Plan to save Scottish Opera could kill it, Equity says

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The Independent Online

Nearly half the staff of debt-ridden Scottish Opera are to be axed in a rescue plan announced yesterday and condemned as the death knell for opera in Scotland.

The reduction from 208 to 120 staff will form part of a re-structuring designed to pay off its £4m deficit and make the company operate within its £7.4m a year subsidy, the Scottish Executive said. No main-scale opera productions are scheduled next year while the company is re-formed with the focus on small-scale touring, concert performances and education work.

But the union Equity warned that the plan threatened the viability of Scottish Opera. The 53-person orchestra is to be retained but the jobs of 34 singers in the chorus are at risk. Without permanent contracts, singers would be forced to leave Scotland because there was not enough freelance work to keep them there.

Ian McGarry, Equity's general secretary, said: "Rather than a rescue plan, this could be the death of opera of an international standard in Scotland."

Brian Monteith, the Conservatives' finance spokesman, said the settlement was "as much an absurdity as it is a tragedy", adding: "One gets to the point where you say you either fund the opera company properly or you don't fund it at all and you call it a day.

"This seems a way of essentially postponing the unsavoury and unpalatable decision that the Scottish Opera may have to close altogether. I'm in favour of funding it properly. This is a very sad day for lovers of performance opera in Scotland."

Under the plan offered to the Scottish Executive by the company to tackle its deficit, staff in the technical and administration departments as well as the chorus will be hit. The executive has agreed to make up to £7m available for redundancies.

In a joint statement, the executive, the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Opera said: "Given the core level of funding available, the [Scottish Opera] board has concluded that to secure its long-term future it needs to reduce core costs.

"Regretfully, this means reducing a number of posts in the company and, for a short period, main-scale opera productions." The board was satisfied that this would secure the basis for "developing the company in the long term," the statement added.

Mr Monteith said that the settlement ignored the findings of an independent report commissioned from Sir Peter Jonas, the former head of English National Opera, in 2001 that said Scottish Opera needed an extra £1m a year to be able to operate.

"Strangely enough, Scottish Opera has got itself in debt to the tune of £4m, which rather does suggest Sir Peter Jonas was right. It is beyond belief that instead of spending £4m four years ago, the Government is now willing to spend £7m on cutting staff back."

Ian McGarry of Equity said he found it "astonishing that the very management team which got Scottish opera into such an appalling mess is now being given a further £7m of public funds to wind down the company".

He added: "There will be no talent base in Scotland, Scottish Opera will be forced to bus in experienced choristers from London to meet commitments."