If Bergen can deliver great work on a budget, why can’t Scottish Opera?

Rachel Nicholls in Fidelio. Picture: Contributed
Rachel Nicholls in Fidelio. Picture: Contributed
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Bergen is not a place you’d expect to find a thriving opera company. It’s a small city with a population of around 300,000; it is quaint, especially its harbour side lined with rickety multi-coloured houses; and it is remote, nestling like a Nordic Tobermory, among the fjords that encircle the Bergen Peninsula.

On the other hand, it’s the historic home of Edvard Grieg, the age-old Bergen Philharmonic, and it plays host to a lively annual arts festival.

More to the point, it has its own opera company – Bergen National Opera – whose current season of four main stage operas, plus one aimed at teenagers, operates on an annual budget of £3.2 million and a full time staff of eight people, including three marketing/PR staff.

Meanwhile Scottish Opera is, this year, operating a main stage season of three operas, plus an opera each for toddlers and kids, on a budget of more than £8.3 million with a staff of 50 plus, including a marketing department of ten and three in PR. The comparison is alarming.

Of course, Scottish Opera will argue that there are important costs to factor in – the maintenance of its own opera theatre, touring, and the employment of what is now only a minimal ad hoc orchestra and chorus. Bergen uses – extremely imaginatively – the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert hall, the Grieghallen (at a cost), it has an arrangement for the use of the Bergen Phil for three productions a year, and uses the professional voices of Kor Vest as the nucleus of its chorus.

The point is, Bergen has a model that makes good use of the relatively small pot of money it has. General manager Mary Miller – a former Scotsman music critic and professional violinist – has no intention of creating a full-time chorus, and sees no need for Bergen Opera to have its own orchestra. There are plans for its own theatre, but, says Miller, “that’s about ten years down the road”.

The priority, she says, is on staging good opera, and enough of it to ensure that the people of West Norway feel they get their money’s worth. From what I saw two weeks ago – a genuinely powerful and intelligent production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, conducted by Bergen Philharmonic music director Andrew Litton, and with a quality mix of young and experienced singers within its balanced cast – she is delivering the goods.

The 1,500-seater hall was packed to the gunnels, the standing ovation spontaneous and enduring. The set was an ingenious steelwork construction designed by Gintaras Makarevicius, its uppermost level conceived like a cross-section of a prison, the sublevel staircase marking the entry point for the shackled Florestan, and the orchestra cocooned at mid-level as a gloriously visceral and visible core to the theatre of the piece.

So, we had colour, spectacle, poignant story-telling, glorious music, and extremely fine singing from the likes of young Rachel Nicholls as a passionate Leonore and the experienced In-Sung Sim as a blistering Rocco. Lithuanian director Oskaras Korsunovas created a tight and entertaining solution to an opera whose dramaturgical flaws so often lead – as in Opera de Lyon’s recent “lost in space” Edinburgh International Festival production – to utterly wrong-headed approaches.

More to the point, this production cost the Bergen company £450,000 (plus £300,000 for venue hire). Consider that expenditure in the context of Scottish Opera. Were it to operate a now typical season of four operas – which is strongly rumoured for next year, with the depressing prospect of another Gilbert and Sullivan operetta – at a similar cost, that would come to a total of £1.8m.

What would happen to the remaining £6.5m, plus sponsorship and income? I think we’d all like to see it used to stage more opera, but equally we all know that the salary bill for Scottish Opera, given the aforementioned staffing numbers, is hardly proportionate to the artistic work it generates.

There is something very wrong with that imbalance. How does it take so many marketeers to sell three or four operas, while we also hear of freelance chorus singers for next season being offered a mere £230 a week for ten to 14 weeks work, and that the operas scheduled require only basic use of what is left of part-time Scottish Opera Orchestra.

Bergen, despite the modesty of its resources and facilities, is a company that lives for opera. With Scottish Opera, you get the impression that the actual presentation of the art form is a bit of an inconvenience.