Not Your Regular (Taped) Nutcracker

This weekend DFW area musicians began protesting the Texas Ballet Theater’s Nutcracker performances which will run in both Dallas and Fort Worth – without an orchestra.  For those of you who have been following this fiasco, you know that we have been protesting the TBT’s performances sans live music for more than a year now.  And so, you may ask, why is this different than any other ballet company using tape?  There are many bizarre facts in the back story, some of which I’ll reiterate, but the new wrinkle is that Friday was the opening of this particular production in the brand new Winspear Opera House, the cornerstone of Dallas’ spectacular $354 million AT&T Performing Arts Center.

The center opened just six weeks ago to world-wide critical acclaim for its architecture and acoustics, and the sheer scope of the project which has been thirty years in the making.  City leaders have been touting their accomplishment with well-deserved civic pride, and say that this is the largest arts complex outside of Lincoln Center.  They have repeatedly exclaimed that, finally, the performing arts have a worthy home in Dallas.

It has been exciting to see this come to fruition, and I too am very proud of the city for what it has achieved.  The arts district has come alive, and enlivened the entire downtown area.  Right next to the magnificent Meyerson Symphony Center, the Winspear Opera House is visually stunning, and, by every account, the acoustics are breathtaking.  The Dallas Opera launched the festivities with a couple of galas and its production of Othello in October.  But once the run was finished, they moved out of the hall for a new hiatus in their season – given as a concession in their last contract so the ballet could move in at the holidays, with the understanding that the orchestra would be hired to play the productions as in the past.

Well, the ballet is in, and the orchestra is out. Last year the Texas Ballet Theater announced it would not only do the entire 2008-09 season without an orchestra both in Forth Worth and Dallas, it would move into the Winspear for 2009-10 without an orchestra as well.  Even for The Nutcracker.  They say they can’t afford an orchestra because of the economy.  Except that’s not the whole story.

It really steams me when organizations use economic downturns as an excuse for all of their ills. Yes, people everywhere are really hurting – I get that – and orchestra musicians as well as administrative staffs have been forced to take cuts in pay and benefits the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time.  As one of those “grizzled veterans of the orchestral labor wars” Robert was talking about (except, my war was in the 80’s), I’ve been on this roller coaster a couple of times before, and it’s indeed brutal.  Yet I am always amazed how far people will go to tie the fall-out of their own poor decisions to an external force.  Did those orchestra managements have to push the players back quite as far as they did in the past year?  I can’t answer that, but I haven’t seen the level of “give” that goes with “take” in terms of non-monetary gains, work rule improvements, shared pain, and alternative options in all these situations.  It seems awfully convenient that some of the managements have been able to extract concessions they have sought for years.

And that’s exactly what has happened with the Texas Ballet Theater.  They want the public to believe they would have an orchestra if they could “just afford it.”  And in this economy, they “just can’t.” They say they hope to in the future.  But they aren’t taking responsibility for outrageous spending well before the economy failed, and half-way through their second season without a budget line for an orchestra (and slashed pay for dancers) they haven’t demonstrated an ability to manage their fiscal priorities in a sensible way, continuing to make highly questionable financial decisions.

First, they financed the artistic director’s house.  And never made him pay that money back.

Then they sent him and some members of the board and company to China on advance trips for a very expensive tour, paid $30,000 for the National Ballet of China to make a tape of Cleopatra, and used it back here to replace the musicians of the Fort Worth Symphony last spring.  The tour was finally cancelled after they ran out of money and dancers stood on the streets with coin cans begging for cash like urchins.  But that didn’t stop them from using the tape.

Meanwhile, two former board members of the TBT were paid by a foundation closely-linked to the company between $600,000 and $700,000 to raise money exclusively for the ballet.  (The cost of the orchestra is $600,000.) And one of those board members is on the board of the new AT&T Performing Arts Center which is now allowing the TBT into the brand new, literally state-of-the-art facility with incredible acoustics to perform with tape.

The musicians of The Dallas Opera who are supposed to be playing the 10 shows in Dallas at the Winspear are out of the pit, and losing holiday income.  The musicians of the Fort Worth Symphony who are supposed to play the 14 shows at the Bass Hall are out of the pit, and their budget took a big hit losing those services.  (TDO forgave substantial TBT debt and FWS raised the funds for the TBT to use a live orchestra early on in this train wreck.)

So, you might ask.  What is the plan?  How will they raise enough money to have an orchestra again?  Perhaps through increased ticket sales in the new opera house because everyone wants to see it? And, perhaps, with radically improved fiscal restraint, right?

We found out Saturday night when we were walking with signs and handing out leaflets to patrons that the costumes for this Nutcracker production include new handmade tutus for each of the Sugar Plum Fairy dancers that cost $5,000 each.

Did anybody think about renting some costumes for less, banking the money saved, and trying to build a fund to bring back the orchestra?  I guess not.  And, one wonders, if they are spending money like that on costumes when they can’t afford an orchestra, what else are they spending lavishly on?

And thus it continues.

About the author

Karen Schnackenberg
Karen Schnackenberg

Karen Schnackenberg has been Chief Librarian of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra since 1990. Prior to that she was orchestra librarian and violinist with the New Orleans Symphony, Santa Fe Opera, Oklahoma Symphony, and Chamber Orchestra of Oklahoma City. She holds degrees in Music Education/Violin (Bachelors) and Violin Performance (Masters, emphasis in Baroque Performance Practice and Music Theory), with honors, from the University of Oklahoma. She also studied at the Aspen Music Festival and the Meadowmount School of Music. From 1987-1999 she was the classical music columnist for the International Musician, the industry’s trade paper for professional musicians. Karen is Vice President of the Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association (MOLA), a professional association of over 225 orchestras, bands, opera and ballet companies worldwide, and will begin her term as President at that organization’s first European conference in Zürich in April, 2006. Karen also currently serves on the Executive Board of the Dallas/Fort Worth local of the American Federation of Musicians and, in her spare time, is a free-lance violinist, an avid reader, an amateur photographer, and a hiker.

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