TWO years ago it was at the centre of one of Scotland's biggest arts controversies, which raised fears for its very future.

But now in a radical move that will also make its members available for hire to weddings, small concerts and other functions, Scottish Opera's orchestra is to form a co-operative.

Its ensemble will become a commercial operation, providing more work for its members and reducing the chances of them being tempted away to work south of the Border.

The 53-strong group, which will remain Scottish Opera's orchestra after it gave its blessing to the scheme, has won £10,000 of funding from Co-operative Development Scotland (CDS), a subsidiary of Scottish Enterprise, and will be called Music Co-operative Scotland.

Katie Hull, the assistant lead violinist of the orchestra and one of the committee members, said: "We will be able to market ourselves as a full orchestra for hire but we can also cater for events like weddings where people may require just an individual musician, such as harp or trumpet, or a small group such as a string quartet."

The orchestra said its new structure will allow it to perform concerts, including foreign tours, and provide a "one-stop shop" for promoters.

Ms Hull added: "It is a positive response to the situation created when Scottish Opera restructured their orchestral players' contracts.

"Marketing ourselves as a fully flexible organisation, from one to 53 musicians playing to a high professional standard, we would hope to be able to carry out a diverse range of activities simultaneously. This co-operative provides the platform for us as classical musicians to become entrepreneurial in approach.

"Personnel within the membership will be able to accept or decline work at their individual convenience, and we anticipate members will form their own groups of players, to take on small ensemble work on a rota system."

She said the flexibility to perform at different levels and with different instrument combinations under the "umbrella" of the co-operative would be crucial for its success.

"In keeping the players together and retaining scale, the co-operative model will allow a brand to be developed, allowing a commercial approach to be taken which will not only maximise members' performance opportunities but also help with longer-term sustainability," she added.

The co-operative has already begun organising a series of concerts in various non-traditional opera locations, beginning in St Andrews in the Square in Glasgow in March next year.

In 2010, the orchestra was made part-time by Scottish Opera, and members now work a minimum of 28 weeks a year, although in recent years they have worked around 33 weeks for the national company.

Fears had been expressed that many of the members would leave Scotland – some already have – or be unable to continue as full-time musicians.

The new co-op hopes its structure will help to maintain the "extremely important" relationship between the orchestra and the national company.

The orchestra has now formed a committee to run the co-operative, the first of its kind north of the Border but based on the business models of the Birmingham Royal Ballet orchestra, which operates both for the ballet and commercially outside it, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, a self-governing Plc.

Members will pay a £100 fee to be part of the co-operative and will be paid for performances. Profit made from performances of any scale goes back into the pot for investing or possible dividends. The orchestra will find conductors and opera singers to perform with them, and will make their debut in three introductory concerts at the St Andrews in the Square event.

Alex Reedijk, general director of Scottish Opera, said: "We welcome their initiative in putting together this fledgling co-operative. We wish it every success and will support them whenever we can."

Sarah Deas, chief executive of Co-operative Development Scotland, said: "Collaboration brings tangible benefits to business.

"It enables firms to become more competitive and grow their markets, which in turn delivers a boost for the Scottish economy. We wish them well."