Why we can’t take silence as an answer from Scottish Opera

First published in The Herald on 4 December, 2013

It has been nearly ten weeks since Scottish Opera announced that its new music director, Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, was to resign with immediate effect, and still the company’s general director Alex Reedijk refuses to talk. What to do? With the orchestra sworn to secrecy (members’ contracts ban them from talking to the media), board members unwilling to comment and any freelance singer or production worker too professionally compromised to risk sticking their neck out, the murky silence holds fast.

First, to recap. Joel-Hornak spent five weeks in the job and hadn’t yet lifted his baton in public when he resigned. No explanation for his departure was given at the time by either party, other than the terse ‘for personal reasons’ stated in the company’s press release. There have been no subsequent statements from Scottish Opera detailing why the conductor left, nor any indication of how they plan to find a suitable replacement.

There have been plenty of rumours, of course, backed up by plenty of frank off-the-record conversations. But the air of secrecy that shrouds the company is guarding the truth behind closed doors. What seems clear is that Joel-Hornak had taken up the job expecting a far greater degree of artistic freedom and creative initiative within the company than he found when he got there. It’s more-than-likely that he left for that reason, and because of insurmountable tensions between himself and Reedijk.

So things go wrong and relationships don’t always work out. If Joel-Hornak’s departure had been an isolated incident in the life of an otherwise healthy company, perhaps we wouldn’t feel so the need for explanations quite so urgently. Unfortunately that’s far from the case, as The Herald has reported in previous articles about Scottish Opera’s inadequate production output this season. During his seven-year reign Reedijk has managed to balance the company’s account books, but has not provided convincing enough artistic credentials to justify his hold on the position.

Needless to say, myself and many of my colleagues have contacted the company repeatedly during the past ten weeks to talk with Reedijk about what’s going on. He was unavailable for comment when Joel-Hornak’s departure was announced: he happened to be out of the country. He has since been happy to issue press releases updating us on the fund-raising progress for the company’s new £12.45 revamp of the Theatre Royal, but remains unavailable for comment on how he plans to make sure that the recruitment process for the new music director finds a worthy candidate – and doesn’t repeat previous mistakes.

Now the general director has provided the following statement in response to The Herald’s many requests for an interview.

“As you might expect, we are currently engaged in an international search to select a world-class Music Director for Scottish Opera, and are in the early stages of looking at a range of conductors from around the world. I appreciate that there will be media interest in this process. However, in fairness to potential candidates, their current employers and to our staff at Scottish Opera, I will not be able to offer a running commentary on our search.”

Having declined to speak to any media outlet for the duration of the search, Reedijk hardly seems in danger of offering a running commentary. He has twice issued responses to articles written by The Scotsman’s classical music critic Ken Walton, in both cases fairly terse and defensive in tone and failing to answer many of Walton’s key concerns. This is no way for the head of a cultural institution to engage in what needs to be a constructive conversation about the value and provision of opera in this country. And it certainly doesn’t signal a company with nothing to hide.

In Scotland we tend to enjoy a relatively open and positive dialogue between cultural institutions, the press and the public. Artists, promoters and company management usually share their thoughts with journalists and broadcasters in the knowledge that media coverage can help to demystify their art and speak to a wide audience. This is especially crucial for an artform like opera, which for many remains remote, obsolete and tainted by elitist associations.

Many of Scotland’s cultural figures also acknowledge that with public subsidy comes public ownership. Scottish Opera is our most expensive cultural institution, and for the £8.37 million subsidy that we spend on it each year we are owed a proper degree of transparency in return.

There’s a huge amount at stake here. The appropriate and accountable spending of public money, for starters. At present it seems that the vast chunk of that £8.37 subsidy is swallowed up by a baffling amount of bureaucracy. The point has been made before but bears repeating: how can there be a need for 14 press and marketing employees in a company that produces just three main-stage production this season? Opera is an expensive artform, no question. But if it is to justify its budget, Scottish Opera requires whole-sale restructuring. It must re-focus on its remit as a provider of opera, not administration.

Second, Scottish Opera’s artistic legacy is seriously at risk. Reedijk does not have a good track-record for appointing music directors. Joel-Hornak’s predecessor, Francesco Corti, was an uninspired choice: his conducting was drab and his taste in repertoire even drabber. When Joel-Hornak’s appointment was announced in the spring, Reedijk told me that he had “not quite got to the bottom” of whether the French conductor had any particular repertoire specialism, but did mention that “he makes me laugh a lot” and is “the kind of guy who arrives in a city and not only goes to work, but also figures out where the nearest concert hall is, where the art gallery is, where you can get good coffee.” That is not a list of criteria that inspires confidence in Reedijk’s selection process.

So who should be considered for the post? A young, vibrant conductor with a passion for interesting repertoire, an ability to ignite the orchestra and singers, and a genuine respect for the company’s mission statement of bringing good opera to people around Scotland. Rory Macdonald comes to mind: a ferociously talented young Scot who’s been working with the likes of Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and is in demand at top opera houses around the world.

But here’s the really depressing thing: would someone like Macdonald even consider the post? Would he risk his career for such a troubled company, even for sentimental reasons? These questions leave us facing a situation in which Scotland’s most expensive arts company is unable to attract its best talent – unless something changes, that is.

For opera lovers, for other arts organisations vying for precious public funding, indeed for any tax payer in Scotland, the lack of accountability at the top of Scottish Opera is a matter of deep concern. By refusing to talk, Reedijk surely hopes that our attention will drift elsewhere. But we cannot allow that to happen. There is too much at stake.