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Opera Colorado’s production of “Rigoletto” — a tale of love, betrayal, rape and murder — begins on this Saturday morning with Michele Di Nuovo, a 62-year-old, retired Denver high school music teacher.
Along with his 20 fellow chorus members, Di Nuovo shuffled into the company’s studio, off Santa Fe Boulevard in Englewood, for the first rehearsal of the opera that opened Nov. 5.
The Giuseppe Verdi work is Opera Colorado’s 112th production, in this the 40th anniversary season, and di Nuovo has sung in every one of them. That both the company and di Nuovo would reach this milestone was no certain thing.
Opera Colorado’s own story is filled with crises, clashes, death, precipitous exits and financial woes generating barrels and barrels of red ink. It is worthy of its own opera.
“There is no question there have been ups and downs,” Di Nuovo said.
I will note right up front that as the writer of this story, I don’t know much about opera. My wife and I joke that it’s an acquired taste and a taste we never acquired. “Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and instead of bleeding, he sings,” wisecracked the 1940s radio comedian Ed Gardner.
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And yet opera has flourished for more than 400 years and provides a fount of music almost everyone knows, and its singers, when they take off their winged helmets and Egyptian garb, can thrill any audience. So, what is it about opera?
An equally curious question is what does it take for a community to keep this most expensive of performing arts on the stage? How has opera, often on the verge of extinction, managed to hang on in Denver?
So, let’s delve into opera, the people who have made it possible in Denver and the preparations for one of the greatest works in the canon — Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”
This first chorus rehearsal would run six hours, working through pronunciation with the rhythms and the text and finally the musical notes.
“Our goal is to sound native, the goal is to sound perfectly Italian,” said Sahar Nouri, the company’s chorus master. “Verdi is very wordy. It is a challenge.”
The chorus also must know what is happening in every scene. “They have to know how to react,” Nouri said. “When something dramatic is taking place, they can’t just be standing around.”
Di Nuovo has performed in “Rigoletto” three times so he knew what was in store. “Sahar works us really hard. She really does and we do it gladly, because we know in the end the product is going to be wonderful.”
The last attempt at opera in Denver — the Denver Opera Company — went bust in 1979, leaving a $400,000 debt. But in that “if-you-don’t-succeed-at-first” spirit, a group calling itself “Friends of Opera” met at the Grant-Humphreys Mansion in 1980 and Opera Colorado was born a year later.
The group lured Nathaniel Merrill, a noted stage director for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and his wife, Louise Sherman, a Met pianist and assistant conductor, to Denver and in 1983 the first season offered two opera warhorses — Verdi’s “Otello” and Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème.”
Denver once again had an opera company. What it didn’t have was something synonymous with opera: an opera house.
“Denver didn’t have a traditional proscenium theater with an adequate orchestra pit,” said Stephen Seifert, an attorney who served as a board member, board president and executive director. “Boettcher Concert Hall did have an orchestra pit, but it required doing opera in the round.”
No one had done opera in the round — for good reason. If you are sitting behind a singer the chances of hearing him aren’t great. That, however, was Opera Colorado’s lot.
“It was thrilling. It brought the audience closer to the stage,” Seifert said.
Maybe too close. In “La Bohème,” di Nuovo was given the task of shaving the star tenor Placido Domingo. “There was a moment when we pulled off the beard and the shaving cream went all over the parquet and all over the people in the parquet,” di Nuovo said.
One of the people sitting in the audience was Marcia Robinson, now the president of the Opera Colorado board. “I went to see ‘La Bohème’ with Placido Domingo and thought I can’t believe we have this in Denver, I want to get involved,” she said.
“At the beginning there were a few people who loved opera hard core and that was the board,” Robinson said. “There are some boards that are glamorous, but we weren’t one.”
Opera: It’s where we go to see people whose life choices make us feel so much better about our own.— Jeff Spurgeon, a host on New York’s classical music radio
Denver was hit by a crippling recession in the 1980s. “I specialized in commercial bankruptcy,” Seifert said. “It was the only business in town.”
Between the economy and Merrill’s ways the company ran into money problems. “Nathaniel Merrill did not believe in money, he just did what he thought was wonderful, and we got to the position where there was a sizable deficit,” Robinson said. A deficit that would persist for years.
By 1985 there was not enough money for costumes for the chorus so they performed in “Il Trovatore,” another Verdi gem, wearing their own black turtle necks and black pants. “It was still an exciting show, but it was very disappointing that we just couldn’t do everything,” Di Nuovo said.
For the season’s second production, Puccini’s “Tosca,” the company borrowed the garments for a big procession scene from the Catholic Archdiocese. “They got the bishop to make an appearance,” Di Nuovo said. “That was the trade-off so we could have the costumes.”
Sharleen Joynt stood before a mirror in the fitting room of the company’s costume shop, located in an industrial slice of north Denver, as Alison Milan, the company wardrobe supervisor, and Ted Stark, the draper, flitted around her gown.
Stark was trying to make sure the hem would be flush with the stage. “It’s nice to be able to pay attention to detail,” Stark said. “It’s a dying art,” Joynt said.
Joynt, who had arrived from New York City the day before, plays Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter.
In a career that began with her harmonizing with Disney tunes from the back seat of the family car, Joynt has grown into a coloratura soprano. Coloraturas are known for their high range, fast pace and vocal fireworks.
“I don’t often get to do roles like this,” Joynt said. “I don’t usually get to die in an opera. I’m often an evil queen or a maid, so to be the lead soprano who falls in love and gets her heart broken and has this deep relationship with her father and sacrifices herself for her love at the end, like that is really an arc.”
Rigoletto is the humpback jester in the court of the womanizing Duke of Mantua — think a Harvey Weinstein who can sing. A mocking, sarcastic Rigoletto runs interference for the duke, but his secret is his beautiful daughter, Gilda, whom he fiercely guards.
Nevertheless, Gilda has fallen in love with a young student she met at church — the only place she is allowed to go. But wait! The young student is the duke in disguise!
Meanwhile, courtiers, at odds with Rigoletto, have discovered Gilda, and thinking she is the jester’s mistress, kidnap her and take her to the duke’s place where the duke rapes her.
Enraged, Rigoletto vows vengeance and hires an assassin to kill the duke. Gilda is still in love with the duke and, in disguise (this happens a lot in opera), sacrifices herself. Rigoletto ends up with his dead daughter in his arms.
“Opera: It’s where we go to see people whose life choices make us feel so much better about our own,” Jeff Spurgeon, a host on New York’s classical music radio station, quips in his cheeky “Rigoletto” in three minutes.
“You could say the stage kid in me is thrilled to be able to sink my teeth into a role like this,” Joynt said.
Still, all the story must be told through singing, so what is the difference between a singer and an opera singer?
“It’s all about projection because there is no amplification,” Joynt said. “You spend years studying to make sure that you can be heard, not only at the back of the hall, but in all parts of your range, because you know, you can have high notes that people can hear at the back, but can they hear your low notes?”
An emerald green men’s jacket awaits a few alterations from Opera Colorado’s shop assistant Amanda Bouza.
“I think that’s really a big deciding factor of whether or not you can hack it as an opera singer,” she said.
“In my case,” Joynt said, “because I’m a coloratura, a lot of my career has come down to being able to deliver reliable, audible, high notes on command under a lot of pressure.”
A good example, Joynt said, was the aria “Hell’s Vengeance Boils in My Heart” in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” where the Queen of the Night (bad) tries to force her daughter Pamina to assassinate the priest Sarastro (good).
“An audience member, even a complete layman, will be able to tell you if I did not hit those notes,” she said.
“You fly somewhere. You live there for weeks, you rehearse, you have fittings and it comes down to you and that aria. An aria that lasts three minutes. You basically have to do a sprint with hurdles and nail it each time.”
In Opera Colorado’s 10th season all the debts had finally been paid off and the company celebrated its anniversary with a production of Richard Wagner’s four-hour-plus “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.”
Now there are short operas. Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 “L’Orfeo,” considered one of the starting points for the art, is an hour and 45 minutes long, some are even shorter, but then there are the four-hour long marches.
“You have to understand the conventions of opera,” said Christopher Mattaliano, the director of this production of “Rigoletto.” “I mean, that’s really the thing that keeps people away from the art form, leaving them saying, ‘I don’t get this.’”
“When I go see ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ the songs seem to sort of evolve … and they’re short and sweet,” Mattaliano said. “They make a point and then we get on with the story. Good lord, in a Handel opera there are endless repeats of the same texts, and then there’s a long orchestral introduction along with a postlude and what feels like an hour-and-a-half later, we get back to the story.”
“I think there’s that initial barrier that keeps people from sticking their toe in the water,” Mattaliano said. “But it’s its own unique universe on a certain level, I think once you accept conventions it can be profoundly moving.”
“Rigoletto,” Mattaliano said, hits a sweet spot. It is dramatically “white hot” from beginning to end, two hours later. “It’s short, you know, it flies by,” he said.
Every time we picked a show, we were betting the company. If one show was a disaster it could be existential.— Stephen Seifert, served as Opera Colorado’s board member, board president and executive director
In the first 14 minutes Verdi introduces all the characters, except Gilda, and lays out the arc of the story. “What Verdi did in 14 minutes would take Wagner six hours,” Mattaliano said.
Which brings us back to Opera Colorado’s 1992 production of “Die Meistersinger.” All the debts had been paid and each year was ending in the black “if just by a little bit,” Seifert said.
Still, the company wasn’t on firm financial ground. “Every time we picked a show, we were betting the company,” Seifert said. “If one show was a disaster it could be existential.”
One boost that year came with the opening of the Buell Theatre, which enabled the company to add a third opera to its season — and perform in a theater with a real stage.
Still, paying the orchestra for “Die Meistersinger” was a challenge. Seifert explained that an orchestra was hired for a 3½-hour “opera service,” but the opera was more than four hours long.
Overtime was expensive, but giving the orchestra sufficient time to rest would enable the company to purchase a second service, which was cheaper. So, after the second act everyone left the theater for Meister Fest, where there were themed booths, entertainment and meals.
After the orchestra had its break, everyone went back in for the third act — the entire performance, with the fest, ran more than five hours. “It was a long day, but absolutely glorious,” Seifert said.
The principal singers — Joynt, Stephen Powell, who plays Rigoletto, and Joshua Dennis, the bad duke — were working through the second act at the company’s studio.
Mattaliano prowled the sideline like an NFL coach. Nouri, the chorus master, sat behind a music stand with the score as a pianist played.
Joynt and Dennis sang a love duet, as the duke worms his way into Gilda’s affections.
Addio! speranza ed anima
sol tu sarai per me.
Farewell … my heart and soul
are set on you alone.
“This is the first time you’re going to sing something that sounds remotely sincere,” Mattaliano said to Dennis after the duet. “You have figured out how much is sincere and how much is an act.”
The focus shifted to the scene where three courtiers trick Rigoletto into aiding in the kidnapping of his daughter. “Where are my three amigos?” Mattaliano asked. The three singers playing the courtiers, along with Powell, came forward.
“This scene is dramatically weak, but it is important,” Mattaliano told them.
The three, wearing masks, must convince Rigoletto that they are kidnapping Count Ceprano’s wife and place both a mask and a blindfold on Rigoletto, which for some reason leaves him insensible.
“I am blind and deaf and I am in an Italian opera,” Mattaliano said.
Death came to the opera in February, when Louise Sherman succumbed to lung cancer. Two weeks later, in mid-season, Merrill resigned as artistic director.
“It was a really difficult time,” Seifert said. “When Nat left, we were just weeks away from putting on the spring season.”
The company was rocked. “It was a very emotional time,” Di Nuovo said. “We had learned everything from Louise and Nat. That is what we knew. … Louise worked with the chorus and we had such an incredible rapport, we’d do anything for her.”
Seifert, who had taken a sabbatical from his law practice to do some long-range planning for the company as executive director, now found himself running Opera Colorado.
The company soldiered on and mounted a 1999 season with operas new to Denver. A $250,000 donation from “Mr. Anonymous” also helped, Seifert said.
In 2000, the company hired a new artistic director, James Robinson, and soon after a new general director, Peter Russell. Seifert resigned and created a nonprofit organization to raise funds to support a municipal bond issue for a real opera house.
“’I had set the company on a new path and stabilized things,” Seifert said. “We didn’t burn the place down and we got through some hard times.”
Gilda and Rigoletto were singing their duet in the company studio — a heartfelt song by a father and daughter — as Joynt nestled her head on Powell’s shoulder.
Culto, famiglia, la patria,
il mio universo è in te!
“My faith, my family, my country,
my whole world is in you!” Powell sang.
Ah, se può lieto rendervi,
gioia è la vita a me!
“Ah, if I can make you happy,
then I shall be content!” Joynt responded.
Much of the weight of the opera rests on the shoulders of Powell, who during his high school rock band days wanted to be the next Billy Joel. It is a heavy task, for Rigoletto is Shakespearean in his complexity and tragedy.
“He is complicated,” Powell said. “He’s sarcastic, he’s belittling, he’s nasty. And then you know, he has these scenes where he’s a loving father and you see the warmth that he’s capable of … but being a hunchback, the only thing he can really do is be a court jester.”
Powell, however, faces limitations a Shakespearean actor does not. “The drama has to occur mostly in your singing, acting with the voice is kind of how I put it.”
“You can’t sing to the side,” he said. “You can’t turn upstage; you have to be heard over the orchestra. So, you have to always sing out, which is restrictive.”
“You know, acting is often criticized in opera because it’s not as realistic as theater or even musical theater,” Powell said. “And some of that has to do with the restrictions that are placed on us by the kind of singing we have to do.”
Powell has also played the lead in the musical “Sweeney Todd,” which uses microphones. “I can tell you that I can do things with my voice and physical action, with my body in ‘Sweeney Todd’ that I cannot do with ‘Rigoletto,’” he said. “The demands are too great vocally.”
After years of lobbying and fundraising, the Ellie Caulkins Opera House opened with a grand gala on Sept. 5, 2005.
The project was jump started by a $25 million bond issue passed in 2002. That plus an additional $50 million in city funding and $17 million private donations were enough to gut the old Quigg Newton Denver Municipal Auditorium and transform it into a sleek 2,200-seat theater.
The Caulkins family donated $7 million and got the naming rights, but Ellie Caulkins was already a Denver opera institution, a longtime board member and board president during some of the most trying times.
The honorary lifetime board chair, she also sang in chorus and in 2002 spent five days at East Sixth Avenue and Colorado Boulevard waving signs in support of the $25 million bond issue.
The move to the Ellie, as the theater is known, fulfilled a key goal for Robinson, the new artistic director.
Performing in the Boettcher Concert Hall left Opera Colorado isolated from the rest of the opera world. The company could not rent other companies’ sets and no one would rent its in-the-round sets, nor could Opera Colorado collaborate on new productions.
“It became pretty obvious that one of the things that needed to happen was to get out of Boettcher,” Robinson said.
Once freed from the concert hall, Opera Colorado was able to collaborate with companies like Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera and Boston Lyric Opera, Robinson said. “We were able to bring in productions and share different things.”
The change was financial as well as artistic. “When you co-produce things you can share expenses with other organizations that really helps the bottom line,” Robinson said.
Artistically, Robinson said he thought “the best way forward was, let’s start introducing some different repertory and “a different style of production.”
In 2001, Robinson and the choreographer Doug Varone, mounted a contemporary staging of the opera “Orpheus and Eurydice” based on the Greek myth of Orpheus’ attempt to reclaim his dead lover from Hades.
“It was very unusual, because we were in a movie theater throwing popcorn, and it was really very strange,” Di Nuovo said of the role of chorus. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘Oh, my gosh, the audience is not gonna like this.’”
“When you change direction,” Robinson said, “as always happens there are a few bumps in the road here and there and, and some productions may have been a little too daring.”
Still, the company mounted a popular “Sweeney Todd,” and a little-performed Mozart opera “Abduction from the Seraglio” was a hit. Robinson also set the stage for the modern opera “Nixon in China,” considered a company highpoint.
Robinson moved to the Opera Theater of St. Louis in 2006. “When I left Opera Colorado,” he said, “I felt like I had kind of taken the company as far as I could get it and now it was really up to the board and the new administration.”
Mike Griebl, the scenic supervisor in New Orleans, is on hand to guide the local stage crews with the assembly of the elaborate sets. Griebl explains, “This isn’t IKEA furniture which comes with a set of simple instructions.”
Two 30-foot trailer trucks worth of scenery littered the otherwise bare stage of the Ellie and a crew of about a dozen stagehands scrambled with ladders, winches and hydraulic motors to assemble the sets.
The scenery, rented from the New Orleans Opera, had been unloaded in the morning and over the next 12 hours or so, three acts worth of scenes, including the duke’s palace and Gilda’s home, would be put together.
“It’s like a giant Lego set, and it doesn’t come with instructions,” said Michael Wingfield, the company’s technical director. The “instructions,” so to speak, were Mike Griebl, the scenic supervisor who has traveled with this gear, putting it together and taking it apart for the past 20 years.
Under Griebl’s direction a pile of gray wood quickly took shape as a stone passageway and an ornate, carved entablature was brought to rest atop a row of hollow columns with the help of a motorized lift.
While the crew worked onstage, 10 electricians were out in the theater installing spotlights, often hanging over balconies tethered by safety belts. To leave the stage free for the scenery crew, the electricians had hung the stage spots — about 300 lights on eight long bars, now high in the rafters — the previous Friday.
While stagehands scurried about and electricians dangle from the balconies, Wingfield pointed out the speakers that will pipe the orchestra backstage so the singers can hear if they are upstage and the television monitors so they can see the conductor.
“This is why opera is so expensive,” Wingfield said as he surveyed the scene. “The sale of tickets could never cover it alone. It’s why opera needs community support.”
Left: Opera Colorado’s technical director Michael Wingfield climbs under a large section of the set to be sure the section of a wall could be hoisted upward. Right: A realistic looking ivy pokes out from several faux walls. (Photos by Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Opera Colorado faced yet one more financial precipice in 2012, when the 2008 Great Recession belatedly hit and red ink returned
“It finally caught up to us in 2012,” said Greg Carpenter, a former bass-baritone opera singer, who took over the roles of general and artistic director in 2007.
Fiscal 2012 ended with a $915,000 deficit, and the season was cut to two operas and the administrative and artistic sides of the company were overhauled.
Two years later, the company was back in the black. The third opera was restored and there was a renewed emphasis on fundraising and audience wooing.
“The focus that I’ve really taken is to really pay attention and listen to what our audience wants,” Carpenter said. “We found that really what they want is standard repertoire and they’re interested in seeing something different, on occasion.”
At the same time, Carpenter is trying to avoid turning the company into an opera museum. In 2012, Denver audiences were the first to see a new production of Mexican-born Daniel Catán’s dreamlike opera “Florencia en el Amazonas” and last season, “The Shining,” after the Stephen King novel, drew patrons from around the country.
In 2020, COVID-19 pandemic hit, felling all of Denver’s performing arts. The opera lost a little more than a third of its 3,148 subscribers and saw its performance revenue go to $40,000 in 2021 from $1 million in 2020.
The other leg of development, fundraising, helped save the day as contributions rose more than 8% to $3.9 million, fueled by big donors.
“During the pandemic we got a lot of big gifts, it was a cushion so we could keep staff,” Robinson, the board president, said. “I think the opera is on a secure footing now and is here to stay. That wasn’t always the case, but maybe that’s what made it what it is today.”
The moment had come to fuse the song and the music as the principals and chorus, in their street clothes, came onto the Ellie’s stage and the orchestra filled the pit below.
Now came the sitzprobe or the “seated rehearsal.”
At the center of tonight’s action is a man, though crucial to the performance, that the audience will hardly see, except for the back of his tousled mane — Ari Pelto — the company’s conductor and music director.
Everything that happens in the pit and on the stage is in Pelto’s hands — literally — as he directs musicians and singers.
“The challenge is to bring these forces together, the orchestra and the stage, so there is one cohesive expression,” Pelto said. “The sitzprobe is the first time we are all together.”
“Rigoletto” begins softly and Pelto’s hands float, but as the music rises his gestures become wider, more forceful and he bounces on the balls of his feet.
“It takes more energy than just conducting an orchestra,” Pelto said. “You have a big orchestra in the pit, but you are also conducting for everybody because the singers are also instrumentalists. I typically burn 2,000 calories during a performance.”
As they work their way through the story, Pelto stops from time to time trying to better sync the musicians and the singers seated on the stage.
Joynt, wearing plaid slacks and a white blouse — her gown will have to wait till dress rehearsal — stands up to sing her love aria “Caro Nome.”
Her voice rises to the last row of the balcony crystalline and dulcet.
Caro nome che il mio cor
festi primo palpitar,
Beloved name, the first to move
the pulse of love within my heart,
The seats in the Ellie were empty but the theater was full of song and then a curious thing happened as Joynt left the lyrics and did her coloratura thing. As her voice soared it created a physical sensation, a caress of the ear, even in the theater’s farthest reaches.
Ah, so that’s opera.