Articles : Scottish Opera

A Change Of Tune Is Vital

(Article by Gerda Stevenson, published in Scotland on Sunday, February 1st, 2004. Subject: Investment in the arts in Scotland as Scottish Opera is facing swingeing cuts .)

One of the sad things about our immature nation is that we haven't yet learned the lessons of solidarity. If arts organisations, and indeed artists, knock their fellows in this climate of gross under-investment in the arts, we are actually shooting ourselves in the foot.

Scottish Opera is an easy target. Because its budget is so much bigger than that of any other arts organisation in Scotland, it is extremely visible. And yet, the fact remains that, in European terms, Scottish Opera's budget is very small indeed.

At the National Theatre of Scotland Forum in December, two members of the Swedish National Touring Theatre revealed the salutary fact that their company is working with a budget of £16.5m a year. And this is theatre, not opera, with no orchestra, no chorus. The National Theatre of Scotland is about to be launched on a budget of £7.5m over three years. At the same time, a number of our theatre companies – 7:84, Borderline, TAG and Suspect Culture – are facing cuts. Instead of arguing concertedly for realistic arts investment, it seems that artists and citizens of Scotland are determined to fight among themselves.

Traditional music versus classical is the great claymore cry of the moment. I come from a family of musicians. I was reared on Bach, Percy Grainger, Busoni, the songs of Burns, of James Hogg, the great riches of Gaelic music – Margaret Fay Shaw's renowned Folk-songs and Folklore of South Uist collection, pibroch, Gershwin, Mozart, Kurt Weill, the music of my father Ronald Stevenson, Franz Lehar, Shostakovitch...and the list goes on and on. In a healthy nation, there can be no divisions within the arts. In a mature Scotland, there would be a genuinely fruitful dialogue between traditional and classical music.

I have employed and performed with Scotland's finest traditional musicians. In 1998
I directed William Sweeney's newly commissioned Gaelic Opera for Paragon Ensemble at Celtic Connections (libretto by Aonghas MacNeacail). “An opera in Gaelic? No-one will come to see it! There's no tradition of opera in Gaeldom! Absurd!” An Turus sold out on the first night at The Fruitmarket in Glasgow – people queued down Albion Street. Sadly, a great number had to be turned away. The audience and press response was enthusiastic.

Although Sweeney's An Turus would be categorised as classical, it is closely connected to Gaelic traditional music. It seems to me that it should be the most natural thing in the world for these areas of music to open up to one another in creative dialogue and mutual acknowledgement.

Perhaps Scottish Opera could be more engaged in such a dialogue. As one of Scotland's composers put it to me recently: “There's a need to develop a tradition of opera/music theatre rooted in the experience of our country, while being open to the most radical new ideas internationally.”

Part of the problem is woeful ignorance: a prominent MSP recently said to me with breathtaking certainty: “Well, look at music in Scotland: there are no composers, other than James McMillan.” We have a strong living tradition of fine classical composers here in Scotland: Edwin McGuire, Judith Weir, John McLeod and Sally Beamish to name but a few.

Jack McConnell, in his St. Andrew's Day speech, brought to light a recent disturbing statistic, which reveals that Scottish children's confidence levels are ranked among the lowest in the world. In response to this appalling statistic, McConnell states, admirably: “The inheritance of our children cannot be the poverty of aspiration or ambition.”

Scottish Opera was the first opera company in Europe to develop an education and  outreach programme, in 1971. Its current education programme is extensive, innovative and inspirational.

Some Scots may say that our nation's theatre community should be jubilant at a recent poll: 36% of our citizens want theatre, and almost nobody wants opera, apparently. Interesting to reflect in this context that, proportionally, marginally more people attend opera in Scotland than in England.

Several months after the extraordinary event, Scottish Opera's award-winning production of Wagner's Ring Cycle still blazes in my memory as one of my most thrilling experiences in any theatre anywhere.

Prior to the Ring Cycle, I attended a Scottish Opera Go Round production of Eugene Onegin in Hawick Town Hall. I thought it might be the 'B' team, but not at all. It was superb – better, I thought, than the company's main stage Rigoletto production I'd seen some weeks before. And the ticket prices were only £12.50. Not that I'd be happy with a repertoire of this scaled-down style of production all the time: there was no chorus, no orchestra – simply a fine pianist, and a small cast of about eight, I  recall. But it was a tremendous evening of theatre, and very well attended.

As one who was brought up among professionals who continually cross over and are enriched by the worlds of classical and traditional music, I have learned that no aspect of the arts exists in isolation. Traditional music is flourishing at a time when it can now be studied as a degree course at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, which also houses the Alexander Gibson Opera School – right next door to the College of Piping. The cross-fertilisation of these different but related musical traditions presents exciting possibilities.

If Scotland's artists don't take up the cudgels and support Scottish Opera – especially at a moment in the nation's history when its First Minister has asserted “the importance and the centrality of cultural activity to all aspects of our lives” - then how can we win the argument for real financial investment in the arts? How can we aspire and mature as a nation?

Well then, let's take up Jack's rallying call: let's aspire. And in doing so, rather than pleading for one art form against another, let's lobby the politicians and call upon them with one voice to back their rhetoric with resources. We must win the argument for the investment we require in order to realise our collective aspirations.


Gerda's Musical Links
Ronald Stevenson: 
Savourna Stevenson: 
Anna-wendy Stevenson:  
William Sweeney:


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