Mining for culture

"It's a great Colorado story and a great American story," says tenor Gran Wilson of Central City Opera House, the elegant little lady nestled in a mountain town high above Denver. "It wasn't built by aristocracy or noblesse oblige. Cornish and Welsh miners built it - for the sheer love of beauty.

After working all day, they banded together to build it. And every singer, no matter how famous, knows that when they go out on that stage, that the [opera house] is the leading lady.... I hold that in sacred trust, and so does the whole company."

Central City Opera is dedicated to helping young singers grow, and gives established singers like Mr. Wilson roles that other opera companies can't afford to include in the regular season. He is singing the role of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, in a glorious production of Benjamin Britten's "Gloriana" this summer. "It's the culmination of what the American school of singing is all about," says Mr. Wilson. "When we go to school, we learn to be singing actors."

Wilson talks rapturously about what Central City Opera has meant to him during the 17 years and 11 seasons he has sung in the mountains. He and his choreographer wife, Kimberly Mackin, have made the closest friends they have in show business here.

Opening with a bang

The collaboration, the spirit of community, and the treatment of the artists is something to celebrate. Wilson is acutely aware of, and grateful for, the opera house's tradition.

Famous singers, actresses, and actors trod these boards in honor of those miners who in 1878 built the Central City Opera House (where plays, one-woman performances, and concerts were staged). The company started hosting annual opera performances in 1932. The 69th season celebrates American opera, modern masterpieces, and the traditional repertoire.

Even though the opera house stages modern and contemporary music - challenging and heavy stuff - the season sold out almost immediately. A fine production of Mark Adamo's 1998 "Little Women," a post-modern version of the classic by Louisa May Alcott, opened the season in late June with a bang.

And perhaps even more exciting is the current production of "Gloriana," a work written for the coronation of Elizabeth II, about her illustrious namesake, Elizabeth I. The young queen did not care much for it, but the new American West is entranced. It met with success in England, but this is its first production by an American opera company.

The opera may not be quite as accessible as "Little Women" - which is haunted by lovely melodies, and a story every woman and most of the men in the audience know intimately - but its riches are deep and stunning.

Now that "Gloriana" has played to such enthusiastic audiences and such glowing reviews (with press attending from all over the country), it is sure to make other American opera companies stand up and take notice.

Among 20th-century composers, Britten may be considered something of a traditionalist. But just as Abstract Expressionism is still difficult for many art lovers, Britten is a challenging composer for those who love the melodic patterns of earlier music - the standard opera repertoire. So it took vision to understand how it would affect us now. And that vision belongs to the general director of Opera Colorado, Pelham Pearce.

Cinema raises the bar

After hearing a recording of 'Gloriana,' Pearce was inspired to produce it. "The choral work in 'Gloriana' is just gorgeous," he says, referring to the Elizabethan melodies Britten incorporated. "['Gloriana'] requires singing actors to perform it - it has to have them to make its full power come through."

"Americans are good at putting on a show," says Mr. Wilson. "Our audiences are very well schooled in the cinema, which is a different kind of magic than our [opera] magic. The days of being able to pick up a sword and make a few passes are over.

"We have to spend weeks perfecting details unrelated to the music or it's not compelling."

The "Gloriana" libretto was written by English novelist William Plomer with a distinctively Shakespearean lilt, which gives the piece a formal theatrical quality. The staging at Central City Opera House, though scaled to suit the elegant old house, is suitably dazzling - lots of lovely period costumes and a sloping stage painted with an Elizabethan map.

The story is stirring enough. The 53-year-old queen feels her grip over England and Ireland slipping. When bold young Essex displeases the queen in making a truce with Irish rebels, she tosses him out on his ear. And in his despair, Essex tries to mount a coup. But few in London will follow him, and he is soon dragged off to the tower and beheaded.

The queen is anguished by her decision, and finally as she stands alone in the spotlight, her wig and court gown removed, a dejected woman pleads that all she has ever done, she did for the love of her people.

The truth of that statement, however it might have been embroidered with ego and pettiness, enthralls us as rose petals fall on the figure and the lights dim. Tears dampen many a cheek.

Britten has caught us up in his passion for the great queen, in the pathos of history's temporal nature, and in the sense that her essential contributions to our culture live on. But it's CCO's marvelous theatricality that has brought us to tears.

Somewhere during Act I, the viewer begins to watch the story as a play in music, no longer expecting 19th-century melodies to sweep us up in their emotional idiom. Now we focus on each note the singers form as if each were its own world. And a new sense of melody comes through.

Eager for new experiences

"Modern music doesn't do what we expect it to do," says Peter Laki, musicologist of the Cleveland Orchestra. [Pre-20th-century music] follows certain rules of melody - a melody is simply a pattern.

"For very good reasons, composers of the 20th century said those rules are no longer binding. And so, sometimes we are left without a compass."

Mr. Laki says modern operas are becoming more popular because the younger generation is more inclusive. "Little Women" attests to this - as do so many other operas, from Phillip Glass's "Einstein on the Beach" to John Corigliano's "Ghosts of Versailles."

"Opera is a charged entity - a viable, energized art form. The mission of our festival, like other summer festivals, is to be different ... audiences are eager to experience things they have never experienced before." And for Americans, "Gloriana" is a breath of fresh dramatic air, the perfect choice for this small idealistic company and this charming house, where a singer needs no mike and the audience is ready for opera as theater.

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