Opera lovers who trek up Clear Creek Canyon every summer share something other than a yen for great music and a tolerance for winding mountain roads. They make the yearly pilgrimage because the Central City Opera has earned a reputation for producing high-quality shows free of highbrow pretension. Even with the upscale changes of recent years -- some operas that used to be done in English are now done in their original language, and the theater's ancient hickory torture chairs have been replaced by plush velour seats, resulting in a net reduction in seating capacity that caused a hike in ticket prices -- highfalutin ways and snobbish attitudes still don't play well in this former gold-rush town. And the occasional massive ego looks ridiculously out of place in the CCO's 550-seat theater, a magnificent stone edifice lined with beautiful trompe l'oeil murals that was built in 1878 by Welsh and Cornish miners; after extensive renovations, it was reopened in 1932 by Broadway producer and designer Robert Edmond Jones.
If the CCO's commitment to strong production values, up-and-coming talent, American works, musical risk taking and a relaxed atmosphere make it the quintessential American opera company (it's also the nation's fifth oldest), then Diane Alexander is its quintessential performer. A born actress who acknowledges earning the nickname "the Carlisle Floyd girl" for having recently performed in several of the American composer's operas (including the title role in the CCO's Susannah in 1997 and the world premiere of Cold Sassy Tree at Houston Grand Opera earlier this season), Alexander is that rare American singer who can maintain vocal integrity while making each character vibrantly human.
Unlike many of today's divas-of-the-moment, however, the thirty-something soprano is given to easy conversation instead of self-promoting chatter. "Central City is about creativity and ensemble work," says Alexander, who, after a three-year absence, returns for her sixth season this summer, portraying Musetta in Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème. "The camaraderie between the singers, the music that's made and the production values have always been satisfying. You either love working here or you hate it. Because it's very rustic; you've got to have a car; you've got to kind of roll with the punches. And you've got to be able to live in an old Victorian house with mismatched furniture and a stove that doesn't heat up to 350 degrees. I can deal with that; some people can't. They need to live in luxury hotels and be waited on hand and foot to feel that they can sing well. For me, it's a total musical creative experience, and that's what I love about it."
Little Women, La Bohme and Gloriana
Central City Opera House, Eureka Street, Central City
The Central City Opera's 69th season begins this weekend and continues through August 12
303-292-6700 or 1-800-851-8175; centralcityopera.org
While the jury is still out on the changes that have taken place in the three seasons since General Director Pelham "Pat" Pearce succeeded former CCO head John Moriarty (who remains as artistic director emeritus), Alexander says the company "was at the point where it needed to take some risks. Pat is a little bit more experimental in terms of repertoire, and he's introducing the audience to things that are not traditional."
Indeed, this summer the CCO is doing the American premiere of Benjamin Britten's opera about Elizabeth I, Gloriana, and the regional premiere of American composer Mark Adamo's Little Women -- two relatively unknown works that, even when combined with a crowd-pleaser like La Bohème, make the season something of a hard sell.
Less daunting is the task of convincing audiences to attend an Italian-language version of La Bohème -- a departure, beginning with last summer's production of La Traviata, from the CCO's decades-long tradition of doing operas only in English and without surtitles. "Nobody is really doing English translations of things anymore, except maybe something with a lot of spoken dialogue, like Die Fledermaus or The Magic Flute," explains Alexander. "That's really how it is all over the country. As far as the singers are concerned, we want to sing things in their original language. English is not an easy language to sing in, especially if put into a [musical] line that was originally meant to be sung in French. The vowels change, the phrasing changes, the arch of the phrase changes."
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And, she says, the argument that audiences aren't sophis- ticated enough to appreciate foreign-language productions doesn't hold much water, either. "This past year, I've performed in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Des Moines, Iowa, and Indianapolis -- and all of the audiences [in those cities] loved it when we did Italian opera. If using surtitles brings in audiences, if it brings in people who are afraid of not understanding opera or are afraid of a foreign language, then I'm all for them. Sometimes I think you have to say, 'Let's move ahead now.'"
Besides, Alexander points out, Central City's productions have always been as much about dramatic truth as musical virtuosity; each opera's emotions, when properly plumbed, are universal enough to transcend language. "Here, you can take a risk vocally to make the dramatic point. Because it's a small house, it's nice for us as actors. And things tend to come together easily when you have people who don't have bad attitudes and just a desire to work and be thankful for having the job."
In that spirit, she's quick to credit her experiences at Central City with helping her to develop her career. In addition to performing with several regional companies over the last few years, Alexander will make her debut at the prestigious Washington Opera in the nation's capital this fall in -- what else? -- Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men.
"I was probably a late bloomer," she says. "I'm just starting to feel like I'm coming into my own. There's usually ten really good years in a singer's career -- and I feel that I'm just at the beginning of those years. I'd like to make the next step up to Chicago Lyric, San Francisco, Los Angeles, those kinds of places. The Met. It doesn't really matter to me. I just want to love what I do. If I lose the love for what I do, then I need to get out. And I haven't. I just feel that it's increased now, and I'm anxious and excited about beginning this new phase. In the meantime, I just work hard and go to places where I know I'll have a good experience. I love coming here, and I always have, and that's not going to change."