Chorus of disapproval as singers told of sack minutes before show

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The entire chorus of Scottish Opera were told they would lose their jobs 10 minutes before the singers went on stage to perform La Bohème, prompting accusations of mismanagement against the debt-ridden company.

The entire chorus of Scottish Opera were told they would lose their jobs 10 minutes before the singers went on stage to perform La Bohème, prompting accusations of mismanagement against the debt-ridden company.

The 34 singers, who face losing their livelihood, were said to be "intensely angry" about the way in which management chose to break the news on Thursday night in Edinburgh.

Lorne Boswell, of the union Equity, said: "It beggars belief. The news itself didn't really come as a shock because that idea has been leaked in papers since January onwards, but there was shock that they chose to do it in that way.

"It drove a coach and horses through theatrical convention that before curtain-up you're making your preparations, it's quiet time."

With all the performers due back on stage at the Festival Theatre tonight, tensions are running high and the singers plan to ask members of the audience to sign a petition objecting to the plans. Mr Boswell added: "The mood is intensely emotional. They feel anger, bitterness and hurt."

Eighty-eight of more than 200 staff members are to be made redundant as part of a plan which is designed to save the company, which is £4m in debt. Rumours of impending redundancies have been circulating for months.

Others facing an uncertain future include administrative and behind-the-scenes staff such as scene painters.

Supporters of the company are questioning why it has agreed to cut the chorus while retaining the 53-strong orchestra. There is little freelance work for singers in Scotland, meaning that many will head to London to find work.

To many, losing either group of musicians would make the work of the company untenable. But some believe it would have been better to cut the orchestra. "We also have the Scottish National Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and I'm sure with clever planning, members of these three could divide up the repertoire," one observer said.

Richard Armstrong, the strong-willed musical director behind the company's highly acclaimed production of Wagner's Ring cycle last year, is being blamed by some for defending the part of Scottish Opera closest to his heart to the detriment of the company as a whole. He also faces criticism for contributing to the £4m overspend in his pursuit of high standards for the company.

Insiders have suggested that items such as Versace shoes that are virtually invisible to almost all the audience and new productions of operas already in the repertoire are luxuries that cannot be afforded by a company with a subsidy of £7.4m. But one source added: "I think everybody has stories about excess but you can't make all those kind of things add up to the massive hole in the budget."

Ruth Mackenzie, a former government special adviser who once ran Scottish Opera and is now head of the Chichester Festival, said the real villains were the Scottish politicians, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Arts Council. "When I was there, I said that it was not my job to tell Scotland whether it should have an opera company, but it was my job to tell them what a good one would cost - and there was no point in having anything but a good one," she said.

"The figures are indisputable that Scottish Opera has less money than the Welsh National Opera and the English National Opera. This [plan] is not solving the problem, this is just creating problems. It is shotgun politics from the Parliament and I don't think it's fair to blame the people at whom the gun is pointing." The Scottish Arts Council ought to be the organisation defending and fighting for the arts but it had lacked leadership and vision, she added. "I think it is a disgraceful organisation for allowing what should be its pride and joy to suffer in this way."

Her criticisms follow equally harsh words from two prominent composers, Craig Armstrong, who won a Golden Globe for his soundtrack to the film Moulin Rouge, and James MacMillan. Armstrong said if the opera was scaled down, it would lose skills developed over decades of hard work. MacMillan said that the handling of the crisis had been "stupid".

A spokeswoman for Scottish Opera stressed that the meeting with the singers on Thursday was the beginning of the formal consultation, and they were not sacked on the spot. She said the group were only together at the performances of La Bohème as no operas were currently in rehearsal.