ELLIE CAULKINS - Lifetime Honorary Chairman, Opera Colorado





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On February 21, 2006 Ellie Caulkins, Denver's "First Lady of Opera" received the Mayor's Cultural Legacy Award (and her husband George posthumously with her) in the opera house that bears her name. No one could be more deserving; no one could have spoken more eloquently of her ccomplishments than the Mayor himself:

"The City of Denver is a better place to live because of Ellie!"

It is yet another fitting tribute to ELEANOR NEWMAN CAULKINS, Ellie to family and friends. Her passionate and tireless support of the arts and opera in particular, as well as education has, for many decades, enriched the lives of people in her community beyond measure.

The most visible and lasting tribute, of course, is the ELLIE CAULKINS OPERA HOUSE which opened to the public with a grand concert celebration on September 10, 2005.  It will stand proudly in the midst of the city as Denver's "lyric jewel" for generations to come.

[Photo © Howard Sokol, courtesy Opera Colorado]


It was George Caulkins' very special way of immortalizing Ellie. When we asked her how it felt to be so timelessly remembered, she gave an almost "aw-shucks" answer, which we've been told is typically "Ellie": "I don't even think about it. Egypt and the pyramids are more immortal." But when we told her how much we liked "The Ellie", the nickname for the Opera House, how so casual and cozy it is, she was pleased. "The name is really Eleanor. But you're nice to see it that way, because that's the way many of my friends saw it - they said 'I'm so glad it's Ellie and not Eleanor. It's very natural.'" And so welcoming, we added. She declared: "That's sort of what Denver and the Rocky Mountains are."

She was on the phone for a preappointed interview with FanFaire, recently back at her home in Denver from attending the Festival "Music on Film, Film on Music", founded in Prague (Czech Republic) by her son John. She started off on a somewhat apologetic note: "I just came back from Prague night before last. I was never a believer in the stories people tell about the air on planes making you sick, and now I have the worst cold and sore throat, so I may not give you the interview you hoped for."  We suggested a postponement if she so wished, but she dismissed the idea - in a voice hinting of congestion but conveying a sense of her legendary energy. She was already looking ahead to attending the rehearsal for Carmen the next day, her only regret being that the cold would not allow her to baby-sit her 4-month old grandson later that evening, as she had promised her daughter Mary she would. "I have another one who's one month old. They all live right near me," she proudly added, echoing the joys of grandmotherhood.

Resigned to spending the rest of the day in relative isolation, she went on to talk with us about The Ellie, Opera Colorado, and opera as she has enjoyed it all these years. First, the naming of The Ellie - what a wonderful surprise gift it was to her from her husband of 43 years, who sadly passed away just months before the Opera House was inaugurated. "Oh, it was a gift to the city of Denver," she quickly corrected us. "He wanted to be able to make it possible for people to enjoy Denver as much as we have." And for everyone in the whole world who loves opera," we added, convinced that Denver would become a destination for all opera lovers. "Oh, we definitely would like that," she said. "I think George would have been pleased to see where all this has led." She added, wistfully: He was a very clever, very understated, very simple person. But he was very smart." 

And really smart to have married her after a courtship of... "TWO WEEKS! from the day we met," she exclaimed, reminiscing. "We met in what's now called Kennedy Airport in New York - back then it was called Idlewild Airport. We were both flying to Europe on a ski trip. A romance blossomed and we were married over there."

They had five children, all of whom conspired in the plan to name The Ellie in honor of their mother and who, together with their spouses, were all thrilled to participate in the Opening Celebration co-chaired by daughter Mary. Like their father George, who respected Ellie's passion for opera but did not share it, they are not what one would normally call opera lovers, but they're open to it. Ellie explained , good-humoredly:"They run the gamut. We go from love it to hate it. And everything in between.   And my husband... opera was my thing and he didn't want to get in the way of it; so I think he pretended he didn't like it a lot more than he did admit."

But one thing is certain, the Caulkins' marriage was one that was made in heaven. Just as the building of The Ellie could only have been made in heaven. Because indeed, by all accounts, everything about it happened at the right place, at the right time and with the right people. "BLESSED!" was a word heard many times among those who took part in the making of The Ellie, amazed at how incredibly well everything came together.

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LIFETIME HONORARY CHAIR: "I get more credit than I deserve."

Ellie Caulkins is a name that will forever be synonymous with opera in Colorado. Yes, because the Opera House bears her name, but more importantly because she was there, supporting Opera Colorado, almost from the very beginning and at every step of the way. "I wasn't involved the very first year. I met with Nat Merrill when he came out here looking for support. I didn't join the Board, I was part of a small group of people who got together, calling themselves the 'Friends of Opera'. It was just a bunch of university-type people who got together to listen to operas and we wanted somebody, anybody, to put on opera in Denver.  Central City was toying with the idea and then Nat Merrill came from New York, and a friend of mine called and said, 'This man is coming and if you would just listen to his story....' He sounded like he certainly knew more than anybody I had ever heard talk about opera before."

Soon thereafter Ellie Caulkins began to play a vital role in developing Opera Colorado, which was founded in 1981 by Nathaniel Merrill and Louise Sherman, who came to Denver after long careers at the Metropolitan Opera. Ellie served several terms as Chairman of the Company's Board of Directors. She has brought prestige to Denver and to Opera Colorado through her long and illustrious association with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City where she is to this day a member of the Board of the Metropolitan Opera Association, and where she served as President of the Metropolitan Opera National Council. This group encourages and supports opera singers nationwide, through its annual national and regional audition programs. She also served s Chairman of the Metropolitan Opera National Patron Program. Her tireless dedication has deservedly earned her the title of Lifetime Honorary Chairman of Opera Colorado.  It is a title which means "I get to go to all the meetings and I don't have to vote. And they can't fire me,"  she said, lightheartedly. "So I guess I can say what I want, but I hope I don't abuse the privilege." Acknowledging our congratulations for the wonderful outcome of her good works, she quipped, with more than a modicum of modesty, "I get more credit than I deserve. But you know what they say, 'You should take all the credit you can get because when you really deserve it you don't get it.'"

Photo credits: P. Switzer Photography, Michael Martin, Karen K. Nelson

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Ellie fondly remembers the early days when the singers, fabulous as they were,  came to sing in Boettcher Concert Hall, a compromised venue in terms of production and acoustics. "Nat Merrill came here to do "Opera in the Round" and he was very skillful, making do with imagination and creativity. But there are only so many operas that one can do "in the round." And she talks of Opera Colorado's first seasons still, with a degree of disbelief. "I had no idea how rare and impossible it would be to get the kind of cast that we had those first few years. I thought that sounded normal. But now we know of course that having the superstars is not normal. It's very unusual. We had James McCracken and Pilar Lorengar, Placido Domingo, Catherine Malfitano, Hei Kyung Hong, Diana Soviero, Jerry Hadley.... It was pretty amazing!"

"Opera in the Round" refers to the circular stage in Boettcher Hall, a set-up that is not very friendly to the staging of opera, especially those co-produced for the traditional stage with other companies. We had heard that it was Ellie who coined the phrase. But, no! "It was my daughter! We were having sort of an informal contest. I still remember exactly how that was - she got the word opera and around and put them together, and so the bumper sticker said: The Best Oper-a-round." And it stuck!  "For quite a while. I remember when I used to see people who had the bumper sticker on their car and I thought 'I must know them.'  There were so few of us in the early days. I still have a few of them. They must be collectors' items now, I'm sure."  That was during the early days. Nowadays, Ellie tools around town in a car with a license plate that reads OPERA.  That is, when she's not flying her Cessna to Santa Fe, Saint Louis, Seattle or wherever there's an opera that strikes her fancy, or to her summer house in Maine. Just for the record, she has logged more than 700 flying hours!

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"How lucky that this opportunity came for us to have a proper opera house," said Ellie. She spoke proudly of how it all came about. "It was a great team effort. From the Mayor being such a good friend, as well as such a natural politician, even though he's never been in politics before. He is just perfect for the job. He appointed great people to work on this project. It was in the works before Mayor Hickenlooper took over. We have to give credit to Wellington Webb, who selected the architect, and allowed the people to vote on the bond issue that gave the majority of the funding for the renovation of the Auditorium Theater. But the fact that a gift was made to name the building has gotten a lot more attention."

But it gave the city a great excuse to celebrate in a big way. "Well, we've had a lot of fun. And I think my kids have had fun too, and I expect it to continue to be fun." And we are certain it will be - the people who run Opera Colorado will see to that. As we saw during the opening weekend and, as one is bound to realize on reading the many interviews in this special feature story on The Ellie, not only the staff, but also the members of the Board are quite exceptional in their dedication to Opera Colorado - they don't just open their pocketbooks, they work!  Ellie Caulkins concurred, "They sure do! We have a lot of really great Board Members. They're a diverse group. You know, opera people are different from symphony people, or theater people because I think once the opera bug bites you, you become hooked forever."

It is the kind of dedication that drove Ellie to stand on street corners for 3 hours on many a cold morning with General Director Peter Russell, waving placards that urged people to say 'YES' to the bond issue that funded most of The Ellie. "We did, but that was fun too! You know, that's why a lot of people are drawn to politics - because you get together and you fight for what you want, and sometimes, you get it." 

Opera Colorado couldn't have done better by choosing Peter Russell to lead the company. "Were you instrumental in bringing Peter Russell to Denver?" we asked. "I hope so. I've known Peter for 20 years. We knew each other when he was in Washington and I was the President of the National Council. He was a judge at our auditions. I was there for the Mid-Atlantic district, I think that was the first time we met. And then of course he came to work at the Met and I had been the National Patron Chairman for the Met for many years. So we got to see a lot of each other. When this job as Executive Director - that was what our last leader was called - came open, Jim Robinson was already our Artistic Director. He had known Peter and felt that they could work very well together; so, it was a perfect fit."

And a sure-fire formula for success, as those coming to Denver for the first time saw the weekend The Ellie opened. Russell and Robinson were responsible for the opening celebration concert, which was a stunning success.   They assembled a great program, broadcast live on Denver radio, that showed what opera is all about - from Baroque to contemporary. Ellie loved the work by composer Jake Heggie that Opera Colorado commissioned for the occasion, 'At the Statue of Venus.' "That was something Peter and Jim managed to put together with the help of Karen Nelson - with such a marvelous result. It wasn't anything that I had to do with, but would have loved to; I wish I could take credit for it.  I'm very fond of Jake Heggie, and now we're great friends."

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One of the evening's pleasant surprises was seeing Ellie Caulkins on stage singing with the Opera Colorado Chorus "Va, pensiero" from Verdi's Nabucco. "Oh, that was the greatest thrill, that was such a treat for me!" We thought, mistakenly, that it was something she did on a regular basis. "I've only sang with the Opera Colorado Chorus one year. Those people - not only are they very talented, but they're so dedicated. I wish I could do it more often, but I just can't - it takes a great deal of time. And I probably couldn't get in anyway." The concert program listed her as a mezzo-soprano, but she says her voice doesn't quite belong in that category. "When I sing in the summertime at the Berkshire Choral Festival (Sheffield, MA), I'm an alto. But I think, mezzo has a classier ring." Obviously she enjoys singing, but is modest about her talent: "You know I have sung in choirs and choruses all my life. And I have coached with a woman who is the Chorus Director at Metro State College. But I've never taken serious singing lessons. I'm not good enough." Perhaps too modest.

Ellie Caulkins came to Denver from New Jersey. But although she did get to see an opera at the Old Met as a little girl, it wasn't until years later in Denver when the opera bug bit her. "I really never went to the opera when I was young. My class went in 6th grade to see The Magic Flute at the old Met, but it didn't really get to me. My mother and her sister used to go to the opera from New Jersey.

"I took a class at the University of Colorado in Denver which was called "Opera as Drama" or "Opera as Theatre," taught by an English professor whom I knew was a wonderful teacher - I had taken other classes from him - and I absolutely loved the class.  I didn't know - and none of us in the class really knew - anything about opera, but it just hit me right in the heart. I sort of go back and forth as to what the music was - I think it was the triumphal march from Aida, but it might have been the first act duet from Don Carlo, that wonderful sort of brotherhood, or maybe it was The Pearl Fishers, but really, we had no idea what these were. It was just - how did this make you feel? And I thought, 'This is for me!' And so I started listening to more and more operas and studied the librettos and listened to long playing records. I didn't know anything about opera singers and stars and all of that worship of the great famous singers. I just loved the music.  That kind of started it." 

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Her all-time favorite piece of music?  WOTAN'S "FAREWELL!"

We could not resist asking her the "desert island question" and when we did, she had a ready answer. Certainly, she likes Verdi and Puccini whose works are among the most popular in today's repertoire."But, if I had to choose two operas to take to a deserted island, I would probably take Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier and Wagner's Die Walküre." Does she have a favorite Marschallin or Octavian? And without any hesitation, she said, "Ashley Putnam would be the most fabulous Marschallin of all time. I saw her do it everywhere in the world - Berlin, San Diego, Santa Fe, of course here at Opera Colorado. There have been other great Marschallins, of course - it's a terrific role. But she was the best."

As to Die Walküre, "Well, my favorite Wotan would be James Morris. No question, no question - the absolute! I wrote him a letter after September 10th and I said that it was hard to believe, but I have for years watched the Met videos - their Ring. I've seen that Met Ring several times, the complete Ring.

"At the end of the broadcast of September 10th, they had blocked out a certain amount of time on KVOD and Charlie Simpson who is the recording announcer on Colorado Public Radio had some time left over. So he decided to play selections by two of the singers who appeared that night. One was Renée Fleming and the second one was James Morris singing Wotan's 'Farewell' from Die Walküre, and when I heard it, I was in my car driving. I just started to weep because I love it so much. When I saw Charley Samson at a concert recently I said, 'Did someone tell you that that is my absolute all-time favorite piece of music?' And he said, 'No, I had no idea. I just used it to fill the time as exactly as I could.' It's absolutely cosmic, isn't it?" 

Not surprisingly, Ellie was delighted that James Morris made it to the Gala Concert despite having just recovered from bronchitis. "Wasn't he wonderful? You know, I'm not a good a judge of imperfections; but I thought he sounded perfect."  It was a comment that struck the right note - for us who believe that one doesn't listen for imperfections when listening to music. One listens to enjoy. 'Absolutely!' she agreed.

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As much as she loves opera, Ellie Caulkins is no purist. She looks kindly at the popularization of opera, the way Mario Lanza, for example, brought opera to the people. "That's also what they say about Ezio Pinza, or these pop singers like Charlotte Church and Andrea Bocelli. True opera afficionados and students of the voice don't think very much of them, but if they bring more people to the opera, sure!" And she most certainly debunks the opinion that "opera is the football of the ruling class." "Oh, you know, opera has a bad name - just for elitists, just for people in ball gowns and tuxedos. It's not that way at all. It's for everyone."

Best of all, Ellie does not worry that opera is a dying art form with a dwindling audience. "On the contrary. I think the opposite is going to be true," she declared with bright-eyed optimism. "I think that not only do we have these incredible pieces of music that have been sung for generations, but we have the best trained, best financed, best educated singers in this country in our music schools and conservatories. And we have so many competitions and regional opera companies that give these young people a place to sing so that they can learn their trade in hopes of singing someday at places like the Metropolitan Opera.

"We have directors and scenic designers, costume designers and lighting people, who are taking the old productions and interpreting them, updating their concepts without ruining the intent of the composers. I think more and more, younger people will come to appreciate that. There will always be the problem of getting people to pay the price of a ticket - opera is the most expensive art form on earth, because it combines all the other arts. Young people have families, and their time is precious and they have only so much time to do discretionary things. Also, opera will always compete with sports and other forms of entertainment. It will be a tough fight, but I think opera will survive and thrive."

Ellie's optimism is not misplaced, particularly not in Denver which has a younger audience than most other cities, and one which is attuned to the arts. "Denver is pretty young, because of the mountains, the outdoors - all that bicycling, hiking, snowboarding, rock-climbing. People realize that there is a spiritual nature to everyone and so they do go to art museums and symphonies and chamber music and opera."

With such an audience and the big-hearted support of civic-spirited citizens like Ellie, it is no wonder that ALL of the arts seem to flourish in Denver. It is her hope that the community spirit of which she and her husband George have been among the shining exemplars will live on in the next generation. "I hope that we have been enough of an example to our children, that they can appreciate how important it is to participate in the community, to take part in a way that is meaningful not just to yourself and your family and your friends, but to a larger, wider public. And I think that goes to whether it's public service, or philanthropy, or anything else."

On that hopeful note, we thanked Ellie for her gift of time and said goodbye, mindful that she was nursing a cold that as expected did not get in the way of her giving a wonderful interview; and convinced more than ever that Ellie - licensed pilot, skier, mountain-climber, philanthropist, arts patron, chorus member, and opera lover - has truly made Denver a better place to live.

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