Let's Put On a Show!

What's old is new again at the Bug.

If you're not careful, a telephone can ruin your romance. That's the message of Gian Carlo Menotti's 25-minute-long The Telephone. Although the opera was written in the late '40s, baritone Chris McKim, who's analyzed his part, considers it oddly up to date.

"This is one of my favorite lines: This thing can't be challenged. It has hundreds of lives and miles of umbilical cord. That was true back then, and now, with cell phones, the whole thing is re-emerging," he says. "You compete with the phone for people's attention. You see couples out on dates, both of them talking on cell phones. I even get an itsy-bitsy soliloquy about that."

In an opera this short, there's not much room for more. Written as a light appetizer for Menotti's dark, convoluted The Medium, The Telephone has an efficiently simple plot: Ben, the baritone, has an important question for his girlfriend, Lucy, but her phone keeps ringing. In desperation, he leaves her apartment, runs to the phone booth on the corner, calls her and proposes marriage.

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou? Chandler's right at home at the Bug.
Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou? Chandler's right at home at the Bug.

McKim and Maureen Sorensson, who sings the part of Lucy, have been rehearsing at the Bug Theatre, a 150-seat former movie house in northwest Denver more typically associated with performance art than mainstream music.

"But it's better than a formal opera house," McKim says. "And I think it's wonderful and hysterical that we should be doing it here and now. The amazing series of coincidences, the confluence of things that have happened, the serendipity -- that's a stupid word, but that's what it is."

The Telephone will begin its three-day run exactly fifty years after it premiered in Denver -- in the same small theater.

"The papers called it a `gala opening,'" says Chandler Romeo, who's owned the Bug since 1994 with her husband, Reed Weimer. "Only in 1952, they called it the World Playhouse, and it was supposed to be Denver's home for art movies. Helen Bonfils had helped with the modernization. They ran the Denver premiere of The Medium -- the film version -- and the curtain opener was this little one-act opera buffa, live."

Chandler had known this for years but got more interested as the fiftieth anniversary approached. "I had a picture of one of the singers, almost a haunting picture," she says. "A few years ago, I showed it to my mother."

Her mother was very familiar with the opera. She'd sung the Lucy role informally while attending music school at the University of Colorado at Boulder. And Chandler's father, a Denver native, had directed it a few years earlier at the same school. They didn't know each other then. In fact, although both started their careers as professional musicians -- she a soprano and he a violinist -- they each ended up working for United Airlines, which is where they finally met and fell in love. They married in late 1952, right around the time The Telephone debuted in Denver.

Having always been the kind of person who likes to put on a show, damn the logistics, Chandler roped in not just her siblings, but Central City Opera to help mount The Telephone as a fiftieth-wedding-anniversary present for her parents. As it turned out, The Medium had just been re-released on DVD. Walter Lowendahl, its eighty-something director, was charmed by Chandler's concept of resurrecting the fifty-year-old evening and waived royalties. And so the entire original program will be re-created this weekend, and open to the public -- except for the October 26 dress rehearsal, which will take the form of a private anniversary party.

"Chandler brought us a CD," says her mother, Patty Romeo. "After a minute or so, Tony and I were singing all the lyrics. It's short and silly, but the music is wonderful. We remembered the whole thing."

The Romeos raised their children in Boulder, far from the 3600 block of Navajo Street. But by 1983, Chandler was a regular in that neighborhood. Reed, her future husband, was living in an apartment above Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis, a pioneering art collective that had become a center for the avant-gardest of art, with live bands and even livelier artists running rampant, especially during weekend openings. Artists themselves, Reed and Chandler loved the place. In 1985, they decided to buy the building and become Pirate's landlord. For financial help, they approached their parents.

"Oh, gosh, we were horrified," Patty Romeo recalls. "It was a terrible neighborhood. There was such vandalism. But we decided to support them, and we thought they'd just get over it."

Instead, the project prospered. When performance art threatened to overflow the Pirate space, Reed and Chandler began dreaming of a venue just for that. By the early '90s, the idea didn't seem so improbable: The area had acquired a certain hipness, in no small part because of their efforts, which ultimately earned them a Mayor's Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1996.

In 1994, an artist across the street from Pirate, who'd been using an old theater as storage space, invited Reed and Chandler in to look around.

"It hadn't been open in at least forty years," Chandler remembers. "It was spooky. It was great! The only lights were footlights. Brown walls, blue tin ceilings... We had to have it."

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