Opera Colorado 40th season includes Verdi, Puccini and Cavalleria rusticana

Opera Colorado jumps into its 40th season next month on a confident note. The programming for this landmark year is finely honed and consumer-friendly, and there is a prevailing sense within the company that the worst of its challenges are over and it’s time to get on with the Verdi and the Puccini and, in this upcoming lineup, a rare bit of 20th-century Korngold.

Like every fine-arts presenter in the United States, Opera Colorado has weathered its share of financial storms over time, but none of them carried the strong gusts of the coronavirus pandemic. There was an entire season lost due to the closure of theaters, followed by another full of existential concerns. Would shows be canceled? Would singers get sick? Would hundreds of thousands of dollars in box office receipts needed to pay the bills fail to materialize?

“The pressure I experienced during last season was a lot more than I experienced during other trying times,” said general and artistic director Greg Carpenter, who has been with the company for 18 years.

He credits community support, in measures large and small, for getting the company through. Opera Colorado took advantage of government assistance that all businesses were entitled to, the Paycheck Protection Program, and tapped into others particular to the performing arts, like the Shuttered Venue Operators Grants.

But it also got a hand from donors who reached deep into their pockets even when there was no payback in the form of performances. Scores of patrons holding tickets to canceled shows simply donated the money they would have gotten through refunds to the company’s relief fund.

As the 2022-23 season begins, the stress isn’t quite all in the past. The masks are off at the Denver Performing Art complex, but the threat of canceled events still lingers, and the fact that the company will continue to test singers for the virus every few days during rehearsals is a constant reminder not to take the present stability for granted.

If you go

Opera Colorado’s 2022-23 season kicks off with a staged concert version of “Cavalleria rusticana” on Sept. 10 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Info: 303-468-2030 or operacolorado.org.

The new season could not be described as risky — there’s nothing on the schedule less than a century old — but it is meant to keep things exciting for customers, to shake things up without causing an earthquake.

There are four productions on the list, and two are opera world standards: “Rigoletto,” which arrives in November, and the season-closing “Turandot” (which the company has not done for 20 years), set for next May. Opera Colorado has the good habit of selling out, or nearly selling out, this timeless fare and that will likely be the case this time around. The casts and the creative teams — with music director Ari Pelto on the conductor’s podium — are strong.

The company is offering something different for its opening move, a one-night-only presentation of composer Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana.” The one-act has been around since 1890, and most opera regulars have seen it. The work, about 70 minutes long, is most often presented as a double bill with its equally brief cousin, composer Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 “Pagliacci.”

But Opera Colorado is doing it alone and in a concert version, which will put the vocals first, place the orchestra right on stage with the singers, and omit things like elaborate sets. It might not offer all of the trappings of opera, but it feels right for the moment — a shorter evening of music, slightly lower ticket prices and a level of intimacy that grand productions do not always provide. Think of it more like a 40th-anniversary party and less like the usual opera house fare.

The back story is that Opera Colorado had planned to present the title before the pandemic shutdown and had already hired performers and crew. Resurrecting it next month “allows us to keep our commitment to that piece and to those contracts,” Carpenter said.

The opera world has been a blur of shuffling over the past two years as companies reorganized canceled shows, or gave up on them, and singers and set-makers remade their schedules, again and again, to keep working as steadily as possible. All but one of the cast members originally hired to sing will appear in this amended show.

To please customers who want more than warhorses, Opera Colorado has lately tried to round out its season with “something we’ve never done before or something that’s new to the industry,” said Carpenter.

Recent examples include its production of “The Shining,” adapted from the Stephen King novel, and the premier of composer Lori Laitman’s “The Scarlett Letter.” These new-ish productions, which sometimes work and sometimes don’t, keep things interesting.

This year’s offering is composer Erich Korngold’s “Die tote Stadt” (“The Dead City”). It is not exactly new but the piece is rarely performed in the U.S. and the company is going all out with a brand new production and a cast led by tenor Jonathan Burton. Chas Rader-Shieber will direct and Robert Perdziola, a top designer in the ballet world, is making both the sets and costumes.

Korngold, who wrote Oscar-winning scores for Hollywood movies in addition to many pieces for orchestras and chamber ensembles, has a cult following in classical music, due in part to his melodic and dramatic ways. “Die tote Stadt,” with a story about a widower who meets a mysterious woman who resembles his late wife, is true to form.

Carpenter describes it as a “psychological thriller with incredibly accessible music” and, at this point, it looks to be the highlight of the season, the kind of production the entire opera industry might be watching.

Opera Colorado hopes it will appeal to the same audiences who came out in big numbers for “The Shining” last season. The horror opera brought the company, which monitors its box office closely, 2,000 first-time ticket-buyers. So far, 190 of them have proven to be repeat customers, purchasing tickets to more traditional fare this year.

Those titles also bring in younger patrons, though Carpenter suggests the idea that opera’s reputation as an art form only for older audiences is not quite accurate. Sunday afternoon audiences do tend to be in their 60s and 70s, he said, but Friday and Saturday nights skew younger, pulling in folks in their upper 40s and lower 50s.

Those numbers, along with some recent gifts from anonymous donors — one for $1 million toward operations, another for $5 million toward  the endowment — have him feeling optimistic. Another reason to celebrate: The company landed opera superstar Joyce DiDonato to sing at its 40th-anniversary gala set for May 13, 2023.

Plus, Carpenter believes, opera is — in its own way — right on trend in the entertainment world. With its casts of star singers and large choruses and full orchestras all coming together at once around fully-loaded stages, it has a lot to offer the blockbuster crowds.

“We are living in a very visual world right now and people are craving the feast for the eyes that opera provides,” he said.

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