Smillie's picks for December [The Arts]

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This article appears in the December 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.

A Nut to Crack

In all the talk of the arts being now a mere numbers game where business models mean more than artistic vision or accomplishment, it is heartening to record some good numbers. We have often alluded to the Louisville Ballet’s annual extravaganza, The Nutcracker, as a cash cow that funds much of the company’s annual output. But how much? It seems the holiday show accounts for a mighty 68 percent of ticket revenues for the year. And not only in Louisville. It is fair to say that without Nutcracker there would be no ballet as we know it in the whole U.S.

Of course you have to spend money to make money, and last year’s premiere of an all-new production was billed as the Brown-Forman Nutcracker in acknowledgment of a $1 million grant from Louisville’s best-remaining big-league arts benefactor. More than 250 people work to get this titan of the ballet repertoire from studio to stage, including professional dancers, children cast members, musicians, crew, staff and volunteers. The major costs include $140,000 for the orchestra, $220,000 in theater rental, labor and so on, and $108,000 for marketing. More than 40 artisans in nine states were employed to create the costumes. Each classical tutu cost approximately $2,500 to “build” and 32 pairs of men’s boots were made by hand for between $395 and $550 each. The costumers worked with nearly 1,000 sequins (funny, I thought I counted more than that!) and with 10-plus types of fabric, including 2,730 feet of tulle, and milliners made 38 hand-milled hats. The payoff last year was attendance by over 30,000 eager Louisvillians.

Productions like this season’s Nutcracker are an investment. This Nutcracker, new in 2009, will, in the old Broadway phrase, “run and run,” bolstering the company’s coffers for years to come. How do we know? Because, to recycle another theater cliché, “one American turns five every 10 seconds.” For tickets call 583-3150 or visit louisvilleballet.org.

Art and Money

On a related theme, George Bernard Shaw for many years avoided the blandishments of Hollywood, believing, with total justification, that his plays would be trivialized for the mass market. He was approached by one Hollywood mogul (Gabriel Pascal) who spent hours explaining that only the finest classically trained actors would be engaged, that the designs would be in consummate good taste, and so on. Shaw was thinking instead of how much money he could make out of the deal. “You see,” the Irish wag said, “that is the difference between us, Mr. Pascal. You are a businessman and think only of art. I am an artist and think only of money.”

Spanish Tragedy

We have shown unwonted restraint this season regarding the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday-afternoon high-definition live relays to Tinseltown and Stoneybrook, but if you make only one of the 11 offerings this year, make it to Don Carlo. Few think of Verdi as a cerebral composer, or as a probing student of the human condition like Mozart or Wagner, but this stark tragedy of illicit love, set against the chilling menace of the Spanish Inquisition, is Verdi’s deepest work. A mass burning of heretics is only one of the many gruesome moments. The stage-director Nicholas Hytner, best known in this country for his direction of such Broadway blockbusters as Miss Saigon and The History Boys, notes with uncommon insight: “Don Carlo is the quintessential Verdi opera. Right through this opera there is, on the one hand, an implacable expression of impending doom and, on the other hand, a succession of the most gloriously open-throated arias, the most fantastically determined music.” The show is at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 11, and runs about five hours. Arrive early for a decent seat.

Final Thought

The departure to New Orleans of Andrew Adler, former classical music and dance critic for the Courier-Journal, passed somewhat unnoticed, except for a mention in his own column. Neither the paper that employed him, nor the arts community he “served,” if that’s the right word, made much notice of his passing after 28 years in the most unenviable job in town. Naturally, like all producers/artists, I had my moments of smarting under his verbal lash when I was at Kentucky Opera, but at least he was less bitchy than his predecessor and knew more. Artists loathe critics for the same reason fraudsters fear the IRS. All art is some sort of confidence trick and we fear being found out. Now the question is: Who will replace him? At the time I write this, the worry is that it will be no one; many cities no longer employ an arts critic at their newspapers, the fall of a once semi-noble profession. That said, many were the times I would have wished to copy the note once sent by an injured composer to a local hack: “I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. Your review is before me; soon it will be behind me."

Photo: Courtesy Louisville Magazine

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