JACK FINLAW - Denver's Director of Theatres and Arenas





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Jack Finlaw with Ellie Caulkins
Photo courtesy of Dept. of Theatres and Arenas

It's the one name that pops up without fail in any discussion of The Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Why? Because, we are told, he had everything to do with the glittering success of Denver's lyric jewel.

He is Denver's Director of Theatres and Arenas, and he oversees all of the city's entertainment and convention venues. "Hmmm, a bureaucrat," one might say, and perhaps add, "So, what's the big deal? He had to be there every step of the way, anyway"

But one should not be so quickly dismissive of the office and the man. For although he's holding a position that has been in existence for decades, Jack Finlaw is not your typical government bureaucrat. Far from it. He's a lawyer, who practiced law through most of his career since receiving his law degree from the University of Denver. An opera-lover. A big Mozart fan. And he was the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Opera Colorado from 2001 to 2003.  Now, is it any wonder that he has taken the position up to a new level? And that the making of The Ellie turned out to be the success that it was?

He was appointed to his current post in September 2003 soon after ending his 2-year tenure as Chair of Opera Colorado, accepting the position with great enthusiasm, his job clearly cut out for him. "You know I came into the job 2 years ago with the election of our new Mayor," he told us in a phone interview a few weeks after The Ellie opened on September 10, 2005. "He recruited me because of my background as the Chair of Opera Colorado. So I have a real energy and a real enthusiasm for this new opera house, but my job encompasses so many other venues. We expanded the Convention Center which was about a $300M project. We run a 9000-seat outdoor amphitheatre called Red Rocks. So, it's a very diverse job. But yes, I have been particularly hands-on in overseeing the Opera House because I wanted to make sure that, with my former colleagues at Opera Colorado, we did live up to our hope and dream of building a fabulous Opera House."

As everyone now knows, that dream became a splendid reality almost two years to the day since he took on the job. And at the Celebration that marked the opening of The Ellie, the music world took notice. "It was incredible!" said Finlaw of the Gala Concert, gushing as he went on: "The energy, the production, the singers - we had such great opera singers. Christening the house was really, really exciting for us."

Did the Opera House meet his expectations? "It certainly has come up to my expectations, I would say." But there was no mistaking, as he continued with his detailed, very hands-on sounding answer, that this Director of Theatres will not rest until the state-of-the-art facility has reached a state of near-perfection. "We just had a run of The Sleeping Beauty with the Colorado Ballet, and this week we open with Carmen. We're really in the first year, I keep telling the crew, when we will have to work as the various productions come in. It's really an opportunity for us operationally to adjust things like the acoustics, the heating and cooling system, the operation of the building from the standpoint of customer service. We are literally at every performance making notes and making changes so that we get the hall appropriately tuned acoustically. The orchestra pit, you know, operates in three different configurations - we're trying to optimize those. We're also working to operate this Figaro seatback titling system, and to get the heating and cooling system balanced properly. So there are lots of things still happening. I hope that a year from now I can say it exceeds my expectations." 

Thus, one gets the sense that Finlaw really knows his buildings inside out, The Ellie particularly, because he was there from the very beginning, years before he became Director of Theatres and Arenas. "We formed a committee which we called 'The Friends of the Auditorium.' This was headed by Steve Seifert, who is now the Manager of the Newman Center. It was a cross-section of a lot of people in the arts - from the Opera, the Ballet, the Symphony, the Theatre Company. Specifically, we looked at the old building and saw that it was worn out in many ways, but it was particularly not accessible for people with disabilities. And it was somewhat of a fire trap. Fortunately, the citizens rallied behind that and, with then Mayor Webb and the City Council at the time, we found the money to move ahead with a $75M project which we subsequently enhanced by bringing in more money from the private sector."

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Jack Finlaw speaking at the Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony just outside The Ellie and the Quigg Newton Auditorium

The decision to build an opera house was not one that was made in a hurry. "There was a lot of talk over the years of waiting for the money to come together of what the hall should be like. The original plan called for a $145M multi-purpose hall with movable walls and things like that, but we have a great theatre, the Buell Theatre for Broadway shows and we have a Symphony Hall for the Symphony. The two organizations that really needed performance space were the Opera and the Ballet. So ultimately, we came down to a decision that it should be an opera house with great sightlines for dance."

Finlaw, of course, knows his opera and has been an opera lover for 20 years or so. "I didn't go to the opera as a child but on Saturday afternoons, my family certainly listened to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. But frankly, I fell in love with opera in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Santa Fe Opera is such a wonderful place to see and hear opera that every summer for the last 18 to 20 years I have been going to opera there. Now when I travel around the world I always plan on seeing an opera every time I'm in a major city."

And he's big on Mozart. "You know, I am a big Mozart fan. I would say that - I can't name just one - but the trio of Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte, and Don Giovanni are my favorite operas." He loves jazz too, and is quick to point out, referring to the exquisite Chambers Grant Salon, that "our new little space down here - the restaurant and cocktail areas off the Opera House already have some jazz musicians playing; it's a wonderful venue for jazz."

Is the Mayor an opera lover too, we asked? "Well, I would say he's becoming one. He loved the September 10 Gala and he's coming to Opening Night on Thursday for Carmen and he's actually looking forward to it. His sister, though, who lives in London is a big opera lover. She's seen the Ring 20 times. She lives there with her husband who writes for 'Opera World.'

"Here's a funny story. Ellie Caulkins was out to Seattle in August with a whole group of Opera Colorado people. They were going to attend the Ring performances at the Seattle Opera. She was in the elevator at the hotel and several of them were talking about the new Opera House in Denver. And a woman in the elevator said, 'Excuse me for interrupting, but you know, my brother is the Mayor of Denver.' So, they all had a wonderful story to tell."

Just as surely, Jack Finlaw will, in the not too distant future, have many stories to tell about his quest for an opera house that quickly became a reality under his watch. "It's really a dream come true. When I sit back to put every day's little fires out, I just try to focus on what we've accomplished - it is simply amazing!"


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