At one of the last performances of Opera Colorado's hilarious 2020 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, audience members couldn't stop coughing. The performance was too good to think that all that hacking was because the patrons were simply suffering from dry throats — as classical-music audiences so often are.
It was the first week of March 2020, and the pandemic had arrived in Colorado. Did those coughers have COVID-19? Was it safe to be in the Ellie Caulkins Opera House? Would we all come down with the coronavirus?
Opera Colorado soon canceled any additional productions of Pagliacci. On March 13, the company axed its annual gala. Within weeks, staff started hitting the delete button on the Opera Colorado calendar and making panicked calls to patrons, begging them not to ask for refunds. Many complied.
"In spite of the challenges we’ve been facing over the past year, it’s hard to believe our first canceled performances were almost a year ago," says Greg Carpenter, general and artistic director of Opera Colorado. "We’re making the best of the most challenging situation I’ve faced in my almost seventeen years at Opera Colorado. We’re experiencing very generous donors who are making sure we have a positive outcome at the end of the current year. We're fortunate to pick up all the productions we had planned last year and preserved our artist contracts. We were very lucky."
Lucky, and busy. Soon after the pandemic hit, Carpenter and company started brainstorming ways to stay relevant to their current subscribers and also attract new audiences, so that when Opera Colorado bounced back, perhaps there would be newfound enthusiasm for its productions and fresh faces in the crowd.
In October, the company launched performances dubbed Arias in the Alley; the singers were cold. Opera Colorado also experimented with co-producing a digital production. And most recently, it collaborated with Rocky Mountain Public Media on a production of Tom Cipullo's one-woman, one-act opera Josephine, about the life of opera singer, ex-pat, French Resistance fighter and civil rights legend Josephine Baker, as well as a production of The Promise of Living, a compilation of works chronicling 400 years of Black struggle and liberation in the United States, from slavery through the civil rights movement. The two-part show debuts online at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 4, and runs through March 18.
Opera singer and scholar Laquita Mitchell and singer Nmon Ford organized the program and perform in both productions, bringing together some of their favorite African-American and Jewish composers, as well as others who reflected on the history of the United States and the struggle for racial equality and civil rights.
Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Carpenter approached Mitchell in the fall to ask her to organize a program that would be broadcast digitally. She recruited pianist and conductor Israel Gursky and Denver's Davis Contemporary Dance Company to perform music by Aaron Copland, Manuel de Falla, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, William Grant Still, Hall Johnson and more. Many of the songs include lyrics by Langston Hughes, a frequent collaborator with classical composers in the United States, says Mitchell.
"Why wouldn’t we perform Josephine and tie her into a program which centered around justice — African-Americans and their struggles here in the United States?" asks Mitchell. "It works perfectly."
While the performance proudly tells a story of slavery, exodus and rebellion, Mitchell is cautious not to couch the works in terms of "social justice." Instead, she focuses on this country's past and how it shapes our current experiences.
"I think certain people need to have a revisit into history," she says. "We need to understand where we have come from so we never, ever go back to that. I hope the audience is able to look at this history, their history, because it’s American history. I don’t want to label this social justice.
"I don’t care for the words 'social justice' so much," she continues. "It’s a separate thing. Justice is for everyone; it’s for everybody. If you’re an American, everyone should have equal justice. This is not about 'social justice,' it’s about history and precedent and why music and art and dance have a way of explaining things to people in a way that speaks to their heart. And I believe that in order to change people’s minds, we have to change their hearts first."
For Opera Colorado, which has largely focused on big-stage performances of blockbuster classical music programs with occasional deviations into more contemporary fare (The Shining, for example), going digital allows the company to engage in a conversation about race in the United States that it's often removed from, with its frequent canonical productions of white European composers. That's a trend this collaboration with Mitchell, who is on a crusade to resurrect the forgotten modern music of Black composers, might expand upon in future seasons.
The company is also working on a series of eight-minute Brain Breaks for kids, which allow them to engage with opera while moving around. Also in the mix are Storytime Sessions, programming to be shared with youth and public libraries, to help expand opera literacy. All of this is an extension of the educational work that Opera Colorado does in person most years.
From April 15 through April 29, Opera Colorado will celebrate all things French in April in Paris, another virtual program. On May 14, the company has plans to perform Fiestas Patrias con Opera Colorado: An Evening of Opera and Mexican American and Latino Folk Music at the Denver Botanic Gardens, with more outdoor shows in the works for the summer.
Over a trying year, Carpenter has embraced the difficulties caused by the pandemic and made his company's work more relevant to our world than ever.
"It’s really challenged the creative side of what we do and brought about some new ideas," says Carpenter, who says he's looking forward to a robust 2021-22 season with Tosca, The Shining and Carmen, though he's not entirely sure the company's foray into online and outdoor events will be wrapped after the pandemic. "Do we keep some of these digital projects we’ve been working on or some of the outdoor stuff in May and June? Is it stuff we might want to keep? We’ve been given a bushel of lemons, and we’re making a hell of a lot of lemonade."
So drink up. Opera Colorado is coming back — and, vaccines willing, there'll soon be no reason to cough.
For more information about how to watch the free performance of Josephine and The Promise of Living, running online starting March 4 through March 18, as well as other upcoming productions, go to the Opera Colorado website.
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