It can be hard to make a compelling case for why people should check out their first opera – especially when it involves an hour drive and stiff seats — but Central City Opera has done just that with its current production of Georges Bizet's Carmen.
Opera has a lot working against it when it comes to attracting new devotees. Topping the list is the genre's reputation for being an irrelevant, overpriced art form for rich people aspiring to seem cultured, who dress up and then sit down for a couple hours trying not to cough through some caterwauling. To the opera-phobe, the music sounds bovine.
But Carmen sounds divine...against all odds.
Central City Opera, Carmen. Adriano Graziani as Don José and Emily Pulley as Carmen.
Dead white men wrote the vast majority of operas, a bruise on any art form in an era when audiences expect diversity in the authors and artists they embrace. (After eighty-plus years in the mining town turned gambling mini-mecca, Central City Opera is just this year presenting its first-ever piece written by a woman, and Amy Beach's Cabildo is just a one-act.) Few operas translate into anything that can be considered socially relevant today – at least not without some serious directorial tweaking. And it doesn't help that many of the most notable operas are ridiculous melodramas about whiny heterosexuals who wind up killing each other because they can't control their emotions.
The warhorse that Central City Opera trotted out this year isn't exactly a modern opera. Its theme: Sluts die. At least that's how it's often played. This is certainly not a women's-lib story. It's about how women who step out of the bounds of monogamy will be suffocated by jealous men. Killed, even.
And then there's the fact that Central City is half a gas tank away up a winding road in the mountains. And after you park, you have to cart your caboose up a steep hill to go into a 140-year-old theater that has a reputation for historic seats (subtext: uncomfortable), and even the bathrooms are outside the opera house. All this in an era when air-conditioned multiplexes loaded with recliners spoil people into thinking that every theater should be a living room away from home.
Despite all of this — and also because of it — Central City Opera continues to be one of the most all-around captivating cultural institutions on the Front Range, and certainly the best place in Colorado for people to see their first opera.
The magic starts with Central City itself, a throwback that has somehow preserved its Old West architecture, despite being overrun by modern-day gamblers and classical-music aficionados. Pat Pearce, Central City Opera's executive director, describes the town as a sleep-away camp for opera singers, who flood the steep streets each summer. Going to a production here also has some summer-camp flair for opera fans. You and the rest of the audience are part of a community that seems far from the bustle of downtown, in a charming, rustic space that somehow enhances enjoyment of world-class productions.
The company's approach to Carmen, which runs through August 6, is definitely world-class, and very smart. Director Jose Maria Condemi turns what can easily be played as a story of slut-shaming into a cautionary tale about how jealousy leads to domestic violence.
The acting is breathtaking, particularly that of tenor Adriano Graziani, who plays Don José, the abusive, skulking, soldier-turned-wannabe-gypsy-turned-abusive-brute. Michael Mayes, the giant of a baritone who plays the macho bullfighter Escamillo (try getting his rendition of Georges Bizet's ear-worm "Toreador" out of your head), keeps the audience laughing, even amid the swelling tragedy. And soprano Emily Pulley, who tackles the role of Carmen, brings out the nuance of the character.
The production is anything but a snoozer, and it's artful enough to make the classic story relevant today. In short, a perfect entry point for someone new to opera, and also a treat for aficionados.
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This Central City Opera season isn't as cutting-edge as previous ones, including the year when it staged Dead Man Walking, an operatic reflection on the death penalty based on Sister Helen Prejan's memoir of her time working on death row. While this year's one-act fare does broaden the season's scope (including Beach's Cabildo), the full-length productions Carmen and Mozart's Cosî Fan Tutte are mainstay classical works.
Still, they, too, are worth your time. And if you need more modern action after the show, you can always walk down back down that steep hill and gamble away the rest of your night at the casinos.
The Central City Opera season runs through August 6 at 124 Eureka Street. For a full schedule, tickets and more information, visit Central City Opera online.