What Houston and Louisville Have In Common

It’s not an uncommon practice for orchestras to subcontract out the services of their ensemble to the local opera companies.  Orchestras from smaller budget ROPA ensembles, like Richmond (VA) through larger ICSOM groups, like St. Louis, do it on a regular basis.  However, what works in one locale does not necessarily transfer equally to another.  


Most organizations attempt to make the relationship as symbiotic as possible, but that’s not always how things come about.  Recent events in Louisville and Houston demonstrate the latter of these tendencies as one member of the relationship decides that this sort of relationship will inevitably become less than symbiotic.


In Louisville, the Kentucky Opera decided not to use the services of the Louisville Orchestra and opted for hiring student players from the University of Louisville School of Music.  In Houston, the board of the Houston Grand Opera officially rejected the Houston Symphony’s pitch to become their regular opera orchestra and instead signed a multi year contract with their existing core of union represented musicians (who have recently become an official ROPA member orchestra).


In both orchestra organizations, the decision by their local opera companies comes at a precarious time.  Both orchestras have suffered some of the worst financial difficulties from among all of the orchestras who have posted large deficits since the early part of the decade, the musicians in both ensembles have accepted severe concessions in compensation and benefits.


Even more interesting are the apparent motives behind each of the respective opera organization’s decisions. 


In Louisville, it appears that the Opera organization’s decision is based on economic constraints; they can’t afford to pay the Louisville Orchestra what its players deserve for the number of rehearsals their productions would require.


In Houston, their issues have nothing to due with budgetary constraints so much as their apparent belief that using the Houston Symphony’s musicians would restrict their ongoing artistic growth.


It’s intriguing to note that both opera organizations seem to find motivation based on the extreme ends of financial and artistic success.  However, in both cases it’s the orchestras which end up losing the most from a potential association.


In the end, it’s certain that any organization will make their decisions based on what they feel will work best for their ensemble.  Nevertheless, it’s worth keeping track of these decisions to see if maintaining a close artistic relationship with significant financial requirements tends to strain or prohibit a relationship as either organization approaches rapid expansion or critical economic stress.


As for orchestras in Louisville and Houston, they’re now forced to find other revenue streams to replace the funds they hoped would materialize from a partnership wit their respective opera organizations.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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