SUSAN & JEREMY SHAMOS: Co-Chairs, Opera Colorado





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Any non-profit organization would consider itself lucky to have as the Chair of its Board of Directors a man OR a woman who is truly dedicated to its cause and would work for it with a passion. But what if it had a woman AND a man - would it be doubly lucky? Opera Colorado would tell you it could be a sure-fire formula for success - if the woman and the man were the husband-and-wife team of SUSAN and JEREMY SHAMOS. Now on their third year as Co-Chairs of the company's Board of Directors, they are among the biggest movers behind the launching of The Ellie. They continue to be among Opera Colorado's most ardent supporters, co-sponsoring the Company's production of its season opener, Carmen, and hosting the Gala reception that followed the premiere performance.


They were there all along, dedicated participants in the making of The Ellie, yet even they were amazed at how beautifully everything came together on opening night - from the Chihuly chandelier that graced the elegant lobby to the state-of-the-art theater and the commissioned work that was the centerpiece of the star-studded concert celebration - announcing to the world that as a performing arts center, DENVER HAS ARRIVED!

[CLICK HERE for more on the Shamoses and the Chihuly, and HERE for more on Opening Night.]

Photo©Michael Martin

In a telephone interview with the couple a few weeks following the opening of The Ellie, we asked them to talk a little bit about their involvement with it. Susan Shamos started the ball rolling.

"Well, I'll start and pass it to my husband. My love of opera came from my husband who introduced me to it when we got married. I went on the Board in 1997, I believe, working mainly with education. Then we became very involved in trying to find another performance venue. Later, there was some talk about possibly renovating the Auditorium Theater - it was just used for the Ballet Company then. There was a meeting with some of the City Council members and various people in city government to explore the idea. I could not go, and so I looked at my husband who had been involved in local politics and said, 'Why don't you go?' and so, from this point it will be his story."

THE BOND ISSUE or MONEY TALK: It takes money to raise money

"I went to this meeting," Jeremy began. "Susan and I had previously pledged a large amount of money to Opera Colorado for their endowment. Later when it was decided to have a campaign to try to pass a bond issue, the Opera Company committed itself to put up nearly that sum for the campaign. Susan and I asked Peter and Jack Finlaw, who was the Chair at the time, whether it would be better for us to give the money to the Campaign instead of to the endowment so that they wouldn't have to go out and try to raise the money from contributors to the Opera.

"So, the decision was made by Peter and Jack and ourselves to contribute the money to the Campaign. The result of that really was two things: I became Chairman or President of Friends of the Auditorium Theater and the Opera itself became the leading cultural group in the fight for the renovation of the Auditorium. The Opera Company and PCL Construction each donated the same amount and were basically the two main contributors to the Campaign.

"At any rate, the Campaign was successful and the city put in initially $75M for the renovation. Then came the next point of our involvement. Jack was ending his term and came to me and Susan and said, 'I think you would be the ideal next Chairs for the Opera. Because we didn't really know better, we said 'Yes,'" Jeremy jokingly said, adding "I'm not sure that was the smartest thing we ever did."

"We have had fun, and it has been most rewarding I must say. And things did come together," Susan chimed in.

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Jeremy Shamos (second from left) flanked by James Robinson, Jake Heggie and Jack Finlaw.
Photo © and courtesy of KKN Enterprises
"But the two things we could look to with some pride is," Jeremy continued "I did have the idea of approaching Ellie Caulkins' family to make a contribution for the naming rights to the space that was going to be the hall.

"Now you should realize that although the space was being designed as a classic lyric opera house, if someone else had come in - whether a corporation or something else, it could easily have been called a theater, or a symphony hall, or anything else. I thought it was very important for Opera Colorado and for the city of Denver to call this an Opera House. We already have a Symphony Hall, we have a lot of theaters, but we didn't have an Opera House. The family of Ellie Caulkins liked the idea, and we surprised Ellie as you know. Basically, that was one of the smart things that Susan and I did."

THE OPERA HOUSE IS NOT OPERA COLORADO (and vice versa): the need for endowment

It is very easy for people to equate the Opera House with Opera Colorado . While it is true that the former (which is a city-owned facility) is the home of the latter (which is a private, non-profit performing arts organization), they are two completely different entities, as Jeremy Shamos very clearly explained - in terms of dollars and cents.

"People outside of Denver conflate the Opera House with Opera Colorado, which gets a lot of credit. People say to me, 'What is your budget for Opera Colorado?" I say a little over $5M a year. 'And how much was the opera house?" Oh, about $90M. "How did you manage to raise $90M on a $5M budget?' I explain jokingly, 'I use leverage.' But the real reason of course is that Opera Colorado didn't put in the money: the city did; Ellie Caulkins' family did, and some other people did.

"The other thing we did unfortunately cost us more money than I thought it was going to cost. We came up with a plan to raise each year the budget of Opera Colorado. As everybody knows, you spend more on the operas than you bring in in ticket sales, which generate between 35% and 40% of our budget. The rest comes from contributions.

"What we don't have yet is an endowment. And every performing arts organization really needs an endowment to help balance the budget. What we tried to do was raise $2M upfront from certain people who are major donors to the opera, which would in our view cover the anticipated deficit for the 4 or 5 years that we needed to launch the endowment campaign. That way, you could go to people that you wanted to give money to the endowment and say not only do we not have a deficit but we have prepaid our anticipated deficit for the next 4 years. That is a message that most business people you hope might give you a check want to hear. They don't want to hear, 'I'm desperate. Give me your money or we're going to close our doors.' No one wants to give money to a sinking ship.

"But unfortunately for me and Susan, we were less successful with that than we had been with the Caulkins family. There's an old joke the punch line of which is 'It looks so good, I ate it myself.' So, basically Susan and I wound up making a significant contribution to that deficit reduction or deficit anticipation program. But, the good news is, and we're really proud of this - the endowment campaign has been launched. And as you know if you were at The Ellie event, we raised over half a million dollars for the endowment, so it's now about $1.2M. We have a very active Foundation Board that is dedicated to, over the next several years, having the endowment grow to $5M and then $10M. We'd like it to be larger of course, but if we can get to $10M it will throw off enough money so that the opera can really lunge ahead knowing that we can have a balanced budget every year. Susan and I are dedicated, when we finish our term, to be leaving Opera Colorado in that kind of shape."

If that isn't COMMITMENT, we don't know what is. And VISION, too.

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THE ROOT OF THEIR COMMITMENT AND VISION: "Working for the Opera has been wonderful for our marriage!"

Opera Colorado couldn't be more fortunate. The couple will probably put in a fourth year as Co-Chairs. Working for the Opera has been truly worthwhile for the Shamoses. Says Susan: "It's a wonderful art form to be involved in, with wonderful people around, which makes some of the struggles that you go through really worthwhile."

"And I have to say one other thing," Jeremy interjected. I'm retired now, so I really can afford to put as much time into the Opera as I want to. Susan works part-time, so she puts in slightly less time, but not necessarily. She just puts in more AWOL time than I do. The nice thing is - and I'm not saying it will work for everybody - but for the two of us, doing this together has been wonderful for our relationship, for our marriage. We've been married for 27 years now, and other than our children, to whom we are devoted, this is our first project that we've really done together in a truly cooperative way, where we can actually finish each other's sentences and know what the other is doing."

Working for the Opera is such a rewarding avocation that they would gladly recommend it to others.

"I don't want to mention any names - but one of the jobs we have to do is find our successor. One of the things that we would try to persuade them of is: 'If you do this, it can be very, very rewarding and a lot of fun. Yes, it is a lot of work; yes, it is expensive; yes sometimes it is very aggravating, but over all, this has been one of the most rewarding experiences for the two of us.'

Susan of course agreed. "I think what we do feel strongly about is that being part of this also means trying to nurture and bring along young leadership. We hope that we can turn this over to the new generation, if you will, and bring them along in that. I do think that that's something that is going to become more and more important for us, for Opera Colorado, and for the opera world in general."

Not surprisingly, the couple have tried to pass on their love of opera to their four children who are all young adults in their 20s. "We've taken them all to the opera," Susan continued. And the interesting thing is, now left to their own devices, they go. I don't know if they'd call themselves opera lovers - but they take their friends to the opera, they introduce other people to opera, and they go on their own. I think there's something to be said for that exposure when you're young. There was occasionally some grumbling, but maybe something somehow seeps in when you know that opera is something that's important to your parents and you watch them enjoying it."

In fact, one of the couple's earliest connections with Opera Colorado was in 1986 when their older son, Jeremy's namesake and now a successful stage actor in New York, sang the title role in Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors - with Marcia Ragonetti (who was among the guest artists at The Ellie's opening concert celebration). Says Jeremy, "I love to say that he was the oldest Jewish Amahl in history. He was not quite 16; his voice had not changed yet."
At the time, their children were members of the Children's Chorale and Jeremy served as Chair of that Board.

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"Susan and I were saying to each other two days ago that our staff is as good as you can want any place. There's not a single weak link there. They're all wonderful at what they do, and one of the things we are proud of is that the Board and staff function incredibly well together. I'm on the Board of several other organizations and that is not always the case. Sometimes there is friction between one or two important Board Members and one or two important staff members - there's none of that at Opera Colorado.

"And having an Opera House is so exciting that any concern that Susan and I had that Peter Russell might get restless isn't there anymore. Professionals such as Peter [Russell] or Jim [Robinson] basically could go some place else. Let's face it, we are a mid-level opera company; we do three operas, maybe four operas a year. The opportunities for someone like Peter and Jim to go elsewhere always exist. You can't tie people down. But I can see that Peter is so happy, and Jim is happy - and that's part of the joy for us of having a venue like the Opera House."

While Susan and Jeremy Shamos are obviously very active, hands-on Co-Chairs, they do not get involved in the day-to-day operations of Opera Colorado.

"Believe it or not, Opera Colorado has functioned for years even long before Susan and me. The Board's function is to hire somebody like Peter, and it's his job to move us ahead. By and large, working with Jim, Peter comes up with a program - we're now planning well into three years from now. He would say 'This is what I'm thinking of doing.'  And there may be some members of the Board who say, 'Gee, why don't we hire so and so, I heard him sing in New York, I heard him sing in Vienna, he's wonderful, we should engage him....' But other than that... Peter and Jim know what's going on. We have confidence in them. By the way, Opera Colorado will be doing Nixon in China to be conducted by Marin Alsop, and we're looking forward to that. That really should put Denver on the map firmly, squarely, as an arts leader."

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With people like the Shamoses devotedly and steadfastly supporting the city's arts community behind the scenes, Denver, unlikely as it may now sound to some ears, cannot but be a destination for the arts in the years to come. And, as Jeremy who has lived in Denver since 1971 and was for 3 years Counsel to the Governor, puts it: "So many people come to Denver from many cities. It's a very welcoming city. And you can break into something you want to do, whether it is politics or the arts. There are other cities where basically you really have to have been there for several generations before you are allowed to take a prominent role or be a part of organizations. But Denver is a very welcoming environment to people who move to town and want to be active. And I would say, probably a third of our Board have moved to Denver within the past 5 or 10 years."

This is perhaps one of the reasons why the arts seem to flourish in Denver. There's probably no other city in America that can boast of a new opera house and two new museums coming up, all within approximately the same timeframe. Susan agrees: "Yes, I think we've come to hit this critical mass for the arts that has just lent a whole new level of excitement and passion to the arts. And our Mayor has been very supportive of the arts." Which for most cities is very unusual.

We asked Jeremy, who today also serves on the Board of The Opera Orchestra of New York as well as on the Board of an acting company in New York, if his passion for opera goes back to his childhood days.

"Well, I come from New York. My family had a partial subscription to the Met on Thursday nights, and occasionally I was allowed to go to the opera. It was something I grew up with. It wasn't my first love. Actually, Susan and I are as attached to the visual arts as to music. But I've always liked the opera, it was something I did. When I travelled around Europe on previous trips I went to the opera. Then when I spent the whole summer of 1976 in Santa Fe, I went to the Opera there. It was my first experience with a smaller opera company, if you will, and I really enjoyed it. As Susan said, one of the first things we did when we started dating was we went down to Santa Fe for a week and saw all 5 operas. Now it's something we do every year.

"We enjoy opera. You know, it's hard to find an opera I don't like. I'm partial to Wagner, but if I had to choose one opera - it would be either Don Giovanni, or Marriage of Figaro or Meistersinger. We are not opera geeks, though. If you ask me to tell you who sang in the last 4 seasons at Opera Colorado, I probably couldn't tell you. I could give you a few names that stand out. If I had a cheat sheet in front of me, I could tell you which operas we've done. But I am not like Peter Russell or Ellie Caulkins or Ursula Kafadar. I couldn't tell you all the singers we've had or all the singers we'll have. But it's something Susan and I enjoy. And part of what we project to other people is 'You don't have to spend your life studying librettos, knowing every note. If you enjoy what you're doing, it's infectious.'"

Susan, who moved to Denver in 1975 from Arizona, summed it all up nicely and simply: "It's part of our life!" And when, on learning towards the end of the interview that she is a psychologist, we somewhat pantly commented that psychology helps one to understand opera, she agreed, "It does, it does! You can always go home and analyze it." But Jeremy quickly countered, "I thought you'd say, to understand me!"

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