How Scottish Opera's last enforced shutdown could help it survive this one

Under normal circumstances, Scottish Opera would at this moment be enjoying the rich pickings of a close-season money spinner. Its new, fully-staged production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s rambunctious satire The Gondoliers should have opened in Glasgow last week, prior to further residencies across Scotland and a final cross-border flourish at London’s Hackney Theatre in July.

Jade Moffat, Zoe Drummond, Arthur Bruce and Andrew Irwin, the four performers in Scottish Opera's cancelled Spring Opera Highlights Tour PIC: Julie Broadfoot
Jade Moffat, Zoe Drummond, Arthur Bruce and Andrew Irwin, the four performers in Scottish Opera's cancelled Spring Opera Highlights Tour PIC: Julie Broadfoot

In all, there would have been 22 opportunities to play mainly large, old-fashioned Victorian theatres, and the cancellation of these performances is a bitter blow to a company dependent on such surefire seat-fillers to offset the fiscal risks of more esoteric repertoire.

Naturally, Scottish Opera’s general director Alex Reedijk expresses deep disappointment, but accepts the reality of the crisis. “We are a performing company that has not been able, as planned, to bring [Britten’s] A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Gondoliers to our audiences. That’s pretty debilitating and disappointing for an awful lot of people. But we’re occupying a moment in history where forces much larger than us are at play.”

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The challenge facing Reedijk is formidable and perplexing. How does he formulate a comeback plan for a genre which goes out of its way to bundle as many humans together in the closest, most intimate environment possible, with singers and actors exhaling on stage, crews jostling like worker bees in the wings, musicians huddled in an enclosed pit, all encircled for hours at a time by tightly-packed audiences?

Faced, like most bosses, with furloughed staff, makeshift activities that keep the machinery turning, and uncertainty over what comes next, Reedijk is juggling crystal balls. When will it be safe to return to audience activity? What formats will be permitted? What sort of season, if any, can he announce and when? And even then, will audiences be prepared to risk going to the theatre?

Scottish Opera isn’t alone in facing this complex dilemma. All the big UK opera companies are fighting for survival, focusing on exit plans while simultaneously grasping any improvised opportunity to maintain an online presence.

But could Scottish Opera steal a march over its southern counterparts as an inadvertent consequence of the misfortune it was dealt over a decade ago, when the Scottish government forced it to go silent for a season, sort out its stricken finances and broaden its activities through extensive education and the community projects, while cutting back on expensive large-scale productions, making its chorus and orchestra part-time and offloading the running of the Theatre Royal to the Ambassador Theatre Group? Whether or not it was the best artistic model to adopt at the time, Reedijk must now be looking at such load-spreading recalibration as a fortuitous blueprint that might just safeguard the company’s economic future.

While Reedijk is absolutely committed to getting a new season of meaty productions on the road – likely to include the two operas that should have closed this season – it’s impossible, he says, to put a start date on that. “We’re keeping an eye on government announcements, and on our own team’s willingness to go back to work, to travel through Scotland, and if we’ve got international artists, whether they can travel to us and undergo quarantine.

“The other big consideration is whether the theatres themselves are prepared to open in the face of strict social distancing guidelines. Even then, I’d be very nervous about putting on a performance where we only have 100 people in the audience. While it might be socially safe, you’d feel like Nobby No Mates. It’s not the reason we go to the theatre.”

Turn instead to the more immediate opportunities afforded by Scottish Opera’s significant investment in increased outreach activity, however, and the picture is rosier. “I could imagine a scenario where we can assemble 50 people, and with the likes of contact and temperature testing get enough performers together to tell a story through singing,” says Reedijk. “You know how experienced we are at small-scale touring. With our pop-up opera – touring with just pocket-size cast and trailer – we could even find ways of doing things outdoors. The first sign we can do it, we’re off.”

Even before that happens, there are signs online of how versatile and valuable such activity can be. Just last week, the company’s brilliant education unit posted an online version of Fever, one of its Primary School Tour shows, written in 2011 – both catchy and alarmingly relevant to today.

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“We want to be around when this is all over,” says Reedijk. By a twist of fate, the model that ensures it’s not curtains for Scottish Opera might already be in place.

Keep track of Scottish Opera’s online initiatives at www.scottishopera.org.uk

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