Opera's naked truth

Rigoletto came to Edinburgh this week, with two strippers, an eagle, and live borzoi hunting dogs. Ellen Kent’s Opera and Ballet International is taking Rigoletto and Madama Butterfly - itself boasting a waterfall and fish tanks - round Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh, the rapid northern swing of a three-month British tour.

The strippers, like most of the cast, are from Ukraine. It is costing 1.3 million to tour the Ukrainian National Opera of Odessa - that includes 40,000 "for two dogs and the fish" Kent says in an interview. The critics may question whether it is Art, but the audiences have loved it, from the Albert Hall to the Aberdeen Music Hall.

The strippers in question flaunt their wares in the scenes of debauchery so enjoyed by the Italian duke who goes on to seduce the daughter of his court jester, the hunchback Rigoletto. They were recruited in the port city of Odessa, in a move that was at the very least an inspired piece of marketing. Everywhere the opera goes, local newspapers write about the strippers.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Welcome to the wild world of touring opera. At any moment, Britain is divided between the territories of different touring opera companies, and the smaller companies that dot between them. Scottish Opera went on the road in October, when it took Wagner’s Ring cycle south of the Border to The Lowry theatre in Salford for shows that were instantly sold out.

It is a bone of some contention, of course, that the Ring made it to Salford but not to Inverness or Aberdeen. Not only that, but rehearsals for it are said to have reduced the number of operas that Scottish Opera took north from two to one.

At his Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen, the chosen substitute in March was the Polish State Opera of Wroclaw - whose La Traviata was a sell-out, as it was across much of the UK. This month, His Majesty’s will also host the Russian State Opera of Rostov, doing Eugene Onegin.

The Ukrainian port city of Odessa is less well known for its opera than the capital, Kiev, as Ellen Kent frankly admits - but the result, she says, is more interesting. Faced with periodic carping about poorly paid Eastern Europeans on whistle-stop tours, she responds that her cast are fairly paid at rates within the British unions’ payscale, and that they are not complaining. She can keep her costs low because she is paying for the tour only, not an opera house or an administration.

Kent makes no bones about producing the most popular classic works and selling them on razzmatazz, spectacle and sex. "Scottish Opera plays one market and we play to a different market," she says.

She recalls sitting with the audience at the Manchester Opera House and listening to people grumble about Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. "I heard people complaining: they had come along and this wasn’t their kind of thing, and how modern it was. I don’t get a grant to do that sort of thing."

State-supported opera, she says, "gets money to make things that won’t make money ... We have to stick to the popular programme to survive. Often I want to do other operas and things, but I daren’t."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Her shows, she says, expand the opera audience, staging it like musical theatre and pulling in newcomers.

"You start doing obscure things and ones that are not friendly. You are killing off possible audience that would come if they thought it was going to be a musical, like Miss Saigon.

On the other hand, she notes: "If everybody became populist and just did what people wanted, you wouldn’t actually develop the arts in a big way; you can’t always stick with traditional stuff."

The undisputed king of Britain’s mainscale opera touring companies is the Welsh National Opera. With a tradition of touring the heart of middle England, the company that introduced Bryn Terfel to the opera performs 60 per cent of its time in England, and the share is reflected in the funding. In 2002/03, WNO won funding from the Arts Council of Wales for 3.8 million. But with a programme that lays down performances in cities such as Bristol, Birmingham and Liverpool, it was also funded by the Arts Council of England (ACE) to the tune of 5.5 million. Scottish Opera gets nothing.

"There is a huge difference between WNO and Scottish Opera simply because, in arts terms, Wales is considerably smaller than Scotland," says a WNO spokesman. "The WNO has always toured far more in England than in Wales."

Four years ago, when WNO had its own financial crisis, the two arts councils joined in establishing a stabilisation programme. There was a "handful of redundancies", but it also saw the creation of WNO Max, aimed at maximising the use of both chorus and orchestra outside mainscale performances.

The catchment area for WNO is about 12 million, compared to Scottish Opera’s five, and is far more concentrated in conurbations. It leads some to make the case that Scottish Opera cannot be looked at in a solely Scottish context, but should be considered as part of the fabric of opera companies in the UK as a whole.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

There is new demand for opera in England, and not just in Salford. The new Milton Keynes Theatre opened in 1999, built in part with 20 million of lottery funding. Scottish Opera, it is argued by some, should be allowed to help satisfy that demand, within the context not of Scotland but of the UK-wide arts framework. To expect Scottish Opera to operate solely north of the Border is like, in population terms, establishing a Birmingham Opera, and allowing it to play in the West Midlands only.

ACE is quite clear, however, that there is no money in the pot for "revenue" funding for Scottish Opera in the style of WNO; all its funds are allocated until 2006.

What there is is a cross-border touring fund, set up in September 2001.

The cross-border touring fund covers only marginal costs - literally for picking up and packing the van, or the convoy of lorries. This month, Edinburgh audiences will see one major benefit: Glyndbourne Touring Opera’s visit north to the city’s Festival Theatre.

This March, the cross-border fund assigned a total of 829,789 for touring between January and October 2003. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Midnight’s Children came to Aberdeen and Glasgow for a week each at a cost of 30,000.

Scottish Ballet were paid 25,000 to go to Hull for a week with The Snowman. English National Ballet came to Edinburgh for a week for 106,000 with Swan Lake. Opera North ventured out of its traditional heartland - Leeds, Nottingham, Newcastle and Salford - and brought Julietta to Glasgow for three days, with a grant of 98,000.

Scottish Opera took the lion’s share, however: 387,000, to take the Ring Cycle to Salford for two weeks. They will get a further tranche of funding in January, when they go to Liverpool with Ada and The Magic Flute.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In 2002, out of roughly 600,000 handed out, Scottish Opera took nearly a third, taking four productions to Brighton and Stoke Regent.

"Cumulatively, we have invested over 700,000 in bringing their work into England," says ACE’s Henry Little, head of opera and music theatre.

If Scottish Opera is to be enticed south again, however, it may not do much to assuage northern critics. Duncan Hendry, general manager of His Majesty’s Theatre, and Colin Marr, director of the Eden Court Theatre, have both criticised the opera in the past for cutting the number of performances in Scottish cities.

"My main concern is that they have only visited Aberdeen for two performances in the last year," said Hendry this week. Audience regulars, he says, have been "asking why the opera doesn’t come". A Ukrainian Rigoletto in the raw is just no substitute.