A CRASH COURSE IN ARTS AND THE POLITICAL PROCESS
Fact sheets on The Ellie disclosed
that discussions about designing a new opera house for Denver
had been going on since 1993. However it seemed the idea really
picked up steam much later, in 2001-02, a period which coincided
with the appearance on the scene of a new General Director for
Opera Colorado in the person of Peter Russell. "So, were
you part of the impetus behind the launching of The Ellie?"
we asked him. The question elicited a reply that we soon realized
had to be more involved than a simple 'Yes' or 'No.'
As he tells it, Russell's first year as General Director turned
out to be a virtual hands-on course in what could be called
'Arts and the Political Process 101.'
"Well, I hit the
ground running in the sense that when I interviewed for this
job in the Spring of 2001 - I don't want to say that I was misled,
they were very clear to me - but there was a tremendous sense
of optimism about Opera Colorado taking a leadership role in
what was clearly going to be a political process - to get the
City Council, Denver's Mayor, and Denver's voters to back the
idea of gutting the old Auditorium theatre and converting it
to an opera house.
"And the optimism was only misplaced in the sense that
in June of 2001, when I had accepted the job and was out here
house-hunting - which I timed to coincide with Opera Colorado's
's annual summer meeting of its Board of Directors- we were
expecting then Mayor Webb, who had said that he supported the
idea of turning the old Auditorium into an opera house, would
include that as part of his State of the City address in June
of 2001. He did not. Instead, what he talked about was a children's
tax that he wanted to put on the ballot in November of that
year. To make a long story short, we were all crushed and dismayed
because we thought, 'Gosh, we have to go back to the drawing
board and reinvent the wheel.' And by all, I mean all of the
people that I have since gotten to know and become on very,
very friendly terms with - Jack Finlaw, who at that point was
not Director of Theatres and Arenas, but had at that annual
meeting just become the chairman of the Opera Colorado Board
of Directors, Chris Wineman from Semple Brown Design, and Rodney
Smith from Theatres and Arenas.
"So, from the moment
I arrived, I was brought in along with Jeremy Shamos, the current
Co-Chair of our Board of Directors - he was really the Board
Member from Opera Colorado who took the leadership role by financing
the Friends of the Auditorium Theater that worked a full year
to slowly convince the Mayor - as we finally did - that this
was a priority and that it needed to happen. Jeremy then got
the City Council to back it, and the newspapers then endorsed
"I had never been
part of a political campaign such as this. So, for me the learning
curve was very steep. But you know, Ellie Caulkins and I stood
on many street corners three hours in the morning waving yard
signs in the weeks leading up to the election of November of
2002. And then the measure did pass. And I think the long and
short of the story is, we actually benefited tremendously by
having this election delayed one year because by the time the
new project actually began, we had a new Mayor in place and
he appointed Jack Finlaw as Director of Theatres and Arenas.
And Jack, being such an opera lover, it became his pet project
to have this theater turn out to be the biggest success that
it could be."
PETER AND ELLIE
may have been the first time that Peter Russell crusaded on
a street corner with Ellie Caulkins. Denver's First Lady of
Opera has always had some kind of presence in Peter Russell's
steadily ascendant career in opera. It was not difficult to
imagine Ellie Caulkins welcoming Peter Russell to Opera Colorado
with open arms. [Photo ©
P. Switzer Photography, courtesy of Opera Colorado]
"I first met Ellie
in the 1980s when I was still General Director of the Wolftrap
Opera Company, and began being invited to be a judge at the
regional level for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions,
and back then Ellie was Chairman of the National Council.
"During the 4 years that I was working at the Met, Ellie
and I reconnected - while she was still very involved with Opera
Colorado, she had gone on from the National Council to be the
Chairman of the Metropolitan Opera National Patron Program."
PETER RUSSELL on THE MAYOR
Obviously, the idea of
naming the Opera House after Ellie Caulkins did not originate
from the Caulkins Family, but from other people like Jack Finlaw.
the Mayor," Russell quickly added. "You know, I'm
a huge fan of Mayor Hickenlooper's. If you talk to any us in
the arts community in Denver, you will find that most of us
voted for him, and we were not one-issue voters. When he announced
his candidacy, I was thrilled. I was skeptical because he had
no prior political background, but as his campaign went on,
I was absolutely blown away. My first reaction was, my God,
John and Helen already come to our performances. They understand
the performing arts and how having a thriving arts community
makes a huge quality-of-life difference to the community.
"He is a past chairman
of a group called the Colorado Business Commitee for the Arts,
which is a group that is all about making the population and
businesses in general aware of how the arts can positively impact
the economy in a metropolitan area. And you know, we knew that
he'd be very much in our corner, being an entrepeneur and an
arts fan himself, there'd be no learning curve there. Which
is frequently the case with politicians - artists can bang their
heads against the wall trying to get a meeting with a politician
who has no clue whatsoever.
courtesy of Dept. of Theatres and Arenas, City of Denver]
Could you clone your Mayor?
probably know that Denver is hosting the next National Performing
Arts Convention in 2008 and I'm convinced the reason why
we got that bid over a number of competing cities is that
Mayor Hickenlooper was the only Mayor in attendance. He
came with our art contingent from Denver to be part of our
pitch presentation to the national planners for 2008. And
all week in Pittsburgh, I had people whom I didn't even
know say to me, 'God! Could you clone your Mayor?'
At the ribbon-cutting
ceremony attended by hundreds of Denverites the morning following
the grand opening celebration, one could hear the people talk
with a sense of optimism and pride in their new opera house,
their city and their Mayor. 'We love our Mayor! Everyone said
it was impossible for him to win. But he was an entrepeneur,
from the restaurant business. And he did it.'
"It's true. One thing
that people will always remember about him - and they certainly
remembered it during the mayoral election - is that he started
out the Wine Coop Brewery. I first saw his name because I'm
a charter subscriber to "Eating Well Magazine" which
in the early 1990s used to give annual awards in their holiday
issue to people who have made a positive impact in some way
on the food and beverage industry. Mayor Hicklenlooper
received one for having started the Wine Coop Brewery, sort
of singlehandedly, in a rundown portion of downtown Denver.
Now of course, rather than tearing down those Victorian storefronts
and coming up with sort of ugly impermanent structures, we have
this revitalized area that captures the flavor of old Denver,
absolutely the most vital part of downtown."
on THE PEOPLE BEHIND 'THE ELLIE'
The design team headed
by Peter Lucking was brilliant, and PCL Construction which executed
the design did a magnificent job. The construction itself took
exactly 24 months to complete, a miracle by any standard.
think that we were really blessed!
has told me that trying to build anything within a pre-existing
structure, to do something within four walls as we had to
do in this case - because the Denver Historic Trust declared
the exterior of the building a historic landmark that could
not be touched - is far more difficult than to start from
scratch, exterior and interior.
Aside from Ellie Caulkins,
who are the big movers behind Opera Colorado and The Ellie?
and Jeremy Shamos, most definitely. I can't recall just when
it was that Susan came on the Board. I believe that it was in
the 1990s. Jeremy got involved because Susan was unable to attend
the meeting of the Friends of the Auditorium Theater. So she
sent Jeremy instead with the blessings of the others on that
group and he got so charged up that he said 'I' wanna get involved'
- this was right before I started. And the rest is history,
as they say.
"I would also like
to mention Ursula and Charles Kafadar; they're the people that
guaranteed the Figaro system in terms of installation. But by
and large, I have to say we just have a terrific Board. In the
4 years that I've been here, I've seen in erms of the professions
they represent, the age which now ranges from the early 30s
to the 70s, a very charged up, very hands-on, very enthusiastic
Among the special decorative
features of The Ellie are the chandeliers. Here's Peter Russell
on the Chihuly that greets the eye as one enters the lobby....
"Susan and Jeremy
actually shared the cost of purchasing the cost of the Chihuly
chandelier with Debi Tepper, one of our board members and her
husband Jerry. Debi had expressed a very strong interest, or
she and her husband did, in doing something by way of public
art for the opera house. Susan and Jeremy had gotten to be friends
with Dale Chihuly because they collected his pieces personally
over the years. And they knew that Dale Chihuly had a major
exhibit here opening in the summer in Colorado Springs. So they
contacted Chihuly in advance of that and told him that they
were going to drive Debi and Jerry Tepper to the opening of
the exhibit, and asked if he could take the ime to meet with
the Teppers. Susan and Jeremy walked the Teppers through the
exhibit that included the chandelier they ended up co-purchasing,
and then introduced them to Dale Chihuly. Apparently, Debi and
Jerry on the way back were bubbling with enthusiasm and the
very next day said, 'Sure, we'll join you in purchasing the
chandelier for the lobby.'"
...and on the chandelier
in the main hall:
"That actually was
purchased by another Opera Colorado donor, Donald Estey, and
he did that, again on a request from Jack Finlaw, in memory
of his late wife Elizabeth who, at the time she passed away,
was still a member of our Board of Directors."
on 'AT THE STATUE OF VENUS'
Colorado had only all of 8 months to prepare for the Gala Concert
that marked the grand opening of The Ellie. Yet, like everything
about The Ellie, the concert turned out to be a great success.
A highlight of the concert was the piece 'At the Statue of Venus'
which was commissioned for Opera Colorado espcially for the
occasion. We asked Peter Russell to talk a little bit about
"It literally was
after the New Year when we started planning that. Jake Heggie
who was our first choice asked Terrence McNally to write the
text. The two of them then approached enée Fleming about
her premiering it. Actually, we were already planning to invite
Renée to join the evening. It's just that at the time
that we first spoke to Jake, he said, 'You know, I've searched
singers that I really like working with. One of them is Renée
Fleming.' Actually, another one was Frederica von Stade. When
we began silently canvassing various artists' managers, we didn't
know exactly when in September this Gala would take place. When
we already had the date and contacted Jake, we knew that Flicka
was opening The Grand Duchess in LA during that week.
"Jake gave us their
idea after their very first session with Renée. What
he said was 'Renée would like to do omething different;
she feels as if she never gets the chance to do anything of
a comedic nature.' I felt this was eally, really refreshing,
Then Renée had
to withdraw from "At the Statue of Venus." Kristin
Clayton who replaced her did a magnificent job. She was a
natural on stage. It turns out that Clayton has a connection
with Peter Russell that goes back many years to Russell's days
"Right. Like so many
singers I knew when they were literally students - Kristin was
at University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music then; so,
I'm starting to feel old now. Ironically one of the roles that
she did that summer was the First Lady in The Magic Flute.
We're actually opening our 2006-2007 season at Opera Colorado
with that same opera and that same production, and Kristin will
sing the First Lady as she did at Wolf Trap."
PETER RUSSELL AND OPERA COLORADO
the time of this interview, all of Opera Colorado, excited about
their first season in their new home, was busily preparing for
their season opener, Carmen by Georges Bizet, produced
and directed by the company's Artistic Director James Robinson
(shown at left with Peter, photo
© and courtesy of KKN Enterprises). Peter Russell
sounded quite pleased with the progress. Clearly, it was going
to be a milestone in the history of the company.
"I have to say it's
going very well. The crew who has been around forever said,
'We can't remember a show of this scope and scale, just in terms
of vastness, ever being done by Opera Colorado.' I also think
it's just a very, very elegant looking show. It's actually a
shared co-production that has already premiered at the Seattle,
Pittsburgh and Cincinnati Opera."
And as luck would have
it for this luckiest of opera companies, the opera star who
owns the role, Denyce Graves and who (once again!) has long-standing
connections with Russell, was available for the part.
"You know, it actually
worked out perfectly. She had this little window in between
finishing her engagement at Chicago Lyric this weekend and then
starting an engagement at the Met. It couldn't have been more
perfect - when we needed her here and when she needed to finish
up in Chicago and when she needed to start at the Met."
"And we have Stephen
Lord back with us now to conduct Carmen. We try to
convince him to come here once per season. He's such a wonderful
And what is Peter Russell's
vision for Opera Colorado for the next 10 years?
"I can answer that
by saying we will expand as of the 08-09 season to four productions.
In between now and then, we will continue gradually expanding
the number of performances of the three productions that we
do. The '07-'08 season will mark the first time that we do a
20th-century piece and it's an American opera, but within the
five to six years after that, two very big things that we wish
to do is commission a world premiere and launch a Ring Cycle."
And what might that commission
for a new opera be?
"I have a very specific
contemporary play in mind that I would like to see adapted as
an opera. I don't want to say which one. I don't want anybody
to beat me to the punch. Yes, that's one of our let's say five-
to eight-year plans."
Opera Colorado's Outreach
program is also very impressive. In May 2006, it is presenting
a family opera based on Latin American themes, La Curandera,
which Opera Colorado commissioned from Texas-born composer
Roberto Rodriguez. We asked Russell if the work would
be shared with other opera houses in the future, especially
in states with big Hispanic populations like California and
"I think you could
expect that it will be. The piece is so good, based on the workshop
tape that we did of it last spring. But I think that once we
actually present it, given that education departments, especially
in opera companies that are in areas that serve a great Latino
population are always looking for works that address underserved
audiences, I think that we'll see a lot of companies picking
up on this, especially since Robert Rodriguez has such a fine
Although Hispanics could
potentially constitute a big percentage of the opera audience
in Denver, that could become a reality sooner than later with
the Figaro titling system - of which The Ellie's is only one
of three in the country, .
"They do not as of
right now. But we're actually 'stealing' a lot of ideas, and
I say this very honestly to you, from Santa Fe Opera. When they
started with the Figaro seatback titling system offered the
titles in Spanish which we will again do for Carmen,
Norma, and Abduction as we did for The Ellie
Gala. We also make available, which we print in our program,
synopsis, and program notes in Spanish.
"And we're really
hoping over the next several years, that just as Santa Fe saw
with the Spanish translation opportunity we will see a significant
increase, maybe as much as 25%. It is also one of our goals
to do a mainstage Spanish work as part of our subscription series."
One of the surprising
discoveries one makes on getting to know Opera Colorado is that
it is a very efficiently run company. The success of The
Ellie certainly proved that it is a company that can do big
things. And do so with a full-time staff of only thirteen people.
How do Peter Russell and his team do it?
"I think it's possible
to do what we do with a small staff if you're really dedicated
to it, you believe in what you're doing, and you're slightly
a workaholic. Our Marketing and PR Director Rex, our Chief Financial
Officer Daryl, and our Director of Development Greg Carpenter
and I all are.
PETER ON PETER: I'm one of the lucky ones!
In Denver Peter Russell
is known as "Mr. Opera," a walking opera encyclopedia.
"I'm what you
would call an idiot-savant," he
says chuckling, self-effacingly.
But when did he really
begin to love opera? From everything one hears, it's almost
from the day he was born.
"Almost. It's kind
of an odd situation. First of all the name Russell is kind of
misleading because people hear it and assume that I'm really
a WASP, and the truth of the matter is that my grandparents,
all four of them did come over from Europe, but only one of
them came from England. My paternal grandmother came from Greece.
"And both of my mother's
parents came from a poor mid-southern central section of Italy
called Mezzogiorno. I have to say my favorite of my four grandparents
was my mother's father. Luigi Marianello who lived with us for
a while while I was growing up. Grandpa Marianello was a wonderful
man, a wonderful grandparent who had an amazing sense of humor.
I wanted to be just like him.
"Every Saturday afternoon,
the kitchen radio was turned on to the Met broadcast. He had
all of those scratchy 78 rpm records when I was growing up;
you could still get a phonograph player where there was a setting
for 78 rpm and you could the needle on the cartridge so that
you would have a needle on the other side to play 78s. So I
never sort of went through the thing that a lot of kids do -
of thinking that opera was weird, strange. It was just part
of the wallpaper.
"In December 1966,
my parents took me to my first opera in my hometown of Hartford,
Connecticut, and I lucked out. It was La Bohème,
and Mimì was Mirella Freni. I joke that it is all her
fault. Rodolfo was actually a wonderful tenor - but just extraordinarily
short - by the name of Flaviano Labò, who has since passed
away but who sang at the Met and City Opera for years. I was
hooked for life - that was it. So I spent the rest of my education
years trying to find out a way that I could actually make a
living in opera, despite the fact that I had absolutely no talent
for performing. I actually play the piano. But you'd pay money
NOT to hear me sing," adding,
"I majored in
music history, with the piano as my instrument, and minored
in theatre studies."
Which seemed to be
just perfect for his kind of job.
"Yes, and useless for anything else."
But he agreed that
at least he has his dream job and "It's
a lot of fun!"
What does Peter Russell
see as his greatest challenge as General Director of Opera Colorado?
"I would say to keep
the momentum and the enthusiasm going, to continue building
our audience with as much diversity as possible, and through
education and outreach to see to it that there will always be
a new audience coming up. Unless we can ensure that young people
will come to the opera, and Lord knows who is asked to do this,
because our public schools surely aren't doing it - then there's
a shelf life tacked on our foreheads that sooner or later is
going to expire."
And what part of his job
does he enjoy the most and have the most satisfaction from?
"That's a tough one.
I would say nothing makes me happier - as wonderful as it is
to do something like The Ellie Gala, and that probably is the
most exciting night I've had in my life so far - that nothing
moves me more than being in a student matinee performance, or
a dress rehearsal for students, and seeing the way the kids
react when everything goes right, especially during the curtain
calls. That for me is an affirmation. Okay! This is why we do
what we do."
Indeed everything about
The Ellie is blessed, and Opera Colorado doubly so - with Peter
Russell at the helm. But as he mildly and ever so humbly puts
"I'm one of
the lucky ones."