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ND Business Magazine

Feature - Spring 2006

Pulling all the strings to stage performances at Notre Dame’s new arts center requires business acumen and dexterity.

Backstage

By Laura Moran

PRINTER FRIENDLY VERSION

 

 

 

When the Bulgarian National Opera Company arrives half an hour before the curtain goes up—more than a hundred non-English speaking performers, with wrinkled pants and unpacked instruments—you have to be a world-class manager.

When an international superstar refuses to let you copy her passport—not, it turns out, because she’s trying to dodge tax law, but because she doesn't want anyone to know her age—you need exceptional communication skills.

And when Spanish flamenco dancer José Porcel announces that he is “desirous of bananas” right before he’s scheduled to perform, and your only bananas are neon green and hard as rocks, you’d better excel at networking.

 

 

 

 


Looking back over the first year of operations at Notre Dame’s landmark DeBartolo Performing Arts Center DPAC), it’s been a whirlwind learning to apply business and organizational principles in an industry which champions individuality and creativity.

In our 150,000-square-foot building, which includes five concert halls and theatres, we’ve hosted more than 500 events, ranging from movies to music department student recitals to internationally touring performances from Ireland, South Africa, Russia and Mexico. Each one teaches us something new. Here’s what we’ve learned.

Lesson one. Pay close attention to contracts. For example, liquids matter. Evian and Perrier are the most popular brands of water, and performers often request several cases of each to accommodate the preferences of different band members. The Vienna Choir Boys’ contract called for enough room-temperature chocolate milk for 24 boys, and Irish superstars the Chieftains specifically requested “orange and red” Gatorade (along with Heineken and Guinness for after the show). The contract for one Latin American group included a provision for six cans of Red Bull energy drink, supplemented with two bottles of rum.

Food is important, too, and many performers are selective about what they eat. In their contract rider, South African musicians Ladysmith Black Mambazo requested vegetarian entrees, fresh salads, breads, grains—and 50 to 60 pieces of buffalo-style chicken wings. When Senegalese pop star Youssou N’Dour asked for authentic Moroccan or Ethiopian cuisine, Notre Dame’s catering staff rose to the occasion, providing an elaborate meal that featured couscous and lamb.

Lesson two. Carefully examine artists’ technical requirements, particularly with rock and jazz acts. Rock musician Bruce Hornsby needed a certain mid-1990s Korg keyboard to get the sound that he wanted for his September 16, 2005 performance at DPAC—and, because of a mix-up with a contract addendum, one had to be driven in from Kalamazoo, Mich., at the last minute. Contracts often identify microphones, monitors, consoles and amplifiers by brand name and model number, and do the same with the instruments that the facility traditionally provides, such as drum kits, upright basses and pianos—instruments too large or too fragile to travel with the artists.

Pianist Krystian Zimerman is an exception: he travels with his own nine-foot Steinway. John Haynes, Executive Director of the Marie P. DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts, says admiringly of Zimerman, “He knows as much about pianos as anyone I’ve ever met in my life—mechanically, physically. I would characterize him as a theorist about piano. He doesn’t just sit down and play—he understands the technology of the piano.”

Zimerman’s dedication to his instrument knows no bounds. He confessed to DPAC’s front-of-house manager Jacqueline Schmidt that if he’s on the road and the weather looks threatening, he’ll sometimes sleep in the truck with it.

Roland Guerin, the bass player for jazz musician Marcus Roberts, also travels with his own instrument. This presented an unexpected transportation challenge when the group came to Notre Dame last fall. Although the DPAC staffer assigned to meet Guerin at the airport had carefully researched the dimensions of an upright bass, she hadn’t realized that the traveling case for the bass is significantly larger than the instrument itself. It took some careful maneuvering to wedge the bass into the truck, but she finally succeeded—with the neck of the case angled through the open window of the cab.

Classical musicians, too, are sensitive to technical issues. When piano legends Yefim Bronfman and Emanual Ax performed at DPAC, the two squabbled good-naturedly over who would play the house Steinway—donated by arts supporters John Brogan (MBA ’70) and his wife Meg, in memory of Meg’s mother—and who would play the second piano, which had been borrowed for the performance. Bronfman summed up the problem with concise tact: “The house piano is very good; the other piano, not very good.” To compromise, the two pianists switched instruments after each piece they performed. Shortly after the concert, the Brogans donated a second Steinway to DPAC: Ax and Bronfman would approve.

Lesson three. Watch out for tax issues with international artists. Different countries have different tax treaties with the United States, which result in a range of withholding thresholds. For Portugal, for example, the withholding threshold is $15,000. If Notre Dame pays an artist more than that—including the cost of hotels, meals and transportation—the University needs to withhold for U.S. taxes. Often artist fees are specially negotiated to avoid exceeding the threshold. Tax law also necessitates that Notre Dame document the citizenship of its performers, which can produce unintentional comedy. Who’d ever guess that we’d have to prove that the members of the Chieftains are Irish?

Lesson four. Be flexible enough to deal with the unexpected. When Youssou N’Dour, a devout Muslim, realized that he didn’t have his prayer rug and needed to pray before his performance, Kevin Dreyer, the chair of Notre Dame’s Department of Film, Television and Theatre, produced a replacement from the department’s collection of props. And some deft redirection averted a potential disaster with the Ethos Trio: confused by the multitude of backstage doors, José, Arturo and Javier took a wrong turn just minutes before their scheduled curtain and nearly ended up in DPAC’s east parking lot. Luckily, John Haynes, who was on his way back to the building after dinner, intercepted them. “Ah, gentlemen?” Haynes said with a smile, “The stage is this way.”

From the staff’s perspective, the best performers are those with a sense of humor, such as country star Vince Gill. When a staffer asked him to autograph a CD, Gill nodded, looked at the CD, and said with a smile, “Oh, so you’re the guy who bought this one.” And as everyone who saw the March 17, 2005 performance by famous tenor Ronan Tynan knows, it’s not every performer who can get away with singing “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night (That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long)” to an audience peppered with Holy Cross priests—including Father Hesburgh.

By the time performers leave our facility, they’ve inevitably become fans of Notre Dame. When composer, lyricist and conductor Marvin Hamlisch arrived on campus the night before the USC football game, he wore a red sweater—but he left wearing “The Shirt” and kept referring to Notre Dame as “we” rather than “you.” Backstage at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, I overheard one of the musicians announce, proudly: “I just put a Notre Dame sticker on my contrabassoon case!” Wherever Hamlisch goes and wherever that contrabassoon case goes, Notre Dame goes, too.

—Laura Moran is the director of marketing for the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at Notre Dame.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performs at Notre Dame:

Unloading: In a snowstorm, a large semi arrives at the loading dock three hours before show time. 2 road guys, 6 stage hands, 3 DPAC staff and 1 student get to work unloading 106 instruments and setting the stage. Pictured are upright boxes holding basses, while those in front store violas. Laying the risers: DPAC staff re-arrange risers of staggered heights between 6 inches and 14 inches on the stage, so that every musician can see the conductor. Although the staff spends several hours preparing the arena in advance of the set-up team, last minute changes are common. "We faxed layouts back and forth beforehand, but when the road guys showed up, we changed it all around," recalls Sarah Prince, Director, Technical Services. "With 101 performers, it was a very crowded stage." Waiting: Because the orchestra presentation is totally acoustic, there is no need for a sound check or rehearsals before the show. As they wait, performers tune their instruments, play cards or backgammon, eat snacks and catch a few winks.

 

Moving on: "After the show, the musicians grab their instruments, change quickly into their street clothes, and get back in their bus," says Prince. "A half hour or less, every time." The crew will also repack the semi with the instruments right away. In 2005, the Pittsburgh Symphony performed 175 times, 52 on tour or off-site. This was day three of a five-night Midwest tour. Their next stop: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

 

 

 

 

 
 
Copyright © 2006 University of Notre Dame All Rights Reserved Last Updated on: May 9, 2006