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The curtain fell on Colorado’s arts scene during COVID. Can it dance back to life?

Denver’s major performing arts companies have, in fits and starts, been on a comeback season. But it is proving to be a long climb back.

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Colorado Ballet principal dancers Jennifer Grace and Mario Labrador rehearse a pas de deux as they prepare for George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

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Wearing a mask may be good protection from COVID-19, but it makes it really tough to sing the rousing “La Chanson Bohème.” Yet that was precisely the challenge soprano Kate Aldrich faced at a rehearsal of Opera Colorado’s upcoming production of “Carmen.”

Aldrich, from time to time, tugged at her mask for extra air as she sang of tambourines, frenzied guitars and red-striped dresses floating in the wind. “You can’t get behind in your breathing,” she explained. “I have sung this so many times I know how many breaths I need.”

Such is opera in the time of pandemic.

Come the stage rehearsals and the performances, which start May 7 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, the masks come off.

In the starring role, mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich joins the cast and crew from Opera Colorado in a full company rehearsal of Act II for its upcoming production of “Carmen”. As the performers continue to wear masks during rehearsals, Aldrich must periodically pull the mask from her face to keep her breathing on track. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Stage director Keturah Stickann, second from left, leads Finn Donahue and Lars Preece, left, through a dance routine during a rehearsal with the cast from Opera Colorado’s upcoming production of “Carmen” at the Opera Center in Englewood. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The masks, however, were back on for everyone, including the audience, at Boettcher Concert Hall when singer-songwriter Ben Folds performed with the Colorado Symphony on April 23. “It was a specific request from the artist,” said Nick Dobreff, the symphony’s communications and creative director. “We had to comply because he wouldn’t perform without it.”

Such is the symphony in the time of pandemic.

Still, after the darkest days — and dark they were, for all the theaters were shuttered — Denver’s major performing arts companies have, in fits and starts, been on a comeback season. It is proving to be a long climb back.

This story first appeared in The Colorado Sunday. Read more cover stories.

In his role as Escamillo , Grammy Award-winning baritone Nmon Ford moves through Act ll surrounded by the cast from Opera Colorado in a full company rehearsal ahead of “Carmen.” (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The banner year that could’ve been

The performing arts were flourishing in the city as 2020 began. The Colorado Ballet had completed a record run for “The Nutcracker,” with a new $1.5 million production. The Colorado Symphony was also on pace to set record attendance and its fifth straight year with a healthy operating reserve.

The Opera was finishing “Pagliacci,” with more than $367,000 in ticket sales for three performances, and “The Lion King,” with strong advance sales, was coming to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in May.

Then on March 13 everything came to a dead stop. The music, the dance, the plays were all victims of the pandemic.

“Twenty-nineteen was a blockbuster year, one of the highest years of attendance ever,” said Meredith Badler, deputy director of the Colorado Business Community for the Arts, a nonprofit promoting the arts.

“Denver had been on this incredible growth trajectory; 2020 set everyone back,” she said. “The pandemic set back every one of our key indicators.” Attendance for the year was down nearly 50% to 8 million for cultural and arts organizations in the greater metro area, and more than 3,700 jobs in the arts were lost, according to the CBCA.

“Performing arts operations are operating on really thin margins so if you can’t get enough people into a performance, you aren’t making your costs,” Badler said.

The previous body blow to the Denver performing arts was the 2008 recession. “Bouncing back from the recession took 10 years. Hopefully it wouldn’t take another decade to get back,” Badler said.

Colorado Ballet principal dancer Jennifer Grace pauses for a short rest while rehearsing a pas de deux ahead of George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Colorado Ballet principal dancer Mario Labrador pauses for a rest during rehearsals. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Learning how to improvise

When rehearsals vanished and theaters were closed, the different arts companies began to improvise.

The Denver Center for the Performing Arts usually has 40 to 50 shows running through its eight theaters in a season. At the same time, it was in the middle of a $41 million renovation project. The center used the pause to its advantage to complete the project.

“The silver lining of our experience was that we were renovating theaters,” said Janice Sinden, DCPA’s president and CEO. 

The Colorado Ballet started doing its daily ballet class for its dancers over Zoom and dancers began making “Virtual Ballet” videos dancing in the parking garage at the performing arts center or along the Platte River, as bicyclists whizzed by. 

The company also teamed up with Rocky Mountain PBS to air performances of “The Nutcracker” and “Alice,” a ballet based on the Lewis Carroll character.

The Colorado Symphony never stopped playing. “Our mantra was play on,” Dobreff said.

Within days of the shutdown, the symphony produced an online performance of the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, each orchestra member playing his or her part at home.

Symphony musicians kept posting videos under the rubric #PlayOn, including the horn section’s soulful rendition of “All By Myself.”  A handful of small, masked and socially distanced ensembles popped up at places like Civic Center park and the Colorado State Capitol.

In July 2020, the symphony became the first group to play at Red Rocks since the start of the pandemic, with a series of 18 concerts by 20 musicians before audiences of 175 spread out across the huge amphitheater. “It was eerie,” Dobreff said. “You just never see Red Rocks like that.”

Colorado Ballet principal dancers Jennifer Grace and Mario Labrador rehearse a pas de deux as they prepare for George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Looking at the numbers

While audiences largely disappeared, one thing that did not vanish was philanthropic and government backing for the arts. In fact, private donations to arts and cultural groups in 2020 rose 5.5% to $225 million compared to 2019, according to the CBCA.

“We are a nonprofit organization. We are used to raising money to meet our goals,” Dobreff said. “It isn’t something a restaurant or a store can do. … Donations became very important during that time and our support helped in a massive way to help us keep playing on.”

Pre-pandemic donations to performing arts organizations ranged on average from one-fifth to more than two-thirds of total revenue, based on their 990 federal tax forms.

DCPA had a 30,000-person subscriber base and the organization sought to have subscribers contribute their tickets. This helped boost donations to $4.5 million. Tickets could also be held as credits for future performances. Still, the center lost about 5,000 subscribers during the pandemic.

Subscribers also donated tickets for opera performances the company could not perform. “We saw a tremendous amount of support in contributions,” Carpenter said.

The opera was expecting about a 30% drop-off in contributions and while donations of $500 or less did decrease, pledges from major donors swelled. “So, it all balanced out,” Carpenter said.

Opera Colorado logged an 8% increase in contributions in fiscal year 2021 to $3.9 million, compared to a year earlier, while ticket sales were a tenth — just  $1,400 — of what they were before the pandemic. More than half of the symphony’s $13.3 million 2020 budget was covered by contributions.

“I was concerned whether dollars would shift from the private sector, but they kept it up,” said Deborah Jordy, executive director of the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District. The SCFD channels designated sales tax revenue to 320 arts and cultural organizations in Denver and six surrounding counties.

“Philanthropy stayed strong particularly in the performing arts where there was no earned income, no ticket sales,” Jordy said.

In his role as Escamillo, Grammy Award-winning baritone Nmon Ford moves through Act ll surrounded by the cast from Opera Colorado in a full company rehearsal for its upcoming production of ÒCarmenÓ inside the Opera Center in Englewood. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)
Ballet master Sandra Brown, left, moves through a pas de deux with principal dancers Jennifer Grace and Mario Labrador as they prepare for George BalanchineÕs Theme and Variations. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

The SCFD also increased its grants rising to $75.3 million in 2021 from $66 million in 2019, as sales tax revenue grew in the region.

“It really demonstrates generally consistent year-over-year support for cultural institutions and that is what they needed during the pandemic,” Jordy said.

There was one unexpected source of aid — the federal government’s COVID relief funds. Like other employers with fewer than 500 workers, performing arts organizations were able to access the Paycheck Protection Program and the employee retention tax credit, and then there was the $16.2 billion shuttered venue operator grant program.

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“All those things were a bonus,” the Opera’s Carpenter said. “We never expected to be on the receiving end of that kind of federal government support.”

The opera received $518,000 in federal help over 2020 and 2021. The ballet — carrying a full company of dancers — received a total of nearly $6.4 million in federal backing over two years.

The Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, which suffered a crippling string of performance cancellations as members in its productions came down with COVID-19, saw donations reach a record $1 million. “From small donors to corporations, everyone stepped up,” said Phillip Sneed, the center’s CEO and president.

The center also received $5.2 million in federal aid over two years, helping to offset $3.6 million in losses.

“At first we thought it was more than we needed,” Sneed said. But the aid became vital as losses mounted — the most recent, $130,000 in ticket returns from the cancellation of the last seven performances of the musical “Kinky Boots.”

Over the two years DCPA garnered about $16 million in federal aid, according to Sinden. DCPA depends heavily on ticket sales — contributions made up just 20% of its pre-pandemic budget of $75 million. “It was really, really tough to come back. We lost $100 million in 18 months,” she said.

Colorado Ballet principal dancers Jennifer Grace and Mario Labrador rehearse a pas de deux as they prepare for George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
In the starring role, mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich moves through Act ll surrounded by the cast from Opera Colorado in a full company rehearsal for its upcoming production of “Carmen” inside the Opera Center in Englewood. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The comeback

Still, as the summer of 2021 came to a close, everyone was preparing for that comeback.

One decision all these performing arts groups made was that patrons would have to wear masks and have proof of vaccination or negative COVID tests to attend performances.

“We wanted to be in lockstep because we knew it was going to be hard,” Dobreff said. “We did what was collectively best.”

The symphony began Sept. 17 with pianist Emmanuel Ax playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 at Boettcher. The ballet took the stage in October with “Giselle” — with special precautions backstage at the Ellie Caulkins to sequester hard-breathing dancers.

The opera, which was dormant during the 18-month lacuna, had managed to keep all its contracts for its production of “Tosca,” a casualty of the 2020 shutdown, and was able to stage Giacomo Puccini’s tale of love and betrayal at the Ellie Caulkins in November.

When the shutdown came, DPCA just left the set for the Improvised Shakespeare Company on the stage of its Garner Galleria Theater and shut the doors. “Eighteen months later we dusted everything off, cleaned the theater and we were back,” Sinden said.

The question was: Would audiences be back as well?

“Our comeback is a little slower, ticket sales have been a little softer,” Sinden said. “There are single ticket buyers making decisions closer to the event date, because they are not sure what the situation will be.”

The opera had one of highest subscription rates in the county, Carpenter said, with almost half of the performances covered by subscribers. “We’ve seen a drop-off from that,” he said. “Some patrons are not quite ready to come back. We are selling a lot more single tickets.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

“We budgeted based on 50% of the house being sold. We weren’t sure if we’d have to limit capacity for social distancing,” Carpenter said. But for “Tosca” and the following production, “The Shining,” the house was more than 70% full.

The ballet on average saw its performances drawing three-quarters of a regular season, save for the Christmas run of “The Nutcracker” where attendance was off just 5%.

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“What was really important was getting our dancers back on stage and back to their careers … and we’ve been able to put on a full season,” said Gil Boggs, the ballet’s artistic director.

The ballet, like the opera, also saw more single and last-minute ticket sales. “We are still living in an era where it is hard to plan ahead,” Badler said.

The size of symphony audiences depended upon the performance, Dobreff said. Some concerts were sellouts or near sellouts, such as performances with Leslie Odom Jr. and Ben Folds.

The symphony, ballet and the opera — if there are no pitfalls with “Carmen” — will all have gotten through their seasons without canceling any shows. Others haven’t been that lucky.

In the midst of DCPA’s December-January run of “The Lion King” (which had been canceled in May 2020), 13 performances had to be scrapped because of COVID-positive cast members. “Some folks were canceled twice, in May and December,” Sinden said.

At the Arvada Center — which presents three musicals and four plays during a normal season — the musicals are the moneymakers, but this season the Christmas musical “Elf” was forced to scratch nine performances and “Kinky Boots” lost seven.

That added up to $360,000 in ticket refunds, Sneed said.

The looming question

The question that now looms over the region’s performing arts is how long it will take for audiences to return and for the organizations to recover. “We went into this season as a year of rebuilding after COVID, but we didn’t really know what rebuilding would mean,” Carpenter said. “Next season will still be a rebuilding season.”

The Arvada Center’s Sneed said it might take three to five years to recover.

There is also another worry that there may have been a fundamental shift in theatergoers’ behavior as a result of the pandemic.

 “The big question is: Have we lost some patrons permanently?” Sneed said. “Have some people decided it is easier to stay home and watch virtual content?”

This story first appeared in Colorado Sunday, a premium magazine newsletter for members. Become a Basic+ Member to get Colorado Sunday in your inbox every week.

Colorado Ballet principal dancers Jennifer Grace and Mario Labrador rehearse a pas de deux as they prepare for George BalanchineÕs Theme and Variations. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

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