| Chicago Reader

Playing Against Tape 

Musicians Protest DJ Ballet

The throngs pressing toward the door of the Civic Opera House on the damp opening night of "Stars of the Bolshoi" were greeted by a curious sight and sound: On the concrete island in the middle of Wacker Drive were 14 musicians in concert black. They were playing Elizabethan dances arranged for brass choir, and they had signs taped to their heavy black music stands that read "This is the only live music you'll hear tonight." Just past the heavy columns that mark the Opera House's property line, a dozen polite, well-dressed confederates handed out fliers to the ticket holders: "With taped music, you won't get what you've paid for." Others held hand-lettered signs: "Tape nyet," "Live dancers deserve live musicians," "Bolshoi uses a D.J."

The American Federation of Musicians was picketing the ballet. The issue: jobs--and culture. Inside the Opera House, the dancers not only performed without proper costumes and proper sets--theirs had been inadvertently left in Moscow--but without proper music.

The corner of Wacker and Madison has seen plenty of arts-oriented protesters: followers of Lyndon LaRouche have plucked at operagoers' clothes and bellowed at them through bullhorns when Wagner was on the musical menu; and Jewish groups are usually on hand for touring Soviet outfits, to protest the Politburo's attitude toward refuseniks. But this was the first time the picketers had worn evening dress.

A polite older man in a powder-blue suit handed a flier to a late-arriving woman, who looked affluent enough to have sprung for the top-priced $65 ticket. He gave her a brief explanation. "How interesting," she said, in a tone that implied she found it otherwise, and brushed past him.

Behind the diligently blowing brasses stood Charles Guse, president of the Chicago Federation of Musicians Local 10-208. "I used to play these ballets for 30 years myself. I play the tuba.

"We found out just this week--Monday or Tuesday, when we went over our list of contractors for this type of work and found out none of them had been contacted. We called over [to the Civic Opera House management] and asked them who was playing, and they said they were using tapes. I thought we ought to protest this--that someone ought to be the guardian of culture and protest.

"You know, Ballet Chicago used a full orchestra, 55 people, just last week. If a little company like that can afford an orchestra, the world's greatest ballet company certainly can afford to hire real musicians. You know what it is--the fast-buck entrepreneurs think they can save money by using a tape recording--but what they're really doing is destroying the trust of the culture-going public. They go to something like this, they hear that tinny music, and the next time something like this comes up, they think, 'Why should we go see that? I'll stay home, rent a video, watch it on television. I got a tape machine, too.' It's hard enough getting these couch potatoes out to a live performance.

"It always happens to us. You get somebody in [management] who hasn't been in this business--last week he was selling computers or something--and he figures out things to cheapen it. The customers don't come back, and we're the ones who lose by it--that guy, he goes and sells garbage cans or something.

"We couldn't get the newspapers or the television stations out here, I don't know why--but the Tribune Charities are involved in this somehow, involved in some capacity. The response [from balletgoers] has been quite good, though--a number of people are incensed that they bought tickets anticipating a full orchestra. Some people have demanded their money back. But I don't blame the people who went on in. You spend $48 a ticket, that's a lot of money. You buy tickets for a couple, that's $96. You hate to throw it away.

"I don't know if it will do any good for the future, but it does our souls good to get out here and picket. We'll be out all four performances--I thought a brass group outside would be best, but on Saturday we're going to have strolling violinists playing pieces from ballets."

When the doors had closed on the last balletomane, the musicians packed their instruments and loaded all their accoutrements onto the back of a waiting blue pickup. At the intermission, one woman who had brushed away the musicians' warning emerged with a disgusted look on her face. "I didn't think the taped music would make that much of a difference," she said. "But it did."

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