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Friday, February 24, 2006

“Norma”—Part One

One of the selling points of the city-wide bond issue that was sold to Denver voters a few years ago, was the argument that a world-class opera house would attract world-class productions. Add to that the hiring of Peter Russell—formerly an upper-level functionary with the Met in New York City—as general manager of Opera Colorado. A new venue and new blood in the front office was destined to do great things for Denver’s image as The Crappy Little Cowtown That Could … (barely) Support the Arts.

Notwithstanding my personal artistic disagreement with Mr. Russell (he loves Wagner’s music and despises Meyerbeer’s, while I profess the exact opposite sentiments), no one can argue with his immediate vision of how to reach the Big Time—or at least the “pretty big time”—of things operatic. The Opening Gala featured Renee Fleming and a whole host of somewhat lesser vocal luminaries. The company’s production of “Carmen” starred the reigning queen of that role, Denyce Graves, who reportedly scheduled a break in her run at the Met as a personal favor to Russell. Hey, it helps to have friends in high places!

Expanding OC’s repertoire beyond the pallid “Bohemes”–“Traviatas”–“Nozzes” that all too often litter the landscape of opera companies from Secaucus to San Jose—wait a minute; does Secaucus even have an opera company?—was one of the promises made to local opera-goers while the Auditorium Theatre was being transformed into “The Ellie.” I recognize that a fine line must be trod between selling out the house (1120 performances of “La Boheme” at the Met since 1900 helps tell that tale) and a willingness to go out on a limb to produce operas that are all too rarely performed but need to be heard.

All three of next season’s Opera Colorado productions have been done here before, although two of them aren’t exactly household names. “Magic Flute” is definitely up there in performance frequency around the country, while Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” and Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’Amore” are produced with only moderate regularity.

Sometimes an opera has faded away because there is no one out there worthy of singing the role(s). “Norma” is one of those operas. I’m not saying that Bellini’s most popular work (barely edging out second-place “Puritani” and far ahead of both “Pirata” and “Sonnambula”) is NEVER performed, but it’s certainly underrepresented on the world’s stages. The last great Norma was Joan Sutherland and, before her, Maria Callas. That’s a long time ago. Also, the vocal demands of this particular bel canto work are such that often an extra day’s rest is prescribed between performances. The role of Adalgisa is important enough to require a mezzo with some pretty good pipes as well. This is no queen’s maid, shrinking confidante, or similar comprimario part typical of other seconda donnas. The CD I own of this opera—a Decca recording from 1988—features Sutherland in the title role and no less a luminary than Montserrat Caballe as her “friendly” rival. Pavarotti is Pollione and Sam Ramey is Oroveso to round out more than a pretty good cast.

More next week on this topic, including a review of the Opera Colorado production.

Fresh Thoughts on “The Ellie”

The other night (Wednesday, Feb 22) my wife and I made our first visit to The Ellie Caulkins Opera House here in Denver. As was mentioned a few months earlier in this blog, the facility is part of a multi-theatre environment known as the Denver Performing Arts Complex, somewhat similar in concept to—but much smaller than—Lincoln Center in New York City. The opera house is actually built inside the old Auditorium Theatre, a process by which the brick outer walls of this early-1900s building were retained while the interior was gutted and rebuilt.

The reason for our visit was to attend Opera Colorado’s production of “Norma” by Vincenzo (NOT Giuseppe, as one local music critic wrote!) Bellini. I will review the opera in a subsequent posting, but I wanted to get my thoughts down early on the venue itself, especially for readers who are thinking about seeing a performance there one of these days.

Any time a new entertainment facility opens to the public, there are always things that cause distress, provide serious annoyance, or fail entirely. In addition, one person’s “cozy little nook” is another’s claustrophobic nightmare, so some of my observations may well be worth a “so what?” and nothing more.

The sound is terrific—that much needs be said right away. For a structure purpose-built for opera, anything less than excellent acoustics would be unacceptable. After the house’s first two productions—the Opening Gala plus four performances of “Carmen”—adjustments were made to both the orchestra pit and the rear wall of the auditorium. But more on the “sound” issue later….

I was surprised by the small size of the foyer. Patrons enter through one of four sets of double doors at the center of the front part of the building. Considering the place holds 2200 people, the fact that only three ticket-takers were on duty seemed paltry. Traffic quickly backed up and spilled out into the courtyard. But getting through the ticket line was no guarantee of spacious comfort, since the ushers were so tardy in letting people into the auditorium.

For a performance with a starting time of 7:30 p.m., the fact that the doors weren’t opened until 7:14 was ridiculous. By then the crush of older folks, tired and cranky from standing around, seriously taxed the ushers’ ability to handle the crowd. Let’s not forget that, for many people that evening, it was their first visit to the place. When more than half the audience can find its seats without assistance, one or two ushers per door is sufficient. But in this case, nearly everyone needed help in finding the right entrance, the right section, and the right row.

It’s time to enumerate my pet peeves for the evening:
1) Incomprehensible seat labels. Who goes to operas, primarily? OLD PEOPLE! Old people have a hard time finding things in unfamiliar places, seeing things in semi-dark environments, and reading the small print in anything. Signs for specific section numbers were absent, except for a range of numbers mounted above each entry door, e.g., 205-212. Our seats were in a section that was, counter intuitively, NOT straight into the theatre but rather a quick turn to the right and down a little hallway behind a previously hidden group of seats. Rows were marked by tiny little letters mounted at the base of every end chair.
2) Really uncomfortable chairs. The seats were straight-backed, rather than curved to fit one's spine, and spring-loaded (both seats and seat-backs) so that it pressed annoyingly against us all evening. It was a constant battle to get comfortable, and both my wife and I complained of sore backs once the performance was over.
3) Bad ticketing. Along with many concert venues around the country, Opera Colorado has ceded its ticketing chores to TicketMaster. Stories abound regarding the way this corporation collects usurious, nonrefundable fees. But this comment has more to do with omission rather than commission and, thankfully, did not personaly affect me or my significant other. The gentleman behind me and slightly to the right was seated directly behind a post. What is this, Wrigley Field? What was worse (for him, anyway), he paid the same price for his ticket ($77) that I paid for my fully unobstructed view of the stage. Luckily there were some empty seats nearby, so he was able to relocate. But at no time during his multiple telephonic discussions with either the opera company or the ticket purveyor was he told that he was buying an obstructed-view seat.
4) Hidden restrooms. Our seats were on the mezzanine (first balcony) so I can only speak to accessibility on our floor, but the lack of signage was once again surprising. Down half a flight of stairs from our seating level, there was a long hallway with a set of fire doors at the far, dimly lit end. A cryptic logo at the entrance to the hallway gave the impression that restrooms were somewhere in the neighborhood. And after taking a few steps, sure enough, there was the door to the ladies’ room in an alcove along the right-hand wall. But the men’s room was all the way at the end of the hall, something unknowable unless one had the temerity to walk all the way to end and peer into the darkness.

These are minor inconveniences most of which, once solved, present no additional difficulties. But one has to wonder why the building’s designers had to make it so difficult for first-time visitors, especially those likely to be elderly.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Mountain Music Magic—“Baby Doe” Returns

People who know my taste in opera are aware that I generally eschew anything post-1920—especially in English. Not that I’m a snob or anything (well, perhaps a bit of one), but the tuneful harmonies and dramatic excesses of bel canto, romantic and verismo opera strike me as much more listenable than anything from their modern counterparts…and don’t even get me started on Berg!

But one opera, written in 1956, combines a fascinating story with memorable arias and a harmonic score that belies its late date of composition. I am describing, of course, “The Ballad of Baby Doe” by Douglas Moore. The company that commissioned it—Central City (Colo.) Opera—celebrates the piece’s 50th anniversary by including it in this summer’s repertoire.

The Central City Opera House is an interesting venue in an interesting spot. Central City is an old mining town located in the Colorado foothills, 8500 feet above sea level and about 30 miles west of Denver. Once the gold ran out it sank into disrepair and touristy clichés, hitting rock-bottom (pun intended) as long ago as the 1960s. The town’s population receded into the low triple digits, a strange combination of mountain men and strung-out hippies who came together with placid regularity at the Glory Hole Saloon. The local newspaper, “Little Kingdom Come,” was known primarily for its rant-and-rave column by gadfly/bar-fly Lew Cady plus its penchant for running a full-frontal-nude photo of a selected local resident (both males and females were employed) once every issue, said photo subject posing with a cowboy hat or similar Western implement in a strategically placed spot to avoid offending the unsuspecting reader—sort of like the Mountain West’s version of a Page Three Girl. Folks felt compelled to make the winding drive up Clear Creek Canyon to Central City to either drink themselves silly at one of the town’s five saloons, raid the general store for its huge selection of penny candies, or attend one of the three operas performed every summer.

Noting the success Deadwood, S.D., experienced when limited-stakes gambling revived the economy of that Black Hills mining town, Colorado voters in 1990 approved casinos in three mountain towns of their own, one of which was CC. Money flowed in, reminiscent of the boom days when the land above Gregory Gulch was known as “the richest square mile on earth.” Folks who owned dilapidated storefronts in Central City’s narrowly defined “gambling zone” either opened up casinos themselves or sold out to speculators for amazing sums of money. The Glory Hole, previously known for its role as a ten-day shooting location for the Goldie Hawn-George Segal movie vehicle, “The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox,” underwent a multi-million-dollar renovation and ended up as a four-story casino with 400-plus slot machines.

The town’s resurgence boded well for the opera house. Over the years the building had slipped into shabbiness, kept barely afloat thanks to its three annual productions and a very active fundraising guild. The adjacent hotel, the Teller House, had long ago stopped renting rooms—the main stairwell to the upper floors was so rickety that it was cheaper to abandon the hotel business rather than bring the stairs up to code—and survived mainly by serving drinks in the bar. But Tivolino, a Swiss gambling company, leased the Teller House and turned it into a fairly quaint casino, renovating it sufficiently to satisfy the town’s fire marshal. Part of their slot machine revenue was earmarked for refurbishing the opera house next door. Even though the Teller House Casino ultimately crapped out—Central City as a whole lost tons of gambling business to Black Hawk, its rival town just down the hill, mostly because of parking issues and an ill-advised building moratorium only a year after the casinos opened—enough money was put into the coffers to significantly improve the opera-going experience. For example, a few years ago all the seats in the auditorium were replaced, and a SuperTitles system was installed that allowed the company to finally start performing operas in their original languages, rather than singing everything in English.

Throughout the West in the late 1800s, one measure of a mining town’s success was the presence of an opera house. Interestingly enough, operas were rarely on the program—apparently the miners liked the “idea” of opera better than the music itself. These palaces of profligacy, many of which boasted velvet-covered seats, gilded trim and original fine art hanging on lobby walls, offered more pedestrian entertainment such as vaudeville shows, olios, stereopticon displays, and the occasional operetta. The opera house in Central City, which opened in March 1878, is one of the few to have survived intact. Most places like it in various western mining towns succumbed to neglect and abandonment once the ore ran dry, or else burned down in spectacular fashion thanks to the combination of a candlelit auditorium and an inept or inebriated volunteer fire department.

The story of Horace Tabor and his rise to fame and fortune, only to see both evaporate in the Silver Panic of 1893, is so typically Colorado in scope—the boom-and-bust cycle has played out in our state’s history dozens of times since the area was first settled just prior to the American Civil War (or, as my wife likes to call it in her contrarian manner, the War of Northern Aggression). Tabor was born in Vermont, became a stone mason in Boston, and migrated to Kansas Territory in the 1850s as an abolitionist. Once gold was discovered in the Pikes Peak region he moved on to Colorado, following the gold diggers from one camp to another. He started several general stores and also got involved in “grubstaking,” providing miners with living expenses as they worked their claims in return for a percentage of their eventual take. He scored big with his one-third ownership of the Little Pittsburgh Mine just outside Leadville, Colo. Within two years the population of that town went from zero (literally) to more than 15,000. It’s still around today, although a mere shadow of its former existence, the highest-elevation incorporated city in the United States at ten thousand-plus feet above sea level.

But it was Tabor’s ownership of the Matchless Mine (also near Leadville) that made him the richest man in Colorado as well as a short-time U.S. senator, when he took over the 30-day balance of his predecessor’s term—losing the subsequent election to a bitter rival. Silver was the metal upon which Tabor built his fortune. He constructed an opera house in Leadville and an even grander one in Denver. The latter was said to have been the best-equipped theater between St. Louis and San Francisco when it opened in 1881, built at a staggering cost for its day of $850,000 and taking up an entire city block of prime downtown real estate. Regrettably the building was demolished in 1964, back before historical societies held much sway in so-called urban renewal projects.

American history students among you may recall the 1896 presidential bid by Democrat William Jennings Bryan, who lost to Republican William McKinley. The latter raised more than $3.5 million and outspent his opponent something like 10 to one. The defining issue in that campaign involved the question of gold versus silver as monetary backing to the U.S. dollar. The aforementioned panic had been caused by the U.S. government abandoning its decision to prop up the price of silver in face of the vast amounts being mined in Colorado, Nevada, Idaho and Montana—a highly inflationary scenario. Jennings’ speech declaring that the country “would not be crucified upon a cross of gold” was his famous repudiation of the government’s decision to let the price of silver float freely, but his defeat caused the price of silver to drop below 50 cents an ounce. It cost more than that just to produce it. Tabor suffered great hardship financially, especially after electing to avoid bankruptcy and choosing instead to pay off his creditors in full. Eventually he abandoned his interest in mining and moved to Denver, where he scored a plum post as the city’s postmaster.

And by the way…there IS an opera in all this, somewhere.

Douglas Moore (1893-1969) studied with Ernest Bloch at the Cleveland Institute of Music in the 1920s. Bloch had emigrated to the U.S. some years earlier and is best known today for having written a violin concerto that remains part of the repertoire. He also composed an opera, “Macbeth.”

After moving to Columbia University, where he was chairman of the music department for more than twenty years, Moore gained considerable acclaim for his musical composition. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1951 for the opera, “Giants in the Earth” which, to my knowledge, has not been performed since his death. He also wrote “The Devil and Daniel Webster” which is also rarely heard, except for a singular baritone aria popular in vocal competitions. “Baby Doe” was commissioned by Central City Opera and financed by the foundation named for conductor Serge Koussevitsky. In addition to composing the music, Douglas Moore was also one of the librettists. After ditching his original collaborator due to artistic differences he completed the task alongside John Latouche, best known for having penned lyrics to various Broadway musicals that starred people like Eddie Cantor, Carol Channing and Ethel Waters. Larouche later died while working on revisions to his libretto for the Bernstein opera, “Candide.”

"The Ballad of Baby Doe" consists of two acts and is set in Leadville and Denver, Colo., plus a short scene at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. As with all intriguing operatic stories, a serious love interest helps drive the plot. Horace Tabor had married Augusta back in the 1850s, bringing her with him to Kansas and then Colorado. Most historians agree that her hard work and thriftiness gave Tabor the bankroll he needed to make his fortune in mining, and the libretto clearly casts her as a sympathetic character. But the opera begins with Horace meeting Lizzie “Baby” Doe outside his opera house in Leadville, and it is this encounter that sets up the love triangle and gives the rest of the opera its impetus. Tabor quickly divorces Augusta to marry Baby, and he begins his slow spiral into poverty as the price of silver drops and the mine he owns becomes essentially worthless.

As I stated earlier, Moore has written music much more melodious than one expects from something composed in the mid-1950s. He shows strong influences from Italian verismo in the scoring and his use of the orchestra, far different from other operas of its day by people such as Menotti. Its most well known song is the “Silver Aria,” sung by Baby Doe as she entreats Washington legislators to abandon their gold-only stance.

Shortly after the opera’s premiere in Central City, the New York City Opera decided to incorporate this work as part of its repertoire. A young Beverly Sills became far and away the most renowned Baby Doe ever. Aside from “Porgy and Bess,” Moore’s “Ballad of Baby Doe” is the most often-performed American opera.

Central City Opera presents 14 performances of “The Ballad of Baby Doe” this summer. Check here for further details regarding dates and ticketing. It’s a challenging drive up U.S. 6 and Colorado Highway 119 from Golden (home of Coors Brewery) to Central City, especially for flatlanders. An alternative route, a parkway constructed last summer that links this mining town to Interstate 70, makes one's travel a bit less traumatic. Just don’t think about the fact that the new route replaces what used to be known as the “Oh My God Road” because of its steep inclines and precipitous drop-offs, and you’ll be fine.

Kudos are due to Duane Smith, professor of history at Fort Lewis College (Durango, Colo.), for his lecture last evening (2/7/06) as part of the Denver Public Library’s monthly Opera 101 series. Thanks as well to the Baby Doe Web site for allowing me to crib additional information for this post.

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