Cover Story: A 360-Degree View

Symphony, opera and ballet get back to basics in long-range planning

Aug 27, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

(L-R) Daniel Hoffheimer, Rick Reynolds and Steven Monder say the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra can't be afraid to take risks.

Is it important to daily life in Cincinnati that we have access to world-class symphony, opera and ballet? Lots of people would laugh at the absurdity of the question.

Of course the performing arts are important. More than 80 percent of Tristate residents interviewed in a recent multi-city survey said the performing arts contribute to the local economy, improve our quality of life, preserve and share our cultural heritage and contribute to the education and development of children.

Among those not laughing are the leaders of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Opera and Cincinnati Ballet. Each organization currently is evaluating its mission and working on a long-range plan — and the process includes the most basic questions.

"It's a 360-degree view," says Rick Reynolds, chair of the symphony's strategic planning process, its first since 1998. "We're looking at everything — artistic excellence, staffing, facilities, finances, outreach, everything."

It's the right time to conduct some "navel gazing," as Patricia Beggs, the opera's managing director, calls it. Endowments that help fund these and other arts organizations struggle to maintain value in the economic downturn.

Donations — both individual and corporate — struggle to keep up with past levels.

Meanwhile, the arts' place in Cincinnati — particularly their ability to lead the city out of its current economic, racial, social and development doldrums — has been reaffirmed again and again. Political and business leaders have finally joined the public in asserting that Cincinnati's fortunes are bound to the arts.

And so the city's classical performing companies come to a crossroads where their value perhaps has never been higher, and their future perhaps has never been more uncertain. As a result, they sharpen their pencils, work on very public capital projects and try to reach out to new audiences.

Ultimately, leaders of the three organizations say, all plans must focus on their core mission — to provide quality entertainment.

"The No. 1 enemy for all of us is a person's time," says Alan Hills, the ballet's executive director. "Ticket prices are secondary. It's all about the experience of attending the performing arts. People will spend money for a quality experience. They won't waste their time on a bad one."

CSO: The people have spoken
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) is wrapping up a year-long planning process whose centerpiece is 1,800-2,000 surveys of subscribers, single ticket buyers, opinion leaders and the general public. The survey data has been collected and is now being analyzed, with a report to the board of trustees due in October. Reynolds is leading the report-writing team and expects to boil down the survey data into four to five items the symphony can act on.

The survey's first 10 questions dealt with the overall symphony organization. According to Steven Monder, CSO president, the highest positive response to any of them was to the question, "How would you rate the importance of a world class orchestra for Cincinnati?"

The surveys also gave high marks to artistic excellence — which Reynolds attributes to Paavo J#228rvi's arrival as music director and Erich Kunzel's longevity with the Cincinnati Pops — and financial stability.

"What a mighty financial fortress is our symphony," Reynolds says. "That's the impression, at least. Yes, we have a $31 million budget, and we're the largest arts organization in town, but I don't think people realize what a razor-thin edge we're on to balance our budget every year."

CSO has diversified over the years to create new sources of revenue, from starting the Pops and opening Riverbend Music Center to providing orchestras for Cincinnati Opera and the May Festival and taking over management of Pepsi Jammin' on Main and Tall Stacks.

"Over 108 years, the symphony has learned a few things about the performing arts," says Daniel Hoffheimer, chairman of the CSO board. "If we didn't use that expertise in other areas, we think it would be a waste."

The surveys pointed out several negatives for the symphony, including a lack of wide awareness of CSO's outreach programs and a lack of diversity on the board, the staff and onstage. Reynolds isn't ready to say which four or five items he'll suggest for future action, but he acknowledges these two areas are critical for the organization's growth.

Surveys also urged CSO leaders to become more visible in the community and more involved with city, downtown and Over-the-Rhine issues. As the area's largest arts organization and the largest employer in Over-the-Rhine, the symphony realizes it needs to take more of a leadership role, Hoffheimer says.

"People are now saying the future of Cincinnati depends on the arts," he says. "We'd never heard that before. The arts were here in the beginning, and we'll hang on until the very end."

Reynolds expects that a fund-raising plan might come out of this planning process, primarily to boost the CSO's endowment. He won't commit to raising money for a capital campaign for Music Hall, but the CSO board clearly has decided to take control of the hall's future. (See more below.)

Opera wants to be indispensable
Squeezed into a cluster of offices at Music Hall, Cincinnati Opera also is taking its future into its own hands via the Festival Campaign. The long-range plan will produce tangible results next year with the opening of the opera's new Music Hall offices and box office.

For years the north wing has been Music Hall's broom closet, a depository for equipment, sets and junk enclosed by walls of bricked-up windows. Starting next summer, it becomes the Corbett Opera Center.

For the first time, the opera will have a true street presence, with a public lobby and box office near the corner of 14th and Elm. Above that will be three floors of offices and open rooms for rehearsals and meetings — all bathed in natural light from newly reopened windows. A large new rehearsal hall is planned for later.

The campaign was developed after Nicholas Muni became artistic director in 1996, setting a goal of raising $3.3 million — with one-third going to the capital improvements at Music Hall and two-thirds to the company's endowment. The Corbett Foundation gave a lead donation of $1.5 million, and the city of Cincinnati committed $650,000 over three years.

Growing the endowment is crucial, Beggs says, to supporting Muni's vision of more variety and better productions in a true festival schedule. The summer season now has 10 performances of four operas instead of the former eight, with two productions getting a third date that's available only to single ticket buyers.

"We deliver more opera via the festival weekends," Beggs says. "Cultural tourists didn't come to Cincinnati for opera, but they're coming now to see two different productions on a single weekend."

Cincinnati Opera has worked with the Hilton Netherland Plaza Hotel to offer room/show packages to out-of-town visitors, and Beggs reports that this summer's audiences came from 33 states other than Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. About 15 percent of all tickets were sold to people from outside of Greater Cincinnati, she says.

Another Muni vision the opera wants to support is presenting a variety of productions in a variety of spaces. Its Music Hall performance schedule is confined by the symphony's calendar and can't really grow beyond the summer, so the company is looking for new halls to play in other seasons.

"Some operas work better in smaller spaces," Beggs says. "Maybe we do chamber operas à la CCM, where the audience is really close to the action. I know Nic would love to try it."

Beyond opening the Corbett Opera Center, the other big event coming up is the world premiere of Margaret Garner, a brand-new work commissioned by Cincinnati Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre and Opera of Philadelphia and starring Denyce Graves. It will kick off the 2005 summer season here as a tribute to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Toni Morrison, who adapted a version of Garner's story in the book Beloved, is the opera's "librettist," or lyricist. Garner was an escaped slave who arrived in Cincinnati in 1851 with her family and, when captured, killed her daughter to keep her from being sent back to the plantation. Garner was put on trial for destruction of property.

"This isn't just any opera project," Muni says of the first commission in company history. "Because of the Freedom Center, the fact that the story of the opera occurred in Cincinnati, because we're still grappling with important racial issues that stem from the very subject of this opera, it's relevant and challenging in a social/political way as well as a theatrical/emotional way. My hope is that it will advance us another step toward part of our vision statement: 'to become indispensable to the Cincinnati community.' "

Ballet builds for the future
Like the opera, Cincinnati Ballet is raising money to fund a capital building project and increase its endowment to support better productions. The key piece of the 21st Century Campaign is an addition to its facility at Central Parkway and Liberty Street.

The campaign began four years ago, when consultants told ballet officials the best they could hope for would be $2.5 million-$3 million. The company set a goal of $6 million to fix a number of items at once and raised $7 million.

Plans have grown beyond the original scope of a larger building and now include expanding the education programs, including the Otto M. Budig Academy, and community outreach. The new goal is $14 million, which Hills says the ballet intends to complete by time the new building opens in February 2005.

The "crown jewel" of the expanded facility, he says, will be the new Studio A. It'll be the same width as the stage at the Aronoff Center's Procter & Gamble Hall, where Cincinnati Ballet performs five of its six productions each season, and will accommodate a custom-built 250-seat riser system.

Hills says the new studio will allow choreographers and dancers to rehearse on the same stage configuration as their performances without tying up valuable (and expensive) dates at the Aronoff. More importantly, it'll give the ballet an opportunity to present more intimate public performances in its own building.

Within five to six years, Hills says, he and Artistic Director Victoria Morgan envision a Cincinnati Ballet season that features three shows at the Aronoff Center, a series of smaller ballets at Studio A with longer runs and Nutcracker at Music Hall. He'd like to see a flexible ticket plan allowing subscribers to mix and match larger and smaller shows such as what the Cincinnati Playhouse offers at its two theaters.

The new facility will have a total of five studios, up from the current two, enabling the company to expand its dance classes — which contribute revenue to the bottom line and contribute artistically. For the first time the company has hired a Budig Academy graduate, Heather Lieberman, who becomes a full-fledged professional dancer this fall.

"When we started the academy, we thought it would take five years to put a graduate into the dance company," Hills says. "It took only three years. By expanding the academy and other training programs, we hope to hire many more Cincinnati dancers at Cincinnati Ballet."

The studios also will be available to community groups, as will a 100-seat meeting room on the lower level. Hills says the city stipulated forging relationships with neighborhood groups as a condition for pledging $400,000 to the 21st Century Campaign, and then he ticks off a list of a dozen outreach programs the ballet already does in Over-the-Rhine, Price Hill, Northern Kentucky and elsewhere.

Like the opera, the ballet's new facility will include its own box office, giving the company more of a public presence and more control over its ticketing. It's a natural progression for a maturing arts organization, Hills says.

"For the first 20 years or so, Cincinnati Ballet was very community-based," he says. "The last six or seven years under Victoria we've become a senior cultural institution. We had very little endowment and basically lived year to year. Now we have everything we need — new facilities, quality productions, six shows a season, touring opportunities, community support — to attract quality international dancers. Our audiences deserve that."

Last dance for Music Hall?
Each of the three organizations perform at 125-year-old Music Hall, and in many ways their identities are tied to it. Knowing that, leaders of the symphony, opera and ballet meet monthly with staff at Cincinnati Arts Association — which manages Music Hall as well as Memorial Hall and the Aronoff Center — to discuss the state of the building and its surrounding neighborhood among other issues.

A lot of positive things are happening around Music Hall, the organizations acknowledge: a new School for the Creative and Performing Arts next door, a new Art Academy of Cincinnati a few blocks away and the possibility of an expanded and/or renovated Washington Park if the adjacent elementary school is rebuilt in another location.

But three stark realities have emerged: Music Hall is in serious trouble if neighborhood safety, development and parking issues aren't addressed; Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra must take the leadership role in getting city officials to do something; and these arts institutions aren't going down with Music Hall.

"It's not an issue of us not wanting to stay in Music Hall," says Hoffheimer, CSO board chairman. "It's 'Can we stay?' If attendance continues to decline due to public perception and events beyond our control, we have to look at leaving Music Hall."

"You can't look at crime and safety perceptions in our part of Over-the-Rhine and not address it as a business," says the ballet's Hills. "During Nutcracker at Music Hall, we had less than 1,000 people at a Saturday night performance while exceeding goals for our daytime matinees. If something goes unfixed long enough, it might begin to impact your business — and we won't stand for that."

Cincinnati Ballet moved its five-show season to the Aronoff Center when it opened, keeping Nutcracker at Music Hall as a holiday tradition. Frisch's recently endowed Nutcracker to allow the ballet to rebuild sets and redo choreography every five years to keep it fresh. But the endowment wasn't tied to the production remaining at Music Hall.

"The Maier family (Frisch's owners) told me that if the success of Nutcracker is ever threatened by negatives at Music Hall," Hills says, "we have their support to do whatever we have to do."

Are Cincinnati officials prepared to own an empty Music Hall 5-10 years down the road? Are they ready to risk losing the symphony, opera and perhaps even the ballet to a new facility outside of the city?

"The city and the Over-the-Rhine community are at a crossroads, and we're worried the problems are getting too far down the road," Hoffheimer says. "We're prepared to go to the city and the community and take a leadership position. We're willing to do our fair share. But we're still a nonprofit, so it's really up to the city."

CSO leaders would like to improve the overall Music Hall experience and make it a destination. Hoffheimer echoes thoughts floating around about an underground parking garage where Washington Park Elementary sits now, restaurants on 14th Street to add pre- and post-concert activity and new or rehabbed housing ringing the park.

"It's like a jigsaw puzzle with a lot of pieces," he says. "But we want to help figure it out."

Comparing the symphony to a battleship, Hoffheimer could be speaking for the long-range planning processes at all three organizations.

"We're big and strong, but we're a big target, and sometimes we move too slow," he says. "It's a big responsibility to steward an arts institution. A bad decision can be catastrophic. But we can't be afraid to take risks." ©