been encouraging the development of the next generation of opera supporters, with under 26s now making up nine per cent of our mainstage audience.

This is the model Scottish Opera employs in order to bring the widest possible range of opera, performed to the highest possible standards, to the maximum audience throughout Scotland. I am entirely comfortable with the idea that we can’t please every critic all of the time. What is not fair criticism is picking and choosing which work you will acknowledge exists. We work hard to deliver excellent-quality main stage opera in Scotland’s cities, but our duty to opera – and to Scottish audiences – goes far beyond that.

So, kudos to Bergen National Opera, but there is not so much a fjord as a great gulf between what the two companies actually achieve each year.

• Alex Reedijk is general director of Scottish Opera