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National opera goes on tour with a cello, a violin and a harpsichord

Scottish Opera has been in steep decline for two decades and there is not much sign of an upturn.

An article in The Scotsman exposing its latest savage economies has drawn a sharp riposte from Alex Reedijk, the general director. Reedijk maintains that the company is used to touring remote parts of the country with solo piano accompaniment. That has been its practice for forty years.

True, but disingenuous. Reedijk is playing havoc with the facts. Greenock, Dundee, Stirling and Dumferline, where this partcular production is playing, are hardly Highland villages with an upright piano. They deserve better than a trio for accompaniment. Here is the full extent of the tour.

For the national company of a country of five million people that is holding an independence referendum next year, this is pathetic penny-pinching. Scottish Opera’s Rodelinda (below) dare not open her eyes for fear of finding herself singing unaccompanied.


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  1. Tom Emlyn Williams says:

    It is worth remembering that this is a company that had had contracted singers, both principals and chorus, a permanent wardrobe department and the rest of the ancillaries of a proper opera company until 2005, when it sacrificed chorus and wardrobe to save its orchestra! The effort of Alex Gibson and Peter Hemmings in building ScotOp were allowed to dwindle so as to put on a Ring Cycle when that money could have been spent on maintenance of its audience. And that’s just part of it. Interesting to hear that the Theatre Royal is being refurbished, but who now owns it? Remember it used to belong to ScotOp. How quickly we forget to lay the blame where it should be laid!

    • Intriguing to read. And if true, an interesting decision. Why not make use of other Scottish orchestras (BBC Scottish, RSNO, Scottish Ballet) and retain the chorus and wardrobe, neither of which obviously exist in a full-time professional format elsewhere?

      • Tom Emlyn Williams says:

        That’s exactly what was done prior to starting the ScotOp Orchestra c. ’78-79. One of the huge problems has been a lack of true knowledge of the whole opera business amongst the persons found to be board members for ScotOp. Don’t just listen to me, find others who were there in the years that counted. All tremendously sad!

  2. Are we talking about Scottish Opera, or the company Scottish Opera-go-round? I was in Scottish Opera, properly contracted as Tom mentions, and chose to leave to be a soloist, not made redundant. We didn’t go round in the 80s with a piano but with full orchestra, and to London, doing mainstream and large operas, and performances on Christmas Eve, on Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve/Hogmanay – which meant I could never go home for Christmas, and had to stay in Glasgow on my own – another story when you’re English :) BUT the Company was half a million pounds in debt in 1980 when I arrived and somehow managed to turn that around. Yes, Scottish Opera did own the Theatre Royal.

    I went back to see a production of Butterfly for the 40th anniversary of Scottish Opera, which I think was 2002 so pre-Ring Cycle – a Ring cycle that got wonderful reviews I believe from what I can remember, and it was a provincial production but one that was seen as a truly international production to be compared with the best abroad, and including Covent Garden. But it financially crippled the company when someone should have been proud to have thrown in some decent money for such a production. As well as that, it is often cheaper for any opera company now to bring in free-lance singers for operas that require a chorus, which Opera North is now doing as well but in a different way. For Parsifal at the Proms, the chorus was billed as Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, when in fact they were nearly all BBC Singers and the likes being used for two rehearsals and the show. There were five ROH singers in that Wagner from what the singers told me. And up here rumour has it from singers in that Opera North that I know that for Gotterdammerung next year, (an opera a year in concert not really produced) they thinking about using the men from the Huddersfield Choral Society, rather than Opera North Chorus to save money. It’s endless … and don’t go down the road of hiring soloists around the country for oratorio performances – it has nearly become a student profession for those who can’t get into opera! All to do with money when the arts are not properly funded or there is waste, and no will to look at the American way of doing philanthropy and seeing if that might be a possibility on top of the subsidies they get! Wonder what will happen to the arts if Scotland does it alone and becomes independent, rather than part of the UK?

  3. Scottish Opera still owns the Theatre Royal, and in fact is showing remarkable belief in the future of the artform in Scotland in giving this redevelopment priority. The Theatre Royal, as will be better known one day, has often hosted the first performance of operas in Scotland (Rigoletto, Aida, La boheme, and Valkyrie to name just some that have survived in the repertory)

    As for the management of Scottish Opera, they are gradually reducing their dependence on core funding. My view is that they’ve invariably managed to avoid so-called ‘turkey’ productions. Perhaps more importantly, they have a great education programme and have commissioned new work. Long may the company’s revival continue, despite the fact government funding has reduced in real terms!

  4. Main problem with SO is that a certain Leicester-born knighted conductor bullied the company and singers artistically and its weak management into overspending on his ego trip productions. All for personal gain. That wholly ignorant management and conductor left the company decimated and now…. the chorus-less company, with a fully salaried orchestra who certainly don’t earn their keep, spends more effort using its full time orchestra playing music to toddlers and babies and churning out silly small scale tours to a Scots public and Parliament that DON’T CARE !
    The Board has no big hitters or anyone of value sitting on it, NONE of them have friends with connections or major influence – there is not an MSP to be found that knows anything about Opera let alone wants to defend it or fight for funding it !
    General Director (New Zealand born) Alex Reedjik, currently holds the poisoned chalice and will say ANYTHING to keep the sinking ship afloat – a man who allows the national opera company’s orchestra to play music to babies and the orchestra to pimp themselves out for concerts under the embarrassing name of McOpera (pathetic or what?). He defends the indefensible!

    What would he or any of the recent/current cronies in management or SO Board know about the company that Gibson/Hemming set up? Both of these men must be birling in their grave!

    Ps – enough of the, “we don’t get enough funding” argument – Opera North produces MUCH more with LESS !

  5. Has Scottish Opera ever performed in Greenock, Dundee, Stirling or Dumferline with a full orchestra in the past?

    • I’ve sung in both Greenock and Dunfermline but not in opera, in oratorio, but question whether there is a theatre suitable. Opera North can’t do the Ring in Leeds as there isn’t a theatre big enough, and the Town Hall is just a concert hall with no real back-stage, so as someone else says, they are doing far more for much less, and they cut their coat according to the cloth.

      Yes, we went to Stirling when I was in Scottish Opera, and brought Pearl Fishers if nothing else with full orchestra to Stirling, Inverness, Aberdeen, Belfast, Edinburgh and the London Dominian. That’s what I remember – and there would have been more than one opera – probably Cunning Little Vixen and Eugene Onegin too.

  6. Ken Walton’s article of 21 September provides a measured assessment of Scottish Opera’s current travails. As a peripheral attraction at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, and with a paucity of main-scale performances in the forthcoming season, any concerned opera-lover would question the company’s commitment to artistic integrity, particularly given the threadbare production of Rodelinda detailed in both the article and this post.

    That Scottish Opera’s General Director, Alex Reedijk, chose to respond to this assessment at all is surprising enough, but to mount such a hopelessly inadequate defence of the company’s values in public is a damning indictment of his artistic vision and leadership.

    The irony that Reedijk’s letter haplessly ignores the issue of artistic judgement is, I’m sure, not lost on many, and perfectly illustrates Walton’s salient point: economics are consistently and unabashedly taking precedence over the scope and quality of Scottish Opera’s output.

    Instead, we discover in Reedijk’s letter that Scottish Opera has ‘continued ambition’, a noble if primitive notion that has thus far manifested itself in outreach and education work, and a £12 million facelift of the Theatre Royal. Virtuous? Yes. Ambitious? No.

    Never one to miss an opportunity of grabbing a headline himself, Reedijk tells us that ‘Scottish Opera’s health is a 17 percent increase in audience’. All well and good, but here’s the fallacy: his grandiose assertion that the company gives ‘181 performances in 51 venues’ (we’re not privy to the timescale) belies the fact that there are only 38 fully staged performances in 4 venues across Scotland between October 2013 and August 2014 – an undeniably poor return on roughly £8 million of government investment. Contrast this with Scottish Opera’s nearest ‘competitor’, Opera North, which receives a little over £1 million more central funding, yet presents in its 2013/14 season multiple performances of 8 different operas.

    Herein lies the crux of the issue: audiences are willing to accept a leaner, more streamlined approach to programming in uncertain economic times, but over the past few seasons Scottish Opera’s output has become defined by what it excludes, rather than its content. Without a fundamental artistic vision, piecemeal offerings will continue to be the norm; without a general director who challenges the status quo, the company will continue to languish on the sidelines while others steal the limelight.

    After nearly seven and a half years at the helm of Scottish Opera, this is Mr Reedijk’s legacy: his time is surely up. One hopes that it won’t be too long before a more ingenuous director is entrusted with restoring the company to its true place as a jewel in Scotland’s cultural crown.

  7. scotscellist says:

    They have just lost their new music director 3 days before his first concert with the orchestra. Apparently resigned due to artistic differences with management. Try to explain that one away Alex!

  8. Forgot, we also did Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, so Scottish Opere was not confined to Scotland, but did Northern Ireland and England in my time.

    Also forgot to say that Opera North do not pay their choruses expenses to their extras, of which there are a few, and so if they travel up from Felixstowe or London for rehearsals – as that’s where they are coming from without mentioning names – they just get a flat fee and no expenses until they go on tour. Another anomily. Not all the chorus by any means live in Leeds or indeed Yorkshire.

  9. Francis Stevenson says:

    I don’t think you are being entirely fair (I have never thought I’d find myself defending Scot Op management), but this is very evidently a small scale tour (what used to be known as Opera Go Round), and sending out Rodelinda with a Harpsichord and a couple of string players is a considerable step up from touring a piano. Logistically using a harpsichord adds all kinds of difficulties, they really aren’t designed for touring to village halls, living in the back of vans and Scottish weather, taking one out on a series of one night stands is a risky option. However, I’d also take issue with the notion that any of the mid-scale venues named could take the orchestra (I haven’t been to Greenock yet), in my day job, I am trying to work out how to get an orchestra of more than 10 into the proposed redevelopment of my theatre. Something that Scottish Opera have been entirely supportive about. It is an inconvenient truth that Scotland only has four theatres that can accommodate full-scale opera productions (and two of those are borderline), these are Theatre Royal Glasgow, Festival Edinburgh, HMT Aberdeen and Eden Court Inverness. Scottish Opera is in a difficult position, each time they hit a crisis they seem dig themselves deeper into the hole. I’m reluctant to cast any rocks, but my opinion, for what it’s worth, is that many of the problems stem from a complacent arrogance on the part of the senior artistic management, and a string of deeply underwhelming main house productions, and, as usual, it’s been the poor bloody infantry that has paid

  10. It was pretty difficult to fit the Rodelinda trio into the Greenock pit, a new theatre designed for modern plays and musicals in which to house merely a keyboard and a drum kit (venue verbatim). The main issue was health and safety and whether there would be enough room for a metre wide fire exit path to still allow the harpsichord to face the stage (pretty crucial for the conductor). At one point before the rehearsal it was touch and go whether the trio could fit in the pit at all. This Rodelinda tour IS a considerable step up from the annual piano tour (last year was La Traviata) and it ALWAYS tours (with upright piano) to such “non-highland” towns as Dundee, Dunfermline, Stirling and Greenock or, in alternate years, theatres very nearby to give the maximum amount of the demographic as much chance as possible to see an opera. A very small orchestra (16-18 players) has played in the Stirling and Dundee pits which were so small the percussionist had to be in a different room playing from a monitor. These are the obstacles SO face so most of these opinions, Walton and Lebrecht’s included, are pretty embarrassingly ignorant of the most obvious facts (the full orchestra has never accompanied an opera for babies. As far as I know they use a CD which is a whole other discussion). There are many frustrating issues in SO and indeed all opera companies, but this is just not one of them.
    NB. The orchestra nearly always lose a couple of cellists in order to fit into the pit at Inverness, indeed one of the venues in the only four cities in Scotland able to house an almost full sized orchestra. They often have to cut players in Aberdeen too.

  11. One more thing, whoever said the SO orchestra are on full salaries must have been stuck in a cave as their pay was quite publicly reduced by half three years ago (all except the Leader’s).

  12. Scottish Opera and Scottish Opera-go-round are one and the same.

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