Grand Opera Wins Denver's Heart
Unique difficulties of opera-in-the-round challenge performers, but please audiences
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."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
"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.