Confederation Centre CEO Jesse Inman has stated that cutting 6 positions from the Charlottetown Festival Orchestra will save “in excess of $100,000 per season”. This is an exaggeration that is unfortunately being quoted as accurate by the media, so let’s start by correcting this amount:
The base pay for an orchestra musician is $870 per week. The upcoming season is 13 weeks long (and this is about average). Here’s my math: $870 X 6 people X 13 weeks = $67,860. Add 10% pension: $74,646.
It is true that some people make more than the base rate. There is extra pay for the librarian, the union steward, the leader, etc. This increases the average rate of pay, but you can’t calculate savings by using the average rate, because the higher-paid positions (librarian, union steward, leader, etc.) will still be required, no matter what the instrumentation.
Now, let’s look at the financial ramifications of re-orchestrating. There are the costs of paying for the re-orchestration, and for the copying of the orchestral parts (both of which will be substantial) – but I am going to ignore that, because these are not ongoing costs; they are one-time up-front costs.
But, a reduction in the number of musicians will actually cause some increased on-going costs. First, any orchestrator, no matter how skilled, is going to have to find creative ways of getting around the restrictions imposed by writing for limited resources (cf. my analogy of limiting the lighting designer to 1/3 of their colour spectrum). One of the ways to accomplish this is to ask musicians to “double” (play more than one instrument) in order to add back some of the missing colours. The union rates for doubling are an extra 50% for the first double, plus 25% for each subsequent double. In Hairspray, for example, which used a smaller orchestra (15 musicians), three of the musicians played four instruments each. With three doubles, those three musicians were each making twice the base rate.
If three musicians are being paid twice as much, we have just reduced the projected savings by exactly half. We are now down to $37,323 saved.
Incidentally, doubling is still an artistic compromise because the doublers can’t play two instruments at once, so all of those colours aren’t available all of the time.
The next step the orchestrator will take to deal with the limited instrumental resources is to incorporate the use of technology, such as synthesizers, to try to replace some of the missing orchestral colours. I’ve already written about the artistic compromise of this approach, but extra technology also comes with increased financial costs.
Unlike the cost of the re-orchestration, added technology is not a one-time cost. Because technology is constantly changing, new gear must always be purchased or rented in order to stay current. In Hairspray, for example again, three keyboards were used, and they couldn’t be just any keyboard; they had to be a certain Kurzweil model, and those keyboards had to be rented for the entire run of the production (including the cast rehearsal period). In addition, keyboards must be programmed with the correct sounds. Someone has to spend time doing this, and their time costs money. And guess what else? Keyboard players automatically receive payment of an extra 25% per keyboard – not per person, PER KEYBOARD.
This increased use of technology also breeds the need for more technology. Sound technicians will tell you that sampled sounds are extremely difficult to mix (they describe the sound as “dead, lifeless, and inert”, not to mention the tuning issues and articulation incompatibilities that arise when paired with acoustic instruments). The three keyboards in Hairspray created quite a challenge in sound production: how to create an environment in the pit where everyone can hear all of the instruments, but at a volume where the sound technician has control over the final mix. In the Hairspray situation, individual headphone monitor systems were rented and provided for each musician. This required a dedicated sound board in the pit (Cost: more gear) and an extra sound technician to control the monitors (Cost: wages for one extra crew).
Is anyone keeping track of the savings…?
As contractor of the orchestra for Hairspray, I can tell you that the cost of music for that production (including both musicians’ fees and added technology costs) was actually more than that for Anne of Green Gables…
I have taken the stance that audiences are more discerning than implied by the Charlottetown Festival, who seem to think that nobody will notice the difference in the music played by a decimated orchestra. If I allow that some audience members really won’t notice – that they are completely oblivious – I then also have to allow that some audience members really WILL notice, and I have indeed heard from many audience-goers about how importantly the music contributes to their experience of the musical. We then must expect that some of our audience will be disappointed and won’t return to see the show again. Cost: lost ticket sales. And there is NO chance that a reduction to the orchestra will, in and of itself, attract any new patrons.
Now, there is one more hidden cost about which details are sketchy. Elaine Campbell, lyricist, and wife of Norman, the composer of the music for Anne of Green Gables, established The Norman Campbell Legacy Fund: Anne of Green Gables-The Musical Endowment, which was “created to support the cost of the live orchestra, which is the foundation of the distinctively rich sound that defines the music of Anne of Green Gables”. What happens to the endowment if the orchestra is gutted? Will the Campbell heirs then withdraw their support?
Do we really still think that these cuts will save money for the Charlottetown Festival? Does the paltry amount saved, if any, really justify the cost to the artistic quality of the show? Surely there is a better way to save money, and at the same time save the integrity of the production and the reputation of the Confederation Centre as “one of Canada’s premier live theatre houses” that “showcases the best in Canadian visual and performing arts”.