The dynamic, successful blend of tradition and innovation continues this summer at Central City Opera, which opens on Saturday, July 11, with its production of Verdi’s La Traviata. “We juggle all these different audiences,” says CCO General/Artistic Director Pelham G. Pearce. “We want to not do something for these folks to the exclusion of these others.”
So this year Traviata plays in repertory with The Prodigal Son, one of Benjamin Britten’s “parables for church performance,” and two works about Cervantes’s immortal character Don Quixote – the 1965 Broadway hit Man of La Mancha and a comic work from 1743, Boismortier’s Don Quixote and the Duchess.
Traviata is under the direction of Elise Sandell, an emerging name in opera direction. After a week and a half of rehearsals, the work was three-quarters staged at the end of June. “It’s just the right amount of time to make our own discoveries about the text,” Sandell explains, adding that SHE learned from working with many of the great music-drama stage artists – Elijah Moshinky, Francesa Zambello, David McVicar and former Opera Colorado Artistic Director James Robinson.
Sandell also prepared by immersing herself in the source material for Traviata, the classic 1853 tragedy about a dying courtesan, Violetta, who sacrifices her happiness for her beloved’s. The story was so popular that it led to an early example of cross-platform success: The opera was inspired by the hit play adapted from Alexandre Dumas’s bestselling novel La Dame aux Camellias, itself based on real courtesan Marie Duplessis. “Some of these characters are so fascinating,” Sandell says. “Ironically, courtesans were some of the first independent women in that century. They flew in the face of everything ‘traditional women’ were supposed to do and be. It’s our job to make this understandable.”
Asked about a favorite opera, Sandell responds; “It’s kind of like picking a favorite child. I compare opera to food – you need a steady and diversified diet. I love Verdi and how he portrays women and how he works politics into his operas. I love Janacek and Britten. I’ve done a lot of Mozart, and it’s been about a year and a half – I get hungry for Mozart.”
The death rate for opera heroines perturbs her a bit. “Sometimes it seems that good opera roles for men are easier to find — and they usually live,” she says.
One of Sandell’s most influential mentors is Paul Curran, who serves as artistic consultant to CCO and will lead La Mancha on to the intimate confines of the Opera House stage. In contrast to the two mainstage productions are the Britten and Boismortier one-acts, versatile traveling collaborations with other regional companies that will be staged both in Central City and in Fort Collins (Don Quixote and the Duchess) and Colorado Springs (The Prodigal Son).
This kind of old-fashioned barnstorming is just one of the outreach strategies that CCO’s Pearce considers vital. The CCO’s varied menu of tours, educational sessions, a family matinee, post-op partying, and even a Boomer Bus neatly targets CCO’s diverse constituencies. Artistically, Pearce’s tenure produced national recognition for CCO with landmarks such as the 1996 recording of Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, the long-overdue 2001 American premiere of Britten’s Gloriana and the world premiere of Mollicone’s Gabriel’s Daughter in 2003.
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Staging seasons in the 550-seat jewel-box theater, a national historic landmark, is economically challenging. "We need to find new audiences, and we need to take down the barriers that keep people from showing up to the performing arts,” says Pearce, who will celebrate his twentieth anniversary in charge at the opera next summer. To that end, he's open to new ideas such as livestreaming, simulcasts and the like.
“A lot of things are possible now that were not even five years ago,” he says. “Look at people’s lives now, how they’ve changed drastically in the past ten years. We all believe in what we are doing, and in the place we do it. We all believe in this company and the kind of work it does. We just need to find and nurture the audience.”
The 83rd Central City Opera season opens Saturday, July 11 and runs through August 9 at the Central City Opera House, 124 Eureka Street, Central City. For tickets and information, visit centralcityopera.org.