It’s hard to imagine the Cornish and Welsh miners who built the Central City Opera house in the 1870s wearing tuxedos or drinking champagne.
These were working-class immigrants who spent their days in the most tolling and demanding work imaginable. They raised the money for the 550-seat opera house to escape the dangers and demands of their everyday lives. For them, the opera house was an informal meeting place; the lure wasn’t one of privilege or high culture.
More than a century after the Central City Opera house opened as a cultural center for commoners, Baril and the rest of the current CCO staff are looking for ways to fight the idea that opera is only for the rich and the upper class. Baril, conductor of the CCO’s production of “The Barber of Seville” that opened last week, has been with the opera company for more than 20 years.
He’s seen a disturbing trend in his decades at the podium for the country’s fifth-oldest opera company, though it’s a challenge that faces the art form on a broader scale. The question of relevancy has hit this historic company nestled in the Rocky Mountains.
“The audience is dying, literally dying,” Baril said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to jump start a new audience for opera. We’re trying all sorts of different methods.”
The new approach includes shifts in how and where the organization stages operas. The CCO has adopted a different philosophy in programming — while well-known fare like Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” and Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” still make the rounds in the CCO’s rotation, the company has made a conscious effort to include new works in the lineup for its summer seasons.
This year that push is clear. Of the three works produced by the CCO this summer, “Seville” stands alone as the sole standard from the world of classical opera. In August, the company will bring a traveling production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s operetta “Show Boat” to the Buell Theatre in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Later this month, the company will mount a production of “Our Town,” a work by Ned Rorem and J.D. McClatchy based on the classic play by Thornton Wilder. The opera premiered less than 10 years ago at the Indiana University Opera Theater. The show in Colorado will be the local premiere of the piece.
“I think it’s a great piece to be done at a school. But it also takes on a different depth if you play with singing actors and actresses of considerable experience,” said Anna Christy, the soprano playing Emily Webb in “Our Town.” “It is a new opera, but it’s not a new work. It’s a very familiar piece. ‘Our Town’ is one of the most famous plays in American culture.
“Most of the opera houses I sing in are like barns,” she said. “It just makes a big difference to have people close, vocally and for acting purposes.”
That’s not to say the Central City house eschews the scope of traditional opera. The shows on that small stage in the mountains keep up the art form’s marriage of classical music, high drama, epic scenery and vocal mastery. It represents the height of musical and dramatic skill; it encompasses all the stage dressing and technical expertise of the best Broadway show.
And that kind of artistic complexity doesn’t come cheap.
“It’s costume and music and wigs and makeup; all of it combined. If you have all of those elements, it’s going to be costly,” Baril said. “There’s no way to charge the amount of money you’d need to charge to be able to pay for it. That certainly goes for our opera house, which is so small.”
But the small scale of the house hasn’t kept away top-notch singers, directors, musicians and tech crews from across the world. The CCO’s “Young Artists Training Program,” for example, draws hundreds of auditions every year for fewer than 40 slots.
The opera’s tradition stretches back to those Cornish and Welsh miners who scrabbled enough money together to build the house in the 1870s. Perhaps by sheer proximity the locals have learned that opera isn’t a dirty word. They’ve realized that the art form speaks to very basic and accessible truths about the human condition.
“It’s about trying to reach people on an emotional level rather than a social level,” Astafan said. “People that I know that I’ve taken to the opera for the first time were blown away by how entertaining it was … There was nothing stuffy about it.”
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or firstname.lastname@example.org