Grand Opera Wins Denver's Heart

Unique difficulties of opera-in-the-round challenge performers, but please audiences

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE flash and dazzle of spectacle permeates the world of grand opera. Spectacle heightens the emotional resonance of the story and creates visual equivalents to the beauty of the music. And when an opera is staged in a daring way, mere spectacle turns spectacular. Opera in Denver is opera-in-the-round. And opera-in-the-round demands innovative staging. In the season just finished, Denver audiences savored two spectacles in Verdi's "Don Carlo" and Donizetti's Elisir D'Amore."

Throughout its nine-season history, Opera Colorado is the only major opera company in the world to take on the challenges of the round, and succeed. Productions whirl with movement and color. The intimate gesture replaces the broad display. The theatricality of the event appears to motivate the music in the best productions, rather than the other way around.

When Nathaniel Merrill first came to Denver to found Opera Colorado, he already was a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera Company and had staged productions in many of the world's great opera houses. Looking for a suitable theater, he only found inadequate facilities - until he saw Boettcher Hall, the home of the Denver Symphony Orchestra. Ostensibly constructed as a multipurpose house, Boettcher's acoustics were designed for 19th-century symphonic music.

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"I didn't even know if you could do opera in the round," Mr. Merrill said. Surrounded by miniature sets of his past productions, Merrill described the company's history and the challenges of producing opera-in-the-round. "Boettcher had never been used as a theater. So when I said we could do grand opera here, everybody thought I was crazy. It took five years, but now it's a wonderful place to perform in."

Because the audience completely surrounds the stage, the singers must turn to each side of the house during the course of every scene and song. Television monitors around the house project the conductor's image, cuing the singers. Sometimes movements seem forced, but usually the singers are afforded a freedom of movement that adds to the production's theatricality.

"People are right there on top of the action," said Stephen West, bass-baritone star of Elisir D'Amore.You get a much greater feeling of intimacy."

"The singers don't have to grab hands and stand side-by-side facing the conductor," Merrill said. "Now we're able to turn to each other, hold each other in our arms, hug each other and both see the conductor on the television monitors. There is nothing normal about singing inside a black box with one side cut out so the audience can see the singers."

Instead of the normal 40-member chorus, a production at Opera Colorado uses between 90 and 120 singers. The entire chorus has 145 members, which is the second-largest opera chorus in the world. Up to 40 sing to the front, 40 to the back, and 20 to each side. Instead of grouping all the sopranos together, the tenors together, and so on, Merrill must include a mixture of singers in each group. Every chorus member is a soloist because none can rely on others for attacks or cutoffs. It is often exciting and

fulfilling for chorus members, Merrill said. It is certainly thrilling for the audience. Accompanied by a full orchestra, a chorus of this size generates a rich sound.

OPERA-in-the-round presents a challenge to set builders. Technical director Gordon Robertson noted that "you don't have the distance [from the audience] you have in a regular proscenium theater, where you can be a little cavalier about the way things look - nobody is going to see a piece of plywood held up by two sticks. But here, the audience is literally at arms length from the singers. Sets have to look real."

Scene designer Jean Robertson (married to Gordon) says that, with film and TV, people are used to realism. The pair managed to think up some very special effects for Verdi's "Don Carlo." A breathtaking expanse of fencing becomes the grillwork in the cathedral and later the bars of a prison. Because the theater was not built for opera, it is difficult to store pieces offstage. Scene changes have to be choreographed because the grillwork must be removed, suspended above the stage, or rearranged - and all d

one in full view of the audience.

In two scenes of the Spanish Inquisition-era story, a prominent position is occupied by the tomb of Don Carlo's grandfather, an exquisite prop bearing the prone statue of the dead king. It is beautifully detailed and true to the 16th-century period.

Because arena seating brings the audience close and raises many viewers above stage level, the floor of the theater is important. A new floor is laid for each show. In scenes where 120 chorus members are on stage, the soloists must be elevated so that the audience in the orchestra seats can see them. Scenic pieces that are more than waist-high must be transparent or someone in the arena will not be able to see part of the action. This can be difficult, as in one scene of "Don Carlo" where three soloists

are supposed to be hidden from each other.

Each season Gordon Robertson converts the symphony hall's acoustics to suit opera, which means padding reflective surfaces, boosting the singers' voices electronically (just enough to enhance articulation but not volume), and removing acoustic "dishes" that hang from the ceiling. Computer-driven lights and "supertitles" add to the high-tech atmosphere.

Anyone who is used to the standard proscenium theater opera format may be disturbed when the singer turns in the middle of an aria and the true colors of the voice dim momentarily. But the ear learns to compensate.

While everything is done to make every seat in the house a visually satisfying one, the fact is, the spectator on the side or in back will miss some of the larger compositions. Still, the greater naturalism and theatricality of the productions in the round, plus the glories of the huge chorus and orchestra, more than recompense the viewer.

Denverites love and support Opera Colorado. Having retired its large start-up debt, it is one of the few high-art organizations to be operating in the black in this area. In a city that has had a great deal of trouble maintaining even its symphony orchestra, Opera Colorado is remarkably stable and popular, nearly selling out all performances. It will celebrate its 10th season next year with six operas, a much-expanded education-outreach program, and the inauguration of a professional training program.

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