The orchestra pit will be empty when the Sacramento Ballet presents "The Nutcracker" in December.
In a sign of financially challenging times, the ballet will not hire a live orchestra for the traditional holiday production. Over the past two years the company has run a cumulative $320,000 deficit, said Greg Smith, executive director of the Sacramento Ballet.
So instead, "The Nutcracker," which runs from Dec. 7 through Dec. 23, will be performed to recorded music.
"In order to get the financial ship back in the right direction, our board felt it was necessary to do so this year," said Smith.
The 58-year-old ballet company, which operates on a $2.8 million budget, posted deficits of $270,000 in fiscal 2010-11 and $50,000 in 2011-12, said Smith.
He said the ballet's board thought it was imperative to focus exclusively on raising approximately $600,000 in contributions to fulfill the current budget, which does not include hiring musicians for "The Nutcracker."
The board also had decided to forgo live music for last year's performance, Smith said. However, a last-minute push by Sacramento Philharmonic interim Executive Director Jane Hill and head fundraiser Sandy Smoley brought in $106,000 to cover orchestra costs. Also, the philharmonic waived its conductor and administrative fees, and the ballet kicked in a last-minute $10,000 to make the live music possible.
This year there is no special effort under way to raise funds by either the ballet or the philharmonic.
"A while ago the philharmonic board said to me that it felt strongly that we cannot raise that money again this year because the focus has to be on the philharmonic's needs," Hill said. "We were glad we could bail out the Sacramento Ballet last year, but we cannot do that every year 'The Nutcracker' is not our production."
The ballet's decision is no small matter for the philharmonic's musicians. For most orchestral musicians, performing "The Nutcracker" is a time-honored tradition and a source of seasonal income. In this case, forgoing live music translates into a cumulative loss of 1,200 hours of paid work for the orchestra, Hill said.
The average philharmonic musician is paid $114 for a two-hour rehearsal or performance, said Larry Gardner, president of American Federal of Musicians Local 12, the union that represents more than 400 musicians throughout most of the Central Valley.
In the past, the union, the philharmonic and the ballet have cooperated to make it possible to hire a "Nutcracker" orchestra starting with a special rate all three entities agreed to in 2003 and which continues, Gardner said.
For a decade before that, "The Nutcracker" was performed to recorded music.
But this year there was no discussion about what it would take to make live music possible, Gardner said.
"For each musician the loss equals $1,711 in lost pay," he said. "Obviously, we're very disappointed."
The ballet's decision to go without the orchestra is an aesthetic loss, said Hill. "I feel sad about it. 'The Nutcracker' was written as a ballet to be performed with live orchestra."
"I think it makes a difference to the audience. With taped music, the music is not tied to what's happening on stage," she said. "There's no room for invention or special moments as is possible when you have a conductor and a live orchestra."
The aesthetic issues are not lost on Smith.
"Not having live music always has an impact, and we don't like doing it," Smith said. "The dancers would certainly prefer dancing to live music. But, it is not an unusual step to take."
Indeed, the Louisville Ballet, Miami Ballet, the Texas Ballet Theatre and the San Jose Ballet are among many companies that have opted for taped music to survive lean economic times. Some have bounced back after doing so, and are performing "The Nutcracker" with orchestras again.
It is not clear when the Sacramento Ballet will be in a position to offer "The Nutcracker" with live music again.
"We feel we need one more year to get into a stable financial situation," Smith said.
The company, which currently derives 60 percent of its income from ticket sales, is in the midst of changing the way it operates. That change comes by way of a $300,000 Irvine Foundation grant, given in 2010, that is parsed out over three years. Smith said the grant is designed to steer the company toward sustainability by identifying new revenue streams and ways to reach out to ticket buyers and donors.
Smith said those efforts are already bearing fruit and he contends a turnaround is under way but that hopeful scenario comes with caveats.
"How we finish this year is where the real test will be," Smith said. "Unfortunately, all it takes is one show that does not live up to expectations or the loss of one or two donors, and it can turn a year around."
For now, the only way live music will resonate at Sacramento's Community Center, where "The Nutcracker" is due to have its 14-show run, is if someone steps forward to cover the costs of employing the orchestra, Smith said.
"I'd be happy to talk to anyone that would be interested in helping us make that a possibility," he said.