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In Ohio, A Three-Way Musical Marriage Of Convenience

The Dayton Opera and Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra perform Beethoven's <em>Fidelio</em> in January 2011 at the Benjamin and Maria Schuster Performing Arts Center in Dayton, Ohio.
The Dayton Opera and Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra perform Beethoven's <em>Fidelio</em> in January 2011 at the Benjamin and Maria Schuster Performing Arts Center in Dayton, Ohio.

Symphony orchestras across the country are in turmoil. Musicians in Chicago went on strike (an action that ended on Sept. 24 with a new tentative agreement reached), their counterparts in Atlanta were locked out (with a new agreement reached on Sept. 26). Contracts for both the Minneapolis Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra recently expired, and all sides seem to be at an impasse.

The Dayton Philharmonic, on the other hand, seems to have found an unusual solution to its budget woes. Hoping for strength in numbers, the orchestra has merged with the Ohio city's opera and ballet companies.

The domed ceiling in the Mead Theater at the Schuster Center in Dayton, Ohio, the home of the Dayton Philharmonic, draws your eyes upward. With its rich orange tones and smattering of tiny lights that look stars, it's like being at an outdoor performance at night. At a recent rehearsal, conductor and artistic director Neal Gittleman prepared the orchestra for its opening concert of the season. Gittleman says he's able to offer his musicians something rather unusual these days — extra gigs.

"In a time when almost every other orchestra in the country is [telling] its musicians that 'We have less work for you,' we're actually, this season, [able] to offer more work to our musicians than we did last year," Gittleman says. "And that's a really good thing."

A few years ago, the orchestra's outlook wasn't so rosy. In 2010, the Philharmonic was operating under a budget shortfall of over $100,000.

"Speaking for the orchestra, we had made every conceivable cut that wasn't draconian and really incredibly painful," Gittleman says.

The Dayton Opera and the Dayton Ballet also faced uncertain futures, so Gittleman wondered if something could be done differently. Could the three organizations band together? He brought the idea to the other artistic directors of the ballet and opera.

"I think people thought it sounded a little bit interesting but probably impossible, which is frankly what I thought," he says. "But I figured as long as we're looking at the business model, why not look at the business model?"

Two years later, the three organizations are one. The Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, as its now called, has one board but three artistic directors, which they say will help maintain the distinct identity of each art form.

They split the space, though. The Dayton Ballet rehearses in a studio overlooking the city. Even though it's cloudy outside, the room is filled with light.

"The ballet dancers work during the day," says Karen Russo Burke, the artistic director of the Dayton Ballet. "We work six days a week, where the Philharmonic works in the evening. Some of them have day jobs and they only see the conductor one or two times before their performance. And then the opera, they hire out and have auditions in New York and Chicago. They just come in for the two weeks prior."

The orchestra now backs some of the ballet's performances, which means that the two ensembles had to figure out a way to coordinate their rehearsals. Concert schedules also had to be scheduled to avoid competition, since all three are now part of a single organization. Paul Helfrich, the president of the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, says other questions remained, like, how do you raise money for one organization that presents dance, music and opera? And how many people will lose their jobs in the merger?

"It's like marriage," Helfrich says. "It's not to be entered into lightly."

Helfrich says the three companies were so lean already there wasn't much to cut. In fact, fewer than five people were laid off. And as far as fundraising, Helfrich says donors can continue to support their favorite arts organization the same way they always have.

"We are committed to, first of all, allowing people to designate their gift. That will be tracked and accounted for. And we will be able to demonstrate the designated gifts for ballet were used to support ballet performance," he says.

Though it's uncharted territory for Dayton, Jesse Rosen, of the League of American Orchestras, says many arts organizations across the country are trying to find new ways of doing business.

"To me, it looks like a period of great transition," Rosen says. "In some ways, that means it's a little messy. We see an unprecedented amount of experimentation."

It will take another season for the artistic program at the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance to fully integrate. But right now, for example, Paul Helfrich says you can buy a season pass to see the Philharmonic and get your choice of free tickets to see an opera and a ballet performance.

"Anything we can do to make the arts more accessible and to demonstrate that they're part of a vital community is a good thing to do," Helfrich says.

Come December, audiences will really begin to see it. This year, when the Sugar Plum Fairy takes the stage in The Nutcracker, she'll have the orchestra behind her.

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