New Formula for Central City Opera’s 2015 Season

“The one thing you cannot do is stand still”

by Peter Alexander

2015OverviewFromAdPat Pearce knows he is navigating difficult waters.

The general/artistic director of the Central City Opera is facing the same problems as every opera company in the country: falling revenues and shrinking audiences. Tied to both the recession and to changing demographics, these are the twin elephants in the opera house—and for that matter, the concert hall, the theater and the museum gallery—throughout the country.

Fortunately, the problems have not been as drastic for CCO as the recent and well publicized troubles at Opera Colorado, the San Diego Opera, and even the staid Metropolitan Opera in New York. (I wrote about those companies in an earlier post on this blog.)

“Everyone has been affected by what’s been happening,” Pearce says. “Some people were better able to navigate it, but everyone is looking to do things differently.”

Pearce believes that it’s not enough to bring in new audiences, if you don’t also find new sources of income. And the other way around: income is not enough if you are not finding the audiences for the future of opera.

Pelham "Pat" Pearce

Pelham “Pat” Pearce

“The smartest people will do both—raise more money and get new audiences,” he says. “Nobody has figured it out yet. (But) the one thing you cannot do is stand still.”

With that in mind, Pearce and CCO have charted a new course for their 2015 season. As Pearce explained in the press release announcing the coming season, “We are adjusting our strategy . . . to create a deeper connection with our current and future audiences.”

To help connect with new audiences, CCO will take three one-act chamber operas on the road next year, visiting communities around Colorado with full productions featuring casts of professional and apprentice artists and orchestra (if called for). The three touring operas will represent an intriguing mix of styles and periods: The Prodigal Son, a church parable by Benjamin Britten; The Blind, an unusual a capella concept opera by Lera Auerbach; and Don Quixote and the Duchess (Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse) by the French Baroque composer Joseph Bodin de Boismortier. (See descriptions of these unusual works below.)

Locations and dates of these performances will be announced soon. In the meantime, Pearce estimates that there will be a total of 9–12 performances of the three in churches and other venues around the state. Each production will also have a performance in Central City during the summer season.

These traveling productions will compliment two productions to be performed in repertory in the beautiful Central City Opera House. Continuing a recent trend at Central City and other opera companies around the world, one will be a Broadway musical—Man of La Mancha—and one will be from the traditional grand opera repertoire—Verdi’s La Traviata.

For the past three years plus the current season, CCO has taken a production down the mountains and into Denver as a means of seeking out new audiences. Three of those years, the Denver performance has been a Broadway musical.

“We’ve been in experimentation for three or four years, some of which worked and some of which didn’t” Pearce says. “The reason we did the (Broadway) musical theater pieces in Denver was to see if we could find a new audience.”


Central City Opera House interior. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

In fact, those performances did bring in new audiences, as planned, but attendance remained more or less level, meaning that about the same number of people who were regulars in Central City did not make the trip to Denver. It was that outcome that led to intensive strategic planning over the past year and the development of CCO’s new format. Pearce said that every possibility was considered, including selling the company’s Central City property and moving their headquarters to Denver.

Fortunately, that scenario was quickly rejected as the CCO administration recognized how much their success is tied to their unique location in a Colorado mining town, and their historic jewel-box opera house. “Partly what people pay for is the experience here (in Central City),” Pearce says, looking around at the audience gathering on the opera house grounds.

“Part of our brand is this experience.”


For those unfamiliar with the one-act operas on CCO’s 2015 season schedule, the company has provided the following descriptions:

One of Benjamin Britten’s three church parable operas, which also include Curlew River and The Burning Fiery Furnace, The Prodigal Son is based on the Biblical story of the same name. With a libretto by William Plomer and a score dedicated to Shostakovich, this one-act opera centers on the well-known parable about a son, bored with life on his father’s farm, who asks for his inheritance to go seek an exciting life in a far-off city where he is deprived of his fortune and left penniless. When the son returns home to ask for forgiveness, his father receives him with open arms, but his angry older brother who has loyally worked his father’s fields doesn’t feel the same. The Prodigal Son will be performed in English at church venues in Central City and throughout the state.
“It’s not the characters who are blind,” said composer Lera Auerbach in a New York Times interview about the one-act opera The Blind. “The message is that we are the blind. With all our means of communication we see each other less and connect to each other less. We have less understanding and compassion for other people…” First performed in October 2011, this unconventional a capella opera for 12 singers requires that audience members be blindfolded so they can enter the world of its sightless characters. Adapted from an 1890 play by Maurice Maeterlinck, the story is about a dozen blind people who are taken by their priest on an outing. When the elderly priest suddenly dies, they are stranded on an island left helpless and scared. The group realizes that they never really knew the priest as a person as they stumble upon his cold, dead body. A Russian- American composer, Lera Auerbach wrote The Blind in 1994 while she was a student at Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival. Central City Opera’s production is in partnership with American Opera Projects, the company who presented the opera for the 2013 Lincoln Center Festival in a production touted by the New York Times as “An adventurous, eerie and thoroughly engaging example of immersive theater.” The Blind will be performed in English at non-traditional venues in Central City and across the region.
As its final traveling one-act production for 2015, Central City Opera presents Don Quixote and the Duchess (Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse), by French baroque composer Joseph Bodin de Boismortier. This piece is adapted from Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote with a libretto by Charles Simon Favart. First performed in Paris in 1743, the opera is based on one episode in the novel. The story follows a Duke and Duchess who amuse themselves by creating an elaborate ruse to fool the title character. The story is rich with incisive, quick and ironic turns. A rarely performed piece, this production will be the regional premiere of the opera and will provide a completely different take on the same story of Don Quixote presented as part of Central City Opera’s production of the musical Man of La Mancha also being presented in 2015. Don Quixote and the Duchess will be performed in English in both Central City venues and across Colorado.



July 11 to August 9, 2015

Productions in Central City:

LA TRAVIATA by Giuseppe Verdi

MAN OF LA MANCHA by Leigh, Darion & Wasserman


Touring productions throughout Colorado:

THE PRODIGAL SON by Benjamin Britten

THE BLIND by Lera Auerbach

DON QUIXOTE AND THE DUCHESS by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier

Season details

Opposite poles attract success at Central City Opera

Dead Man Walking and Marriage of Figaro are worth the trip into the mountains.

By Peter Alexander

Central City Opera House. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Central City Opera House. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

The two productions currently running at the Central City Opera (CCO) are not so much contrasting shades of opera as opposite poles.

At the dark end of spectrum is Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, a setting of playwright Terence McNally’s powerful libretto, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean. The true story of a nun’s efforts to reach out to a brutal death row convict, the book also inspired the 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. This seems unlikely material for operatic treatment—the drama is largely psychological and very little happens in the conventional sense—but Heggie and McNally have created a gripping work of musical theater that keeps the audience riveted, even as they know the inevitable outcome.

The opposite pole is represented by Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, one of the greatest and most luminescent operatic explorations of human emotions ever created. A politically and socially dangerous work written on the eve of the French Revolution, it cloaks its subversive message with the light of compassion and humor in Mozart’s transcendent setting of a masterful libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte.

As different as they are, these works are given wholly satisfying and powerfully moving productions by the Central City Opera company. With strong casts, well conceived productions and thoughtful direction, both operas are well worth the drive into the mountains—even if you don’t need an excuse to drive into the mountains.

In his notes for Dead Man Walking, director Ken Cazan observes that the opera “doesn’t tell the viewer what to think and feel. . . . [It] poses questions, not answers.” Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about the work is how well it conveys understanding and sympathy for all of the characters, even the murderer Joseph De Rocher.

Dead Man Walking execution scene. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Dead Man Walking execution scene. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

If the work has a flaw, it is the sustained intensity of its emotional expression. Though unavoidable considering the subject matter, the unrelenting high tension of the music leaves no scope for the shattering musical climax we might expect. As a result, the ending, when De Rocher finally faces his execution, provides a dramatic resolution but not a musical one. The final scene, where Sister Helen returns to the tender hymn that opened the opera, “He Will Gather Us Around,” rounds out the opera on a quiet note that feels inconclusive.

But perhaps that reflects the reality that the questions faced by the opera’s characters—questions of guilt, of punishment, of retribution and redemption—remain unanswered for the characters and for us, as they must always be.

As the murderer De Rocher, Michael Mayes gave a committed and muscular performance—even singing while doing pushups in one scene. His voice conveyed menace and danger from his very first entrance, only softening in the second act when he sang of being “Down by the river with your woman.” The transformation from the threatening figure of Act I to someone who could admit his fear and his guilt and tell Sister Helen “I love you” at the end is an accomplishment of both vocal and dramatic artistry.

Jennifer Rivera ably filled the role of Sister Helen, who is onstage for most of the opera. The throbbing orchestral accompaniment, the range and contours of her part push her into an intensity of expression that make vocal control difficult. Fortunately, she was able to convey small contrasting moments of humor and tenderness as well as the overarching spiritual struggle that defines her role.

Of the many supporting roles, several stand out: Maria Zifchak as De Rocher’s mother was especially moving in the final scenes when she has to face her son’s death; and Robert Orth as Owen Hart commanded attention as an angry father whose daughter died at De Rocher’s hands, but who manages to move toward acceptance by the end.

Other, more one-dimensional supporting roles are well handled: Thomas Hammons as the warden; Jason Baldwin as the unsympathetic Father Grenville; Karina Brazas, Claire Shackleton and Joseph Gaines as mourning parents. Jeanine De Bique was on target but vocally strained as Sister Rose. John David Nevergall added a light touch as the Motorcycle Cop.

Dead Man Walking: Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher and Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen Prejean. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Dead Man Walking: Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher and Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen Prejean. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

The coloring of vowels by the singers to suggest the Louisiana locale of the story was only intermittently successful, and considering the universality of the questions we are asked to ponder, I am not sure that it is necessary.

One of the pleasures of opera at Central City is seeing the creative ways the company makes use of its limited stage and wing space. Alan E. Muraoka’s minimalist stage designs were highly effective, using angled fences to convey the enclosed space of the prison as well as the emotionally closed world of the convicts. In other scenes, pieces of furniture—two chairs, a table and a chair—or the execution gurney that De Rocher is strapped to, Christ-like, at the end, were sufficient to set the changing scenes and illuminate the changing relationships.

Ken Cazan’s direction was efficient and effective, especially in making use of the limited space to convey relationships among the principal characters. John Baril lead Central City’s fine orchestra with a firm hand.

# # # # #

CCO’s production of The Marriage of Figaro has been updated from the 18th century to Spain in the 1920s. Director Alessandro Talevi justifies this through the political situation of the time. “Spain . . . .was deeply conservative and religious in conflict with dynamic progressive movement of secularism,” he writes, establishing a parallel with the pre-revolutionary Europe of Mozart’s time.

Act II Finale, Marriage of Figaro. Photo by Mark Kiryluk

Act II Finale, Marriage of Figaro. Photo by Mark Kiryluk

I am not sure the intellectual justification is necessary, or even helps for that matter.

For the most part the setting and costumes were successful, the 1920s being long enough ago that audiences readily accept the social hierarchies and conflicts of the plot. That said, I do have one reservation, in that British costume dramas are now so familiar to American audiences that many must have thought of Downton Abbey, and the Count reminded me inescapably of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. These resonances do not enhance Mozart’s masterpiece.

The one essential of any production of the opera is a Figaro who can command the stage. CCO is fortunate to have a vocally secure Figaro in Michael Sumuel, whose genial presence was always welcome onstage. He sang expressively, handling Figaro’s wide range of emotions with aplomb.

Michael Sumuel as Figaro and Anna Christy as Susanna. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Michael Sumuel as Figaro and Anna Christy as Susanna. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

As Figaro’s intended bride Susanna, Anna Christy was a secure vocal partner in her many duets and ensembles with the other cast members. It is her relationship to each of the other principal characters that drives the plot, and Christy was a solid anchor for the drama. In spite of an occasionally nasal sound, her expressive phrasing brought her character warmly to life.

Another critical role is Cherubino, a “pants” role taken by a female mezzo as an adolescent boy who is in love with every woman he sees, from the young Barbarina and Susanna to his godmother the Countess. Tamara Gura was excellent from her first entrance, moving with all the awkwardness of a teenager. I found her unusually convincing throughout, and her aria “Voi che sapete” was especially charming.

As the Count, Edward Parks was perhaps too measured at the outset, neither commanding enough nor bombastic enough in the first two acts. He grew into the role, however, and by the end his confession and plea for forgiveness brought the opera to an effective end.

Anna Christy as Susanna and Sinéad Mulhern as the Countess. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Anna Christy as Susanna and Sinéad Mulhern as the Countess. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Sinéad Mulhern played the countess with grace and delicacy. Her lovely voice lost quality when pushed, but otherwise her portrayal was pleasing.

Madeleine Boyd’s flexible sets made effective use of the limited stage, even if they recalled an English country house. Talevi’s direction captured the comic qualities of the libretto perfectly, with one exception: the unnecessary comic business during the Count’s Act III aria badly upstaged the singer and undermined the emotion of the scene.

Conductor Adrian Kelly led the performance ably, setting solid tempos and supporting the singers well for most of the opera. The opening overture was full of energy but occasionally smudged, a minor flaw that recurred during the opera as well.

Unfortunately, Central City does not have a genuine harpsichord at its disposal—perhaps due to limited space in the pit or the difficult of caring for a natural instrument at 8,500 ft.—and has to resort to a Kawai electronic keyboard. This is unfortunate whatever the reason. The sound may be adequate for amateur keyboard players who fancy 18th-century music, but it is not suitable for a truly professional performance.

But make no mistake: All reservations aside, this is a sparkling production, full of comic energy and good spirits. The stark contrast between this Figaro and the darkly impressing Dead Man Walking only enhances them both.

Central City Opera

The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart
2:30 pm July 15, 16, 20, 22, 26
8:00 pm July 10, 12, 18
Central City Opera House
For tickets, click here

Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie
2:30 pm July 13, 19, 23, 25
8:00 pm July 11, 17
Central City Opera House
For tickets, click here  

The voyage of discovery of great music

Introducing William Boughton, a candidate to lead the Colorado Music Festival

By Peter Alexander

William Boughton; photo by Harold Shapiro

William Boughton; photo by Harold Shapiro

Each of the three candidates to take Michael Christie’s position as music director of Boulder’s Colorado Music Festival will conduct concerts this summer at Chautauqua. When each candidate visits Boulder, I will take the opportunity to introduce him (and yes, they are all male). I will ask each candidate about his interest and ideas for the festival, and give him a chance to introduce himself to the public. I hope this will give a clearer picture of the strengths of each candidate.

William Boughton is the first of the three to visit Boulder, with performances July 6, 10 and 11. (Read about the concerts in Boulder Weekly.) To learn more about him, you can read his full press biography here.

Here are his answers to the questions I asked:

PA: What attracted you to the Colorado Music Festival?

 WB: Its history, its involvement with the community, and the quality of the orchestra. And I think most important is the fairly recent connection between the Rocky Mountain Center for the Arts and Colorado Music Festival. And I think that is a really exciting development for the board and the people of the community because it embeds the festival much more closely into the community.

What do you think are the strengths of the festival?

 It’s the orchestra, certainly, and from what I can see—I haven’t witnessed it yet—is the close connection with the community. Another thing is the concert hall, because it’s not your typical concert hall. It’s not a hallowed space where artists congregate backstage. There is no backstage, and it breaks down all sorts of barriers. We’re all there for one purpose: our love and the experience of great music, whatever the genre is.


William Boughton conducting; photo by Harold Shapiro

William Boughton conducting; photo by Harold Shapiro

Are there any things that you would change, or build up, or de-emphasize in the festival?

My two great loves are education, and that from cradle to the grave, for all people, the voyage of discovery of great music; and the community. We all constantly learn about new things. And American music is becoming very important to my life. The fostering of composers is terribly important for the future of the art form. And it’s important or all of us to know what’s happening around us. We don’t live in a bubble.

Do you have any specific ideas for programming at the festival?

 The programming has to relate to its audience—without knowing what that audience is yet. And I think that that a festival is a vehicle for bringing visitors into the town. So it helps with economic generation as well.

We hear a lot about a crisis facing classical music, with audiences declining and getting older. Andrew Bradford, the new executive director of the CMF, says he doesn’t buy that argument. Do you think there is a crisis, and if so, what should we do about it?

 No, I completely agree with him, I don’t think there is a crisis. I think that it goes back to the idea that musicians live in a bubble. You listen to what audiences have to say, and respond to audiences, while also taking them on a journey of discovery, and you have to combine those two things. Orchestral music and classical music is as important today, and as relevant today as it always was. These great works of art, whether it’s Shakespeare or Beethoven, they will never die. They inform us about who we are as people, as individuals. It’s music that speaks to us across ages, and, I don’t buy that it’s dead music and there are no audiences.

And now a few less serious questions. Boulder is known as a great city for foodies. Do you have a favorite cuisine? And don’t say English! I’ve had English cuisine.

 I’m even flattered that you put “English cuisine” into that! A lot of people would say the English don’t have a cuisine. My favorite is French cuisine.

Colorado is known for its outdoor life. Do you have a favorite outdoor recreation?

 I love hiking. We’ve just come back from Acadia National Park in Maine. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. Hiking and gardening are my pastimes.

This year’s festival is taking place during the soccer World Cup. Are you a soccer fan, and if so, who do you support?

 I’m a soccer fan and I support the US! And Chelsea [in England], but I’m becoming really exasperated and annoyed with the English soccer team. It was almost as if they had no passion, or ambition, but the U.S. team is an absolute revelation. The Portugal match was incredible. It was one of the best games I’ve watched in years.

Off on a light note

First CMF music director candidate crafts light program

By Peter Alexander

William Boughton; photo by Harold Shapiro

William Boughton; photo by Harold Shapiro

William Boughton does not believe the concert hall should be a cathedral of high art.

The first of three candidates for music director of the Colorado Music Festival to conduct at Chautauqua this summer, Boughton will lead two programs, with the chamber orchestra July 6 and the full orchestra July 10-11 (7:30 p.m. in the Chautauqua Auditorium).  And he is clear that he aspires to be no high priest at the altar of great music.

“Concerts are supposed to be enjoyable things,” he says.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

Is the Metropolitan Opera in danger?

Opinions vary, but some details emerge.

By Peter Alexander

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

Anyone who follows the world of opera has noticed the news.

First, the San Diego Opera was going to close. Then it was saved by a public groundswell, and the longtime artistic director, Ian Campbell, was gone (and his massive salary as well). The company has announced a three-opera season for 2014–15.

Here in Colorado, Denver’s Opera Colorado had to cancel the anticipated premiere of Lori Laitman’s Scarlet Letter. The company was left with a two-opera “season,” including a bare-bones presentation of Carmen with the orchestra on stage and tickets prices up to $167.60. In case you have missed this saga, the various missteps by the company have been dissected by the Denver Post music critic, Ray Mark Rinaldi.

The troubles these two companies find themselves in are clearly financial. Unlike Broadway, where only most investments fail, opera has never been a money-making proposition; it has always depended upon financial support way beyond the cost of tickets, either from the court (early opera in Italy, 18th-century Versailles or Mozart’s Vienna, for example), or wealthy aristocrats (18th-century London), or the government (all across Europe today), or private donors (in the United States). To music historians, the financial ups and downs of opera in London are famously convoluted, with one scheme appearing after another, and all of them failing eventually. Handel, after all, turned to oratorios like Messiah because they were essentially opera on the cheap—all the singing, fewer singers and none of the sets and costumes. Similar histories crop up over and over again, wherever opera is produced. The culprits are usually the salaries of super-star singers, or the cost of fantastic productions, or sometimes the ineptitude of the management. Or all three. But the result is always, and always will be, the same: Opera costs way more to put on than any business can sustain without massive subsidies.

Here in the U.S., we like to imagine that our leading cultural institutions are rock solid. They have a dependable donor base and they are well run within a reasonable budget.

Dream on.

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met

There is no larger or more established or more revered cultural institution in the country than the Metropolitan Opera, but its history is not one of outstanding management. (If you want details, read this fascinating, and disheartening, account by Johanna Fiedler.) And now Peter Gelb, the current general manager, says the company stands “on the edge of a precipice.” This comes after several massively expensive new productions mounted by the company, including one that required a $1.4 million investment just to reinforce the Met stage so it could support the set (Robert LePage’s Ring cycle; the cost of the reinforcement has been variously reported, up to $5 million), and another that included a $169,000 poppy field (Prince Igor). But amid criticism of his spending on those productions, Gelb says it is the labor costs that are out of control. They may or may not be, depending on your perspective, but it seems that is not the only problem.

It is no accident that Gelb is raising the alarm just when the Met is in negotiations with unions whose members make the company go, most notably the musicians’ union. This being New York, it is hard to separate facts from negotiating tactics, but a new analysis of the Met’s finances by the Wall St. Journal brings a few facts and some clarity to the issue. For one thing, we can learn that some of Gelb’s expensive and highly promoted new productions have not done well after their first year. But read the whole article to get the full meaning.

Another analysis can be found in The Guardian.

And just to put all of this in an even more interesting light, two of the world’s other major opera companies—the Chicago Lyric and Vienna State Opera—have recently announced that they have completed very successful, even record-breaking, seasons. The timing is at least inconvenient for Gelb and the Met management.

CCOperaLogoPreferredI will have more to say about the current condition of opera in a future article on the announcement of Central City Opera‘s 2015 season, which is going in an interesting new direction. In the meantime, for some perspective on the San Diego Opera and the Metropolitan’s various concerns, I recommend this article written by Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed. Google searches on the principals and the organizations involved will turn up many more.