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  1. Politics
6 March 2000

We can’t afford an opera company

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

In Scotland, it is time for the Fat Lady to sing her last song. Every time she opens her mouth, it costs the taxpayer £91,520. That is the contribution made by the Scottish Arts Council to each performance mounted by Scottish Opera on its main stage. It is far, far too much and should be stopped as soon as it is feasible so that the bulk of the annual grant of £6,314,887 can be redistributed else-where to much better effect.

As part of the process of consultation undertaken by the Scottish Arts Minister, Rhona Brankin, there will be a meeting in the middle of March in Dundee to consider radical proposals on how Scotland might deal better with its arts and artists. But sadly, radical suggestions such as the abolition of the cash-guzzling Scottish Opera are not on the agenda. Not only would that be too much of a sharp intake of icy breath for the Scottish establishment, the Arts Council has made a three-year commitment to Scottish Opera and the Fat Lady will continue to perform her arias until 2003 at least. By itself, that decision blocks off a great deal of room for manoeuvre, because it commits more than a fifth of the Scottish Arts Council’s total grant of £30.1 million. This, in turn, will probably mean a consultation process that recommends a bit more consulting, a tweak or two and the deck chairs rearranged.

If that happens, it would be a great shame. In Scotland, there is a burgeoning art form that urgently requires stimulus and the sort of substantial cash injection from the public purse that only the winding-up of Scottish Opera can provide. Never in our history has Scottish writing been so energetic, exciting, innovative and widely admired as it is now. The list swings from the blockbusting success of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and Irvine Welsh’s novels through the lyricism of A L Kennedy, the power of James Kelman and the virtuosity of Liz Lochead to the prolific maturity of Allan Massie. Scottish writers are being read everywhere, winning Booker and Whitbread prizes and each week brings news of film deals or options being taken.

And yet, in the recently published Scottish Arts Council budgets, literature will receive only 4 per cent of the total grant to support what Scotland is, unarguably, doing best right now. This amounts to a paltry £1.2 million compared to the £6.3 million to Scottish Opera alone, never mind other classical music companies. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, receiving £1.3 million, even gets more than literature. This is daft on a number of levels. It bluntly reflects the passions and priorities of a cultural coterie that has been influential in these decisions for far too long. Its agenda needs to be rewritten. And it needs to start with writers.

Scottish literature is exactly that. It comes directly out of the experience of people who live here and is to be prized highly for that reason. Scottish books are readily available to an avid public, either to buy or to borrow, and they deal with matters intelligible to most Scots. But as important is the fundamental role played by story-telling for all art forms. Everything needs narratives: films, theatre, opera, ballet – even painting. And if good stories are consistently made in Scotland, then that will ramify throughout other areas.

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On the other hand, opera companies usually depend on a repertoire of ageing European works, none of which originated in Scotland (except for a couple of stories originally presented as literature). Nothing wrong with that – the Mona Lisa is no less beautiful for being an old European painting – and it is not to say that opera should not be performed in Scotland, but rather to argue that since it is a European phenomenon, why do we have to have our own opera company that costs such a disabling amount of money? This should not be seen as the cultural equivalent of the car industry – the idea being that a real artistic economy has to have an opera company. Why not give some cash to the best touring opera companies to enable them to come to Scotland twice a year? This would not be cheap, but surely a lot less than £6.3 million.

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If a residue of £3-4 million were given to bolster the success of Scottish writing, the effect could be transforming. The most com- pelling and urgent need is for a Scottish publisher sufficiently capitalised to match or outbid the big advances offered by London houses. The only problem with Rowling’s success is that the vast bulk of the cash made by Harry Potter goes out of Scotland to her publisher, Bloomsbury. And the same is true for almost all of the other writing success stories. With a substantial tranche of the Scottish Opera cash, a serious rival to London publishers could be set up and sustained.

It is sad to rob one art form to pay for another, but cash is scarce and, unless some radical thinking is employed, we will simply bump along from artistic boom to bust as we have always done.

However, the cash is committed to the Fat Lady for three years. Perhaps that in itself should be taken as an opportunity to plan and implement a genuinely new strategy properly, and to get a powerful new Scottish publishing house up and running smoothly. Such arguments, however unfortunate for Scottish Opera, might have a chance of prevailing since, in Donald Dewar, we have a First Minister who reads widely and well. In the future, let him read better.

Alistair Moffat