So it’s not ballet, but last Thursday night I’m down at the local RSL supporting a new monthly music venture, Club Acoustic. Everyone gets charged $5 admission and then a succession of musicians and poets each have a 15-minute spot to entertain the punters. The evening closes with a guest band and people get up and dance. Organiser Regalia (not her real name), has a novel approach to raising money for the musicians. She asks people to ‘sponsor’ someone they particularly like and then at the end of the night the door takings and bonuses are recycled and most of the musicians get their $5 refunded. Some even end up in the black. It’s called subsidising the performing arts.
On Saturday, we took a punt on the wild weather warnings and drove to Brisbane for the matinee of Strictly Gershwin, a Queensland Ballet production. We are subscribers, (thanks to She Who Books Tickets Early), so the five of us ended up in the second row from the front. I became aware we were seated on top of what would normally be the Lyric Theatre orchestra pit. Yet I could hear an orchestra tuning up back-stage. Then the curtain rose and there was the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, spread across the back of the stage like a big band from the 1920s.
As is the way with professional shows, musical supervisor and conductor Gareth Valentine got stuck right into it, stirring the ensemble through a lively Gershwin overture. Pretty soon the dancers came on stage and a completely absorbing spectacle unfolded. Not just dancers and an orchestra, but a piano soloist, four singers, tap dancers, two people on in-line skates, two French ladies wheeling prams, can-can dancers and a gendarme on a bicycle. One of our ballet companions, an experienced set designer and theatre producer was a bit dubious about the in-line skaters, imagining one or both of them ending up in our laps. But as is almost always the way with the world-class Queensland Ballet, there were no mis-steps or wardrobe malfunctions as up to 25 dancers negotiated the space between the orchestra and our laps.
One of the most popular performers of the afternoon was retired principal ballerina Rachael Walsh making a guest appearance, deftly stepping (in heels) alongside tap dancers.
As Anne Richards once famously said: “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
For those who enjoy and understand ballet, this 5-star review by Elise Lawrence will give you the full flavour.
Did I mention the whole season, which ended on June 4, sold out? We subscribed in September last year and even then had to pick a matinee! Did I also mention our average subscriber ticket price per ticket for four ballets was $77.50?
People who bought individual tickets for this show paid as much as $140, but even then, what value! Sitting there in row 2BB, soaking up this world-class spectacle, I wondered how the hell they can afford to put this on.
As is my wont, I went off to investigate.
Downsize orchestras or provide more funding?
The Queensland Symphony Orchestra is one of six state-based professional groups that perform a wide range of classical and popular material for all age groups and interests. The QSO states in its 2015 annual report it employs 88 full-time musicians. This year the QSO scheduled 157 concerts over 47 weeks, performing on average at least three times a week. The Brisbane-based orchestra also takes on a free community engagement program and an extensive state-wide education program that connects with 30,000 students. So who pays for all of this? Certainly not the 1.6 million QSO punters alone.
The QSO, like many other professional performance troupes of this scale, is supported by Federal and State government funding, along with funds provided by sponsors, donors and supporters.
Federal and State funding ($11.147 million), accounted for 64% of the QSO’s budget of $17.516 million in 2015.
Ticket sales contributed 15% ($2.59 million) with philanthropy (sponsorships, donations, bequests, memberships) contributing $2.863 million. Employee costs and artists’ fees and expenses came to $11.981 million.
Queensland Ballet, itself supported by sponsors, subscribers, donors, and state funding, employs the QSO on a per-performance basis. Most orchestras are available to outside troupes needing their skills. A spokeswoman said that when QB is unable to have the orchestra, either through availability or budgetary constraints, they use QSO recorded music.
It’s a good sideline for the QSO, which earned $852,010 in orchestra hire fees in 2015. You might recall over the years the QSO accompanying artists as diverse as Harry Connick Jnr, k.d Lang, Dionne Warwick, Andrea Bocelli, Pavarotti, Anthony Warlow and george.
Unhappily for those who cherish State support for the arts, a recent article on the financial performance of Australia’s six orchestras shows the majority struggling to make an operating surplus.
Author Hans Hoegh-Guldberg compared the financial performance of the six state orchestras in 2013 with a decade earlier. In 2003, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO), Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and the WA Symphony Orchestra (WASO) made profits.
Among the others, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (TSO) almost balanced its books while the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) suffered the worst result (-$855,000) followed by QSO (-$445,000).
In 2013, SSO was the only symphony orchestra showing a surplus apart from TSO (a small surplus of $1000).
However, there were significant fluctuations in the net result from year to year. In 2012, QSO showed a large net profit of $2.26 million and in 2013 a loss of $273,000, almost entirely due to a $3m+ decline in funding revenue. QSO posted a net profit of $622,369 in 2014 and $655, 080 in 2015
Here’s the (ahem) key problem: it is not possible to increase orchestra productivity through technology; it can only be done by reducing the numbers of players, as recommended in the Strong Report (2005). Fortunately, good sense prevailed and the Federal government chose instead to increase funding and maintain the current size of orchestras.
But how long can we stave off the day when someone called in to do a cost-benefit analysis goes home and tells his wife: “Honey, I shrunk the orchestra.”
By now you will see that our $77.50 per head for a two and a half hour Australasian premiere by the Queensland Ballet and the QSO was somewhat of a bargain.
Not to mention a quartet of professional singers and pianist Daniel Le (he tackled Gershwin’s ground-breaking Rhapsody in Blue with considerable élan, looking splendid under the spotlight in his white suit).
Musical Supervisor and Conductor for Gershwin, Gareth Valentine, himself a showman, performed an animated dance routine through the overture and towards the finale joined Kylie Foster in a piano duet (whilst still conducting the orchestra and vocalists).
Not a page turner in sight.
Queensland Ballet, led by Li Cunxin, relies on Government funding for only 25% of its annual budget. Impressive contributions from sponsors, generous subscribers, supporters and donors (up 81.49% on 2014) and ticket sales cover the rest. Queensland Ballet set a new box office record of $3.23 million in 2015. It’s hard to see the man known world-wide as Mao’s Last Dancer topping that in 2017 or indeed, a show the calibre of Strictly Gershwin.
But as George and Ira Gershwin would say: “It ain’t necessarily so.”