Pat Pearce does not mince words when looking at the future of Central City Opera.
“We cannot stand still,” the company’s general and artistic director says. And to make sure, Pearce says it again. “We cannot stand still.”
In announcing plans for next summer’s season, Pearce clearly means what he says.
All productions will still originate in Central City, most of them in the 136-year-old Opera House. But the company will travel to small cities and towns around Colorado with three little-known, one-act operas.
The touring programming consists of “The Prodigal Son,” one of three church parables by English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-76); “Don Quixote and the Duchess,” a take on an episode from Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” by French composer Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755); and “The Blind,” a 1994 work by Russian-born American composer Lera Auerbach (b. 1974), written for an a cappella chorus of 12 who portray a group of stranded blind people.
Central City Opera appears to be bringing the mountain to Muhammad, as the old saying goes.
“We’ve come to the conclusion that we needed to go to them,” Pearce says of the dwindling number of opera-goers. “We can’t wait for them to show up.”
Small-town opera a tradition
Colorado has a rich history of presenting opera in remote places.
Alongside Central City, small former mining towns like Leadville and Creede have 19th century opera houses. And Crested Butte hosts an “Opera in Paradise” series as part of the annual Crested Butte Music Festival.
But while it’s not hard to find opera in off-the-beaten-track locales in Colorado, the programming mainly consists of standard fare: “Opera in Paradise,” which happens July 12 - 27 this year, features such well-known operas as Puccini's “Suor Angelica” and Verdi's “Rigoletto.”
Mounting productions of obscure one-acts is another thing altogether.
Pearce acknowledges that Central City Opera, which only stages full productions in the summer season, is coping with the realities of declining audiences and increasing production costs.
“People who travel to us are purchasing the experience of being in an old opera house that seats only 550,” Pearce says. “But the fact is, we lose money whenever we open the doors.”
Ticket sales only account for 20 percent of Central City Opera’s financial requirements. The remaining 80 percent of the company’s $5 million budget comes from a small army of generous annual donors. The organization also has a $10 million endowment -- the second-largest among statewide arts programs, after the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.
For many Central City Opera patrons, the crowded, casino-heavy destination of that forming mining town, not to mention the 35-mile trek from Denver, make for a tough mountain to climb.
This underscores the motivation for Pearce and company to take more shows on the road next season.
Making opera a destination
The experience of visiting Central City is in contrast to that of some other summer opera festivals around the country.
Glimmerglass is a case in point. Each summer, the 900-seat theater on Lake Otsego near Cooperstown presents 40 performances of four productions.
Part of the attraction for Glimmerglass opera-goers is the pleasant drive and picturesque setting.
“We have made a commitment to the community and the region by making this a destination,” Glimmerglass artistic and general director Francesca Zambello says.
But the main driver of Central City Opera’s touring project, Pearce says, is audience development.
“We want to build a bridge between those communities out there and what we do here,” Pearce says. “We’re looking to make a connection to people about this art form.”
The company has not yet lined up tour destinations for next summer. But Pearce envisions 10-12 performances in informal venues far away from Central City.
“I look at these offerings as a whole,” Pearce says. “It just feels right to me. Sure, there are some unusual things. But most of our audience will have no experience with opera. It’s all new to them.”
A model to follow
Other organizations are starting to pay attention to Central City Opera’s touring concept.
“We heard about their plans, and we’ve been thinking about doing a similar thing,” Aspen Music Festival and School President and CEO Alan Fletcher says. “Last October, we rented a performance place in New York called SubCulture. We brought in the soprano Dawn Upshaw, we played a Brahms quintet and did other things. It went very well. So we thought, ‘We should do this in Denver.’ It’s still early, but the idea is, we would set up a similar series in the fall of 2015.”
Fletcher, echoing Pearce, stresses that the plan to tour one-acts to small towns next season is not motivated by a need for more revenue.
“This summer, our ticket sales are up and donations are up,” Fletcher says. “We’re mostly supported by the local community, but it’s very small. By going out and raising our profile and generating tourism, it’s a way to increase interest in who we are and what we do.”
Logical target audiences for Colorado’s summer music festivals are the Denver and Front Range populations.
But for Pearce, bringing opera to the state’s big urban hubs is not a priority for the coming years, even though the company has a history of touring productions to larger cities.
During the 1984-87 seasons under general director John Moriarty, Central City brought operetta productions to Colorado Springs, Fort Collins and Denver. “Those lost money,” Pearce says. “But they made connections.”
Each of the past two seasons, the company has brought a musical production to Denver.
This year’s staging of “The Sound of Music” runs from August 2 - 10 in the Ellie Caulkins Opera House.
Last year, “Show Boat” was presented at the Buell. Next season, “Man of La Mancha” will be offered in the Opera House in Central City, along with Verdi’s “La Traviata.”
With the touring trio of one-acts visiting venues statewide, the tradition of presenting two productions in the Opera House necessitated moving the annual musical theater classic back to Central City.
The company will not return to Denver in the foreseeable future.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with this new delivery system in the future,” Pearce says of Central City’s one-act touring concept. “Who’s to say that this won’t be the future means of presenting opera?”
Marc Shulgold is a freelance writer, teacher and lecturer. He was previously the longtime music and dance writer at the Rocky Mountain News.
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