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Original Thinkers festival debuted in Telluride in 2018. (David Holbrooke, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Leah Podzimek, a Denver-based opera singer who is forging unique partnerships with other artists to create one-of-a-kind aural interactions that blend, for example, sculpture with operatic storytelling, says “opera is for everyone.”

“Society has gotten more and more, what’s the word I’m looking for, distracted. So it can be hard for people to simply sit and listen, especially if they don’t understand the language,” Podzimek says. “Giving people art they can see in front of them, that gives them another point of contact for the emotion the music is expressing.”

She is on a mission to make opera more accessible.

“I want to tear down those preconceptions about what a person believes opera is and what they have to be in order to enjoy it,” says the soprano singer. “If you can relate to a story being told, then opera is for you.”

Later this month at the Original Thinkers festival in Telluride, Podzimek will join several local artists in a blending of physical art and opera, hoping to connect new audiences to the resonant storytelling of opera. 

“All you need to be is open and willing to experience something that is a little bit different and if we can bring that kind of openness to other parts of our lives, we can improve the quality of our lives and see across all sorts of cultural boundaries,” she says. 

That’s pretty much the mission of Original Thinkers, which will host its fifth festival in Telluride Sept. 29-Oct. 2. Festival founder David Holbrooke gathers diverse artists, scientists, activists, authors and filmmakers to help expand perspectives around some heavy issues — like grief, climate change, holistic healing, cancer treatment and women’s rights — through storytelling. 

“Every challenge, every issue can be boiled down to a person’s story. Maybe through these stories we can more easily access some of the seismic upheaval we have seen in recent years,” Holbrooke says. “Maybe in these stories we can find something we can relate to and we can make the changes we need to make.”

Last fall, at the foot of the Highland Bridge over Interstate 25 in Denver, Podzimek joined musicians and more than 30 visual artists in a mixed-media display of color and sound. The musicians performed movements that inspired the artists’ pieces, creating a visceral connection between the art and the music. 

She’s bringing that project — she calls it Interplay — to Telluride for Original Thinkers. She sent recordings and context of her music to a handful of local artists who are creating paintings and sculptures inspired by her music, which reflects themes of love, lust, loss and grief. The works of art will be on display in a gallery while Podzimek and her fellow musicians perform. 

“It’s very visceral,” she says of her craft. “It’s a very physical process to sing operatically.”

When she sings in a smaller room, with audience members and artists mingling among works of art inspired by the music, “it creates emotional responses — goosebumps — even when you don’t understand the words we are singing. You feel the vibrations of the music and you feel the connection the artists had to the music when they created their art. And we will be seeing the art for the first time, too. So there is this tremendous feedback loop.”

That vibration is carefully cultivated by Holbrooke and his Original Thinkers team. They have built something more than a film festival, with hopes of inspiring audiences and opening new ways to address daunting challenges and issues. 

This year’s festival filmmakers, performers and panelists includes Dasha Navalny, the daughter of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny who is imprisoned in a penal colony in his homeland. Immunologist Dr. Carl June will speak about his breakthrough immunotherapies documented in the film “Of Medicine and Miracles.” The Janes — a cadre of valiant women who 50 years ago worked to provide safe abortion access around Chicago when the procedure was illegal — will share their perspective as abortion protections fade. 

Other filmmakers and advocates will be at Original Thinkers to discuss efforts to return  Americans held hostage by foreign governments, how nature and mindfulness can aid recovery from trauma  and how community journalism is illuminating the plight of homelessness in Washington, D.C.

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There are some existential crises on the agenda at this year’s Original Thinkers.

The hope is that the accessibility of the filmmakers and their subjects during the four-day festival will deliver the intimate moments needed to break down the big ideas into approachable, digestible and, most importantly, actionable directions.

“These are bad asses who have achieved so much but they are right here with us, enjoying this beautiful place. The impact of that can be profound,” Holbrooke says. “It sounds so lofty but I really do believe that what we are doing here can be transformational — for our guests, for our audiences and for ourselves.” 

The timing of the festival is purposeful. Festival season has wound down by the end of September in the box canyon of Telluride. Locals are prepping for a well-earned break after a busy winter and summer. Prices for lodging are low — well, lower than those astronomical prices visitors were paying in the height of winter and summer. 

While the topics can be intense, Holbrooke hopes the conversations and beauty of Telluride will leave attendees “buoyant and inspired.”

“An old professor of mine told me my work was hopeful but not naive. I like that space. I like to think there is a space where we can have hope and work towards a real and livable future,” he says.

The Colorado Sun has been a sponsor of Original Thinkers since 2019. Shop for passes for the festival here.

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Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — jason@coloradosun.com Email: jason@coloradosun.com Twitter: @jasonblevins