Peter Russell: President and General Director, Opera Colorado





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If there was anyone who had good reason to stand gloriously proud and happy at the grand opening of The Ellie, it was Opera Colorado's charming, urbane, and extremely capable General Director, Peter Russell. It was under his leadership that Opera Colorado emerged as one of America's finest regional companies and The Ellie, Denver's lyric jewel, came to be its permanent home.

Thus, if there was anyone who could paint a behind-the-scenes picture of the events that propelled the creation of The Ellie, it was Peter Russell - rightly and affectionately known as "Mr. Opera" in Denver because of his unflagging passion for opera and his encyclopedic knowledge of the art form.  And so, greatly impressed by everything we saw at the opening of The Ellie, we asked Peter Russell to do just that - in a phone interview a few weeks later.

The opening of The Ellie on September 10, 2005 - a mere two years after construction began - was the fitting culmination of what was a laborious, but amazing process that involved many players, but one in which everything miraculously went right. [Photo © P. Switzer Photography, courtesy of Opera Colorado]


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 it.

"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."

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It 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."


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.

"And 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.

[Photo courtesy of Dept. of Theatres and Arenas, City of Denver]

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God! Could you clone your Mayor? "You 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."


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.

I think that we were really blessed! "Everyone 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?

"Susan 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 Board."

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."

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Opera 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 the commission.

"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, very original."

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 at Wolftrap.

"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."  


At 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 singer's conductor."

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 Texas.

"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 reputation."

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.

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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 it:

"I'm one of the lucky ones."

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