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Monday, December 05, 2005

Denver’s New Opera House

Early in the last century, Denver’s Auditorium Theater was THE place to go in the city for professional musical entertainment. Eighty-plus years later, an entire performance complex has grown up around it. Known collectively as the DCPA (Denver Center for the Performing Arts), a glass-covered atrium links the old theater to a number of other venues in this three-square-block location, tucked between downtown office high-rises and the bucolic ambience of the Auraria college campus.

Boettcher Concert Hall is an in-the-round auditorium that holds around 2500 patrons, including the “parterre” bench-type seating behind the stage. The Colorado Symphony plays most of its concerts there. The Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre is a conventionally designed space that’s slightly larger than Boettcher (perhaps 2800 seats) and hosts traveling shows like “The Lion King” and currently Disney’s version of “Aida.” The Bonfils Theatre Complex features four theaters that are used primarily for drama.

Over the years I’ve seen perhaps a dozen operas in both Boettcher and the Buell. The latter was fairly decent for opera—certainly when compared to the alternative—but competition for space with other (read: better-attended, higher-profit) performances made Boettcher the default option. For those of you familiar with the way Opera Colorado used to design its seasons—three productions a year, four performances each—the fall opera (usually in November) was set in the more conventional space with full staging, while the two springtime operas (usually one in April and the other in May) were done in the round, with sparse (i.e., crappy) staging.

The use of Boettcher for opera brought the concept of minimalist production values to new lows. [My wife once called it the “two rocks and a bridge” set] But what was worse was the sound. Since the audience was wrapped around the stage, the singers were constantly spinning in place to project their voices to all listeners. One moment that illustrates the absurdity of this design involved a production of “Aida” where Amneris was facing north, Radames was facing east, and the title character was somewhere around SSW. Yet another flaw in the auditorium’s configuration involved the placement of the exits. In certain sections, the sound flowed directly over one’s head and out into the lobby. Oh, and the stage looks like it came right out of some college gymnasium—you know, one of those highly polished, slat-strip wooden floors that looks like it should basketball goals at either end and a giant 'U of C' painted at center court.

Maybe half a dozen years ago, my wife and I attended a performance of “Guys and Dolls” at the old Auditorium Theater. We sat in the balcony which, for anyone over 5-8, was a new experience in knee pain—admittedly not as uncomfortable as the OLD seats in the Central City (Colo.) Opera House, but unpleasant just the same.

Then two elections ago, Colorado voters approved a bond issue that, among other artsy-fartsy things, provided substantial funding to refurbish the Auditorium. Not unlike the gutting of buildings that took place in Cripple Creek when limited-stakes casino gambling came to the state in 1991, the outer walls here were left intact while everything inside was removed, and now probably rests in some high-plains, Eastern Colorado landfill. Private donations helped finish off the work, including a sizable gift from our city’s top opera fan, Mrs. Ellie Caulkins. She’s been a patron of the operatic arts for decades, including contributions to the regional Metropolitan Opera tryouts as well as to the Denver Lyric Opera Guild, which runs its own vocal competition every spring. Thanks to the amount of money she gave, Mrs. Caulkins was awarded “naming rights” and the space is now colloquially called “The Ellie.” I suppose that’s better than Invesco Auditorium, Janus Funds Theatre, or some such corporate silliness.

In September 2005, a gala opening concert featured Renee Fleming among other singers, and the first operatic production followed last month. Denyce Graves starred as “Carmen,” a role for which she has gained considerable acclaim in recent years—she managed to squeeze in three performances in Denver during a brief hiatus of the same role at the Met in NYC—but the real show was the theater itself.

Regrettably I was unable to see “Carmen.” I have since bought tickets for the production of “Norma” that opens in February 2006, but the budget was a bit too tight to do both. At that point I’ll be able to provide a first-hand account of the venue, but here are a few of the problems gleaned from stories written in one or the other of the Denver daily newspapers.

1) The orchestra sound was “muddy” or, in other descriptions, muted.
2) Seats toward either side of the hall faced across the auditorium rather than being canted toward the stage. [Sounds like a stupid design to me.]
3) Not enough drinking fountains, and the ones there are were poorly located.
4) Seat cushions too hard, and/or too narrow.
5) Auditorium chandelier poorly placed, blocking views of the stage.
6) The seat-back title system (same one at the Met, so I hear) operated erratically.

You can’t satisfy everyone, so I’m told, so we’ll have to see how this all shakes out. A friend of mine attended the Colorado Ballet production of “The Nutcracker” last week. The Ellie is home to both opera and ballet. His seat was on the ground floor, pretty much dead-center, right behind the main walkway, and he said that (a) the sight lines were excellent and (b) the orchestra sounded fine. But he also admitted that, after the past two years of the ballet performing at The Paramount downtown (where visiting rock groups often play), anything would have been an improvement.

The exciting point of all this is that Denver finally has a permanent home for its opera. The organization can now share productions with other U.S. opera companies, making it more cost-effective and (we hope) putting on operas that are not your standard mainstream fare. I’ve seen enough “Traviatas,” “Bohemes” and “Nozzes” to last me a few years, thank you very much. The “Norma” that’s upcoming is a great start—the May ’06 production, by the way, is Mozart’s “Die Entfuhring aus Dem Serail”—and maybe some day we’ll see such underperformed gems as Puccini’s “Fanciulla” or Verdi’s “Boccanegra” (the latter quite a hit at Santa Fe last year, so I heard). But don’t hold your breath for French grand opera—especially Meyerbeer—since I already asked and got seriously chastised. [Peter Russell was amazingly rude in his reply to me, and for no reason.] But that’s another story for another post.

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