Scottish Opera rings up huge bill

Share this article

THE praise is ringing from the rooftops of Edinburgh - Scottish Opera’s Ring Cycle is the triumph of the Festival.

"Bold, deft, vast organic power," wrote one reviewer; "a singularly powerful moving force," considered another.

Yet for all the glory, the future of the company remains in doubt, after the opera took an effective cut in its public funding in the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) budget in April this year.

A board meeting of the company last week discussed a forthcoming presentation to Frank McAveety, the culture minister, which will make the case for extra funds, to boost the annual award of 7.4 million which the company already receives.

It promises to be a difficult meeting. The company is understood to have already spent its public funds for 2003-2004, despite an additional grant of 750,000 from the Scottish Arts Council Lottery Fund (SACLF) which made its Ring Cycle possible.

Twice in the last four years, Scottish Opera has gone to government and left with extraordinary grants of 2.1 million in 1999 and 1.9 million in 2001 to bail it out. However, if the company faces a difficult future, its fate also presents a defining issue for the Scottish Executive’s cultural policy.

If Mr McAveety believes in the value of national performing arts companies, he has to put a price on them, and soon. In the short-term, that may force yet another extraordinary public award from the Executive to see the company through the current financial year. But in the medium-term, the Executive’s answer is likely to be delivered in its forthcoming review of arts provision in Scotland.

Though its terms have not yet been set, this inquiry is set to establish a framework for all its national companies, including a new national theatre, as well as setting new ground rules for the SAC.

While Scottish Opera basks in the glow of its critical notices, there is a strongly-held opinion within the arts establishment that the company already receives sufficient funding.

The company’s annual award from the SAC is equivalent to 20 per cent of the organisation’s 38 million budget which funds the arts in Scotland. As well as opera, that SAC budget, supplied directly from the Executive, funds two national orchestras and Scottish Ballet, as well as theatre and music throughout Scotland.

"They’ve known for years they are meant to live within theie means, yet they chose to produce the Ring, as expensive a series as they could have managed," said one observer.

Richard Armstrong, the company’s musical director, and its chief executive, Duncan McGhie, are thought to be responsible for championing these high production values.

Some figures in arts administration are known to have been disappointed when Mr Armstrong’s contract was recently renewed.

Opera supporters, however, remain upbeat. They hope for a better relationship with the second Scottish Parliament. And, importantly, they stress that their critical success brings economic benefits, reflected in the Edinburgh International Festival, which are reported to be at record levels.

Scottish Opera already tours extensively overseas, but insiders hope that a higher level of public funding can enable more productions in more cities in Scotland. But beyond its next three post-Festival productions - Aida, The Magic Flute and La Bohme - the future remains unclear, without an uplift in funds.

An independent report into Scottish Opera by Sir Peter Jonas recently warned of both the erosion of the company’s artistic standards and the danger of it succumbing to part-time status, if the trend in public finance continued. The report suggested that with "stand-still funding" Scottish Opera was likely to produce three operas in 2004-5, two the following year and three in 2006-7.

In terms of performances staged, that would represent a fall from 69 shows in 2001-2002 to just 39 by 2006-7.

The report read: "It would, indeed, be possible to manage Scottish Opera with a yearly grant of 7.4 million held level for the next three years. However, this would very quickly mean a different and artistically less ambitious company than Scotland has now."

Sir Peter warned that a failure to resolve the company’s financial problems will "result in lost past and present investment, a company that is permanently financially lame, the continual threat of insolvency and, therefore, indefensibly bad value for taxpayers’ money".

Mr McAveety is thought to be considering all options for the company ahead of a presentation from the opera board. He recently asked Nod Knowles, the head of music at the SAC, for a "blue-sky" report, which would outline various consequences of Scottish Opera in many forms from international powerhouse to nonexistence.

Fans of the Ring will know which way Mr McAveety should turn.