Let’s get this show on the road

Let’s get this show on the road

Kenny Kemp meets the man who savours the balancing act that exists at the heart of Scottish Opera.

Alex Reedijk has a starring part to play in Scotland’s cultural life – but his directions are off-stage. He is the New Zealand-born General Director of Scottish Opera, a national jewel of a company founded by Sir Alexander Gibson 50 years ago.

Last season the opera company enjoyed one of its best ever years with audience numbers dramatically up, more under 26-year-olds dipping their toes into the music, an “Emerging Artists” programme with young Scots performers in partnership with the Royal Conservatoire – and even a debut at T in the Park.

So what’s this got to do with hard-nosed business? Well, Scotland’s creative industries, in all their guises of music, film, theatre, drama and that ilk, support 60,000 jobs and generate a staggering £5.2bn for Scotland each year. So leaving the running of any major cultural organisation in Scotland to part-time luvvies and well-meaning amateurs is no longer applicable.

If Scotland’s major creative organisations are to survive, they require rigorous business organisation – which is where Alex Reedijk fits in. He arrived to run Scottish Opera in 2006.

It was an organisation that – it is fair to say – was in financial disarray with intractable personnel issues. It urgently required a strong dose of business reality and firm handling.

Reedijk’s task was to deliver this, without destroying the inherent cultural fabric of a top flight organisation – a tough balancing act. He was no stranger to Scotland.

In 1990, he was a twentysomething Kiwi working at the Assembly Rooms at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. His friend, Chris Doig, director of the New Zealand Festival, told him it was his “duty” to return home and help the festival.

He went on to became chief executive, re-establishing its status. He was headhunted by NZ Opera, which was in the process of being reformed and so he became general director of NZ Opera.

He attracted attention and was then approached by Scottish Opera. “Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think I would get an invitation to run one of the five major opera companies in the UK,” says Reedijk, a six-footer who now loves family life in Glasgow’s West End.

“But I was encouraged to apply because of my experience working at government level and I was seen as someone with entrepreneurial experience.” He stepped off the plane in February 2006.

“I arrived at an organisation that was demoralised by the restructuring but its heartbeat was still strong and true,” he says. “Tony Hall at the Royal Opera House in London declared his aim was to take the opera out of the news for the dumb stuff, I thought this is what I should do in Scotland – take us out of the news for all the negative dumb stuff unrelated to our artistic work.” “We had to take responsibility for ourselves, delivering as much value as we could for the taxpayer and try and excite and delight our audiences,” he says.

“My job is to deliver as many opera adventures as possible.” Up until 2004, Scottish Opera had spent 15 years accumulating debt. It was running at a regular deficit. But it hit the buffers in 2004, when all hell broke loose. It was fuelled by a culture of entitlement that said, ‘We’re a national opera company, and we need more money’.

There were numerous heated debates about why Scottish Opera deserved such a huge proportion of Scotland’s cultural budget. There was a full-time chorus that wasn’t fully employed, so this needed to change. It was painful, but it was necessary.

“You are always going to need the appropriate level of investment for a national opera company. The problem was that it was being funded by the Scottish Arts Council and our funding was a high proportion of their overall funding, which led to certain pressures.” In April 2007 Scottish Opera moved to being directly funded by the Scottish Government and Reedijk says: “I think the whole thing has settled down enormously.” He has instilled a culture of “living within its means”.

He admits this might have been a mundane perspective for a grand opera company but he points to Sir Alexander Gibson’s vision to set up the opera in 1962, when its inaugural production was Madame Butterfly at the King’s Theatre in Glasgow. It was after this that Elmbank Crescent became the head office. He sees his role as a custodian to ensure its survival.

In 1974 Scottish Opera bought the Theatre Royal in Glasgow which became its home, and is now about to be renovated and improved thanks to a neat property deal when Andy McKinlay from Ediston Properties agreed to help the opera.

“My job is to mind the ship that Alex Gibson set on course 50 years ago. All those folks around Scotland, who have invested, through being our Friends, benefactors and patrons and our loyal audiences, coming to our shows, need to know that we will continue to produce great operas. My job is not to bugger it up for them. My job is to listen to what they want from us and deliver that. At the same time, we must be financially coherent.” This meant turning fixed costs into variable costs. In an increasingly tougher financial climate, Scottish Opera had to mind its money. It has also meant utilising the specialist skills in sets and scenery making, in custom design to bring in extra streams of revenues from other companies and productions. This has allowed the workshops to offer full-time work and bring on a new generation of Scots with vital back-stage theatre skills.

Scotland’s five national performing companies: Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet, the National Theatre of Scotland, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, between them get £24.5m a year, with opera getting £8.7m of this pot. This is core funding to produce four main-stage operas per year to be toured to the four major Scottish cities, wider touring on a smaller scale, and education and outreach.

“It meant that all five companies had stable leadership and their balance sheets tidied up,” says Reedijk. “This was the 21st century and the question was how were we going to live in it and behave in it?” It wasn’t purely about the money. There was a culture within Scottish Opera which was highly corrosive and elitist. That has changed.

Alex Reedijk says Scottish Opera has come the furthest in collaborating with the other Scottish national companies – and is instrumental in the creation of a creative hub in Maryhill, where the National Theatre of Scotland is now close by. He points to the Emerging Artists programme, which include Marie Claire Breen, Ross McInroy and Shuna Scott Sendall, as talent that has been nurtured in partnership with the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

“This has given young singers an avenue to join a major professional touring company and gain the vital experience to take them to the next level of their careers.

That wasn’t happening a few years ago.” Does Scottish Opera now see itself as more business aware? With its board of directors including several prominent business figures, including chairman Colin McClatchie, former head of News International in Scotland, this was increasingly likely.

“Working with creative and artistic people is probably no different to working in a factory or a bank,” he says.

“Yes, in many respects people are highly creative, but as an opera company where everything has to be organised so far in advance, we are a ‘quietly organised’ organisation.

One that is quietly organised is one that is financially stable.” He says the more last-minute decisions are taken, the less you are in control and the more liable to incur unexpected costs. Long-term planning is at the heart of the opera.

“Generally speaking, we just tick along.” If Alex Reedijk and his music director Francesco Corti asks someone such as Scotland’s singing star Thomas Walker to be Count Almaviva in the forthcoming The Barber of Seville production, this involves ten weeks of work: five weeks in rehearsal, then performances in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Aberdeen. Asking a sought-after performer to clear their diary for such a spell means that booking them well in advance is vital.

“There is every chance that a top performer could be booked two years down the line for an uninterrupted ten-week run,” he says.

“We have to book far in advance because we want the people but we also want the theatres to be available.” Opera projects also involve research and development, with sets, scenery, costumes, props, and are large-scale – involving up to 70 people on tour – so it can’t be rushed.

“You have to take your time. Unpick the project. You’ve got to sit down and figure out if you can afford it.

Then put it all back together again and get on with it.” Each major production costs between half a million and £1.2m to put on and take around Scotland, depending on chorus and orchestra size. The annual turnover is around £11m with £8m from the public purse.

It is a mechanistic and, at times, industrial process, with four or five projects all at different stages of development. A tour of the Edington Street Production Studios at Maryhill gives a fascinating insight into the grand scale. Upstairs, John Liddell, head of costume, himself a former suit maker, has his academic work room crammed with books, pictures and costumes, and works alongside his team of costume makers and wardrobe supervisors, with their sewing machines and massive scissors; while downstairs Mark Harrod, the workshop manager, is directing the design for a massive one-off prop, including a carpenter finishing a stage clock which chimes on the hour with a skeleton for The Rake’s Progress.

Next door in a large hall, Kelvin Guy is the head scenic artist, painting a vast backdrop of canvas covering the whole floor, ready for the forthcoming production. Everything is tailor-made. Add to this the technical operations, electricians and lighting people, and the opera planners who manage the touring and arrange the transport, and it feels like a medium sized enterprise at work. But Reedijk also wanted to change the artistic offering. He began his career as a stage hand working for New Zealand Opera in the 1980s.

“They went bust because they were putting the wrong repertoire in front of the audiences,” he says.

“This was a seminal thing for me. You have to have a ‘balanced basket’ of the favourites, with two of the four core productions from the top 15 of operas. But you can’t do all Rossini or Mozart.” So the works are recycled on a seven-year cycle, which means the top 15 will be covered; this season it’s The Barber of Seville and Tosca. One other per season is a well-known composer and a lesser-known work – such as Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress – and the other a lesser known composer and work, such as Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. This remains the rationale. Reedijk wants Scottish Opera to try out as many good ideas as possible, but he felt that there was a need to look beyond the obvious. He felt he required some external support. So when Accenture, the global consulting and technology company, knocked at his door inviting Scottish Opera to pitch, Reedijk was keen to hear how the two organisations could work together.

“We got the opportunity to present to them in July 2007 but I was off on holiday. But my one little idea was that we needed to present to them in the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. They needed to see what our core business was. But I thought we should surprise them with some singing, because that’s what we do best.” So in the middle of vice chairman John McCormick’s presentation the door opened and one of the stars stepped into the room and does an aria from the Barber of Seville. Reedijk says: “It’s my understanding that this blew them away, but what I was trying to do was demonstrate our versatility and our ability to surprise and delight.” While Accenture has over 200,000 people working worldwide in 120 countries, it had a low profile in Scotland, so working together was of mutual benefit. A sponsorship deal with Scottish Opera first began in 2007 with the initial investment involving a mixture of cash and in kind support over three years. The project operated under Accenture’s “intelligent funding” model, the sponsorship pioneered a new kind of partnership between an arts organisation and sponsor in Scotland. Scottish Opera’s ambition was to function as a 21st century sustainable arts organisation, in parallel to growing artistically, and this has been actively supported by a close relationship with Accenture.

Accenture has injected its expertise to redesign the website, and assist the opera company with high level strategic business planning. For Accenture, the sponsorship marked the beginning of a period of growth for the management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company.

“The sponsorship of Scottish Opera was identified as a high profile means to demonstrate Accenture’s commitment to Scotland and it has been extremely successful for us,” says Bill McDonald, managing director of Accenture in Scotland.

“By directly supporting Five: 15 Operas Made in Scotland, Accenture enabled the artistic development of the company through the creation of new opera, presenting a 21st century face to its audiences and helping to build opera muscles amongst practitioners in Scotland.” Reedijk acknowledges that the format of Five:15, which is five newly written operas, each delivered in 15 minutes, has given new talent a platform.

“With Accenture, we felt there was a lot of mutual strength that we could get from each other,” he says. “They have helped us massively with the redevelopment of our website and our revised brand identity. But there is the mentoring that Trevor Hatton and Bill McDonald have provided to our senior team. It’s been a happy and symbiotic relationship.” McDonald agrees, saying: “Scottish Opera has proved itself to be innovative and willing to listen and learn from business enterprise. For us, it has been a very rewarding partnership and it is extremely satisfying seeing Scottish Opera going from strength to strength, knowing that even in some small way we have helped.

“Our staff and clients have also seen some fantastic opera productions – an experience which many may not have otherwise enjoyed.” Reedijk is keen not to overstep the mark and cross into the artistic realm.

“In some respects, I don’t think I’ve made any changes here at all, except what I have done is provoke in people the willingness to be more flexible. We made great shows before we went bust, we just couldn’t figure out how to pay for them. Now we make great shows and we know how to pay for them.” Scottish Opera, under Reedijk’s direction, appears a place more at ease with itself.

The drama is now firmly back on the stage – and not in the opinion columns. The season ahead looks exciting with productions of The Barber of Seville, Hansel and Gretel, The Rake’s Progress and Tosca; visits to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Inverness, and Orpheus in the Underworld touring to smaller venues all over Scotland.

The A-listed Theatre Royal is to receive a stunning new extension to improve its front-of-house and public spaces in an £11m project in time for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014.

So what is Reedijk’s favourite opera? Is he a Rossini or a Mozart man? Diplomatically, he says: “My favourite opera is the one that we have on stage that night.”