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Friday, February 24, 2006

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.

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