Historic Opera Companies of Colorado
1896 - 2005
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About 35 opera companies have been founded in Colorado. Eleven of them currently are extant, namely, Central City Opera (1933), Empire Lyric Players (1958), Opera Fort Collins (1979), Opera Colorado (1983), Opera Theatre of the Rockies (1999),Opera Steamboat (2002), High Desert Opera (2003), Loveland Opera Theatre (2006), Boulder Opera (2011).
Lest the ones that have perished be forgotten, this page was created to provide a record of their history and cultural contributions. A few small and ephemeral Denver organizations are not cataloged here, including the Lucille Evans Opera Guild, the Rocky Mountain Opera Association of Arvada, the Rocky Mountain Opera Theatre, Opera! Opera! Opera!, Opera West Workshop, a group called Theatre-Under-Glass, the Denver Concert Chorale Opera Workshop, and Lyric Artists of the West.
The earliest record found for an an opera company in Colorado is for the Colorado Springs Opera Company which presented Powhatan, as a benefit for the Boy's Club, June 29 and 30, 1896.
The summer opera program at the University of Colorado was founded in 1980 by Professor Dennis Jackson and was called the Summer Music Festival. Later it was referred to as CU Opera in the Summer and then in 2006 the name was changed to Colorado Light Opera.
The discovered information that follows is uneven and, in some instances, incomplete. Allen Young's history, Exotic and Irrational; Opera in Denver 1879-2006, provides a wealth of detail about most of the companies profiled here and the many fine local singers who performed with them. This exposition focuses on the production histories of the companies. If the reader can improve upon this work, the author will be grateful. The companies are listed in the order of the date of their inception.
Denver Grand Opera Company (1909-1911)
The Denver Grand Opera Company appears to be the first resident opera company in Denver. (A later one, founded in 1933, used the same name; see below.) Its first production was Wagner's Tannhäuser 17-21 May 1909, at Denver's Municipal Auditorium, with two or three alternate singers for each role and a chorus of 200 voices. The most notable member of the cast was Jane Abercrombie, leading prima donna with the Metropolitan English Grand Opera Company of Chicago. The next production, 29-30 October 1909, was Johan Strauss' The Queen's Lace Handkerchief, again at the Municipal Auditorium, but an additional performance on 14 November was presented in the German Theatre, 2134 Arapahoe St., which places it in the Turnhalle (Turner Hall) of the Turnverein (athletic club). The final production appears to have been Cavalleria Rusticana, plus miscellaneous selections, at the Broadway Theater on 10 April 1911.
Bosetti Grand Opera Company and Cathedral Grand Opera Company (1915-1922)
Monsignor Joseph J. Bosetti, assistant pastor of Denver's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, had organized a 125 voice, male choir trained in classical music, and he used it as the core for the Bosetti Grand Opera Company, which presented Cavalleria Rusticana on 24 April 1915 in the Municipal Auditorium. Next came Thomas' Mignon 23 and 24 February 1916 at the Broadway Theater. The second night's Mignon was Florence Lamont Abramowitz (later Hinman). The following year, Bosetti's company was billed as the Cathedral Grand Opera Company and Orchestra, and gave a performance of Romeo and Juliet on 14 February 1917 in the Municipal Auditorium. Coloratura soprano Elizabeth Young, who had been Filina in the Mignon of the previous year, was Juliet. In 1922 Bosetti collaborated with another priest, McMenamin, in the production of an original operetta, Bethlehem, staged at the Broadway Theater.
Denver Grand Opera Company (1933-1951)
Joseph Bosetti also founded the Denver Grand Opera Company in 1933, which annually, for the next 18 years, would stage a commendable opera production-- two in 1948. The complete repertoire is listed in the table following. Among the many notable singers appearing in this series of productions were Coloradoans Jean Dickenson, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Violetta of the 1935 La Traviata, and the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor; Francesco Valentino (then using his real name, Frank Valentine Dinhaupt), Germont in the 1935 La Traviata, the title role in Rigoletto, Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, and Figaro in The Barber of Seville; and Jack Race, who was Wagner in Faust. Metropolitan Opera stars who appeared with Bosetti's company were Giovanni Martinelli in Tosca; Norina Greco in Tosca, Il Trovatore and La Bohème; Bidu Sayao and Gabor Corelli in L'Elisir d'Amore; Bruno Landi, Emilia Vidali, Hilde Reggiani in La Traviata and Dorothy Kirsten in Faust. Nicola Berardinelli of the Chicago Grand Opera Company sang the title role in Rigoletto, Scarpia in Tosca, and Manrico in Il Trovatore. Eleanor Kahn of the San Francisco Opera sang the title role in Carmen.
Denver Post Operas (1934-1972)
The iconic Denver Post Operas, outdoors in Cheesman Park, were enjoyed every summer by Denverites from 1934 until 1972, except for the war years, 1944 and 1945. Helen Bonfils, wealthy daughter of the co-founder of the Denver Post newspaper, was the creator and patron of this lengthy series. For the first two years, the productions were heavy on grand opera, with the 1934 production called "An Evening of Verdi" and then three productions in 1935 on three successive evening in June: Lucia di Lammermoor, Naughty Marietta, and Tannhäuser. Jean Dickenson was the featured star in both years. Then, starting in 1936, an operetta or musical was offered annually. Donna Janzen was Bloody Mary in the 1963 South Pacific.
An unpublished manuscript by Edwin Levy, "Just One More Short Act, Folks!: A History of the Denver Post Opera," resides in the library of the Colorado Historical Society in Denver. It faithfully records the productions with full details of directorial staffs and casts. (One page was missing when the author examined it a few years ago.) Edwin Levy directed many of the Denver post operettas. It is unfortunate that his record of this historic endeavor remains in obscurity. The following is a catalog of the productions.
Capitol Opera Company (1951-1965)
The Capitol Opera Company was founded in Denver by Robert Lansing in 1950. Robert and Gladys Lansing were Metropolitan Opera choristers in New York before coming to Denver in 1949 Capitol Opera Company presented 25 performances of 12 grand operas by the time it closed in 1965. Below are listed the productions for which years of performance are known. In addition other productions for which the dates are not know include The Marriage of Figaro and Carmina Burana. Gladys Lansing was Azucena in Il Trovatore, Amneris in Aida, and Lola in Cavalleria Rusticana. Venues for the company's productions included Capitol Height Auditorium, Barnes Auditorium, and Phipps Auditorium.
Greater Denver Opera Association (1954-1957)
Although this company lasted a mere four years, its productions were highly lauded. Dr. Antonia Brico conducted the Cav/Pag first production and Hansel and Gretel. The casts were commonly augmented by singers of note. Tomiko Kanazawa was Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Peggy Bonini and Norman Treigle of the New York City Opera Company starred in The Marriage of Figaro, Met stars Brenda Lewis and Frederick Jagel were the leads in Salome, Lucia Albanese was Violetta in La Traviata, Eva Likova was Mimi in La Bohème, Jean Fenn starred in Die Fledermaus, and Marjorie DiProfio sang Bertha in The Barber of Seville. Donna Janzen was Maddelena in the 1954 Rigoletto, Hansel in the 1955 Hansel and Gretel and Suzuki in the 1955 Madama Butterfly. Tomiko Kanazawa of the San Francisco Opera was Cio-Cio San in the latter production.
The first and last three performances were in the Municipal Auditorium, the others were in the Tabor Grand Opera House. Faust was scheduled for performance in April of 1957 but was canceled when the company became insolvent.
Boulder Civic Opera Workshop (1955-1985)
The Civic Light Opera Workshop began as meeting in the Boulder apartment of Saida and Myron Selby in 1955, when friends gathered to rehearse the singing of opera and operetta selections, with Saida accompanying at the piano. Their first public appearance, as the Boulder Civic Opera Workshop was at the Boulder Senior Federated Music Club in 1956, presenting opera and operetta excerpts. Marvin Lee White was the president and manager of the group. By about 1970 the company was using the name Boulder Civic Opera. Through this company's 30 years the key people responsible for manning the operations of the company included John and Marion Paton, Chris Brauchli, Susan Thomas, Judy Kloetzel, Sue Larson, and Carla Selby, daughter of Saida and Myron Selby. The Boulder Chorale was founded in 1966, when some members of the Boulder Civic Opera Chorus decided to form a separate group that would exist independently, but still collaborate with the opera for its performances.
a. Concert version with Bolder Philharmonic conducted by Dr. Antonia Brico.
b. David Burge conducting the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra; Dennis Jackson played the husband.
c. Columbine (1973) was written by Mary Davis (music) and Joanna Sampson (libretto), both local women. It was about the Columbine Mine strike and violence near Erie, CO in November, 1927. It was performed in Lafayette, CO. Some of the old miners were in the audience.
d. Robert Olson conducted The Ballad of Baby Doe and The Tales of Hoffmann.
e. Conducted by Tom Blomster; Charles Eakin directed his Being of Sound Mind and Carla Selby directed A Soldier's Tale.
Denver Lyric Theatre (1958-1967)
Denver Lyric Opera (1967-1972)
The Denver Lyric Theater began in 1958 with John Newfield as director. He was followed by Arthur Schoep in 1962 and then the company became Denver Lyric Opera under the direction of Norman Johnson. The earlier productions featured chamber operas, some of which are little known and rarely performed. See Allen Young's book for composer names. Donna Janzen was Dorabella in the 1964 Cosi fan tutte and Daisy in the 1971 Colonel Jonathan the Saint. The Denver Lyric Opera Guild, currently a vigorous supporter of opera singers, was founded in 1965 as an adjunct to the Denver Lyric Theatre.
Colorado Springs Opera Association (1959-1972)
The Colorado Springs Opera Association was launched in 1959 and continued for 13 seasons. An affiliated Colorado Springs Opera Touring Company performed The Telephone and the The Impresario in the 1968-69 season and Bastien and Bastienne and La Serva Padrona in 1969-70.
Colorado Opera Festival (1971-2000)
Opera Fair (1974-1978)
Opera Fair, founded in 1974 in Denver by Stuart Steffen and Harriet Lawyer-Duvallo, gave one-act operas at various community centers and schools throughout the state under the sponsorship of the Colorado Council of the Arts and Humanities. In the summer of 1975, it toured the state with Norman Lockwood's Requiem for a Rich Young Man, premiered in 1964 by the University of Denver, and also performed it at International House in Denver and on TV. The company also performed The Impresario. In 1976 Opera Fair performed at the Bonfils Children's Theatre and also toured the state with Guerrero's La Rosa del Azafran (zarzuela). The program for 1977 was 10 performances of Donizetti's Rita and a one-act play. Opera Fair offered master classes in Denver by Met soprano Judith Raskin in June 1977. In 1978 Donizetti's Rita, as performed by Denver's Opera Fair accompanied by the Denver Symphony Orchestra, was broadcast in Colorado on January 15. Rick Schmidt was the producer, Carl Topilow the conductor, and Harriet Lawyer-Duvallo the stage director.
Denver Opera Repertory Company (1976-1978)
Nicholas Laurienti was the Conductor and General Director. Lillie Glennon was Adriana Lecouvrer and "sang with poise and assurance" according to a Rocky Mountain News review. Dennis Jackson was Count Danilo in The Merry Widow. Cynthia Makris made her debut as Tosca with this company in 1978. Sometime in the 1970's the company did Hansel and Gretel in which Donna Janzen was Hansel and Beverly Christiansen Fernald was Gretel. The company was revived as the Denver Opera Company and staged a few performances including The Medium and The Magic Flute in 1994, Susannah in 1999, Patience and Sarah in 2003, La Traviata in 2003, and Verdi's Requiem at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in 2005. Following is a list of the productions that we specifically could document.
Crystal River Opera Association (1976-1980)
Based in Carbondale, the group was affiliated with Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs. The founding members were Lloyd E. Levy, president, Betsy Schenck, George Eustis, Dutton Foster, Linda Sullivan, Tom Ferrarese, and Brad Shepherd. These people also were principal performers and musicians in the productions. Performances in Carbondale were at the Crystal Theater, a former moving picture house. In addition to Carbondale, performances were staged in Glenwood Springs, Leadville, Rifle, and Aspen, cities in which Colorado Mountain College has campuses. The Ballad of Baby Doe, the company's first opera, was performed with piano accompaniment. Subsequent operas were accompanied by an orchestra conducted by Ray V. Adams. All the operas were performed in English.
Morrison Opera Company (1979-1984)
In the summer of 1979, opera and classical music devotee Walter Lonis, baritone and Denver Police Officer, secured the Town Hall of Morrison, as a facility that would serve as a small theater and resident opera house. Morrison mayor, the late Rolf Paul, was contacted, and after meetings with Mr. Paul and the Town Board, an agreement was reached for use of the town hall. All remodeling and operating expenses were borne by the Morrison Opera Company. The opera company was officially formed in November of 1979, as a non-profit organization by Walter Lonis, Joanne Lonis, and Donald L. Munro II. William Whitehead was invited to serve as the artistic coordinator and his wife, Peggy as costume designer. Later, Elise Bryant served as a member of the Board. Marge Ochsner was the Lighting Director.
The purpose of the Morrison Opera Company was to provide a training ground for local talent, with emphasis on complete opera and musical productions, open to the general public, and to establish a permanent resident opera company, to be located in the State of Colorado. Lonis and his wife, working with donations from Morrison residents, area businessmen, and others included contributions of paint, wallpaper, lumber, and a crystal chandelier, began converting the building's first-floor into a very presentable opera house, seating 80 to 100 people. The Red Rocks Lions Club helped build the stage; a proscenium arch, curtain, and theater lighting were additionally added, all of this at no cost to the city of Morrison.
The date of April 12, 1980, was chosen for the inauguration and opening. The Honorary Italian Vice Consulate, Mrs. Caterina Noya Scordo, attended and cut the yellow ribbon officially opening the Morrison Opera Company. Most arias were sung in the native tongue, usually Italian or French. The following artists participated in the opening concert: Walter Lonis, baritone, Morrison; Lorraine McSkimmings, soprano, Golden; Janet Kirsch, mezzo soprano, Denver; David Anderson, bass, Boulder; Patrick Magee, tenor, Littleton; Melanie Maisch, soprano, Boulder; B. J. Parks, soprano, Denver; James Williams, tenor, Boulder; Sylvia Cook was the piano accompanist with Jane Haskell joining at a later date. For a July concert, guest artist Beverly Christiansen-Fernald, soprano, Wheat Ridge, was invited to be the special guest artist.
The company performed numerous concerts and benefits for several organizations: RTD Senior Ride, Evergreen Players, Morrison Nursing Home, Jefferson County Action Center, Heather Gardens, and many nursing and retirement facilities throughout the Denver Metro area.
On January 8, 1984, a fire early Sunday morning in the Morrison Town Hall /Morrison Opera Company was devastating for the opera company; the foyer, all stage lighting, backdrops, chandeliers, stage curtains, stage proscenium arch, some costumes, and donated art works were destroyed. After the fire, additional successful performances by the Morrison Opera Company were completed that year. Morrison Opera Company was dissolved in late 1984 after negotiations to rebuild with Morrison Town officials failed. Rather than relinquish the direction and control of the Company to a Morrison official, the Morrison Opera Co. made the decision to close the opera company.
a. First fully staged and costumed complete opera
b. Tabor Opera House
c. Littleton Town Hall Art Center; the 1983 concert was a part of the opening week of the Arts Center
d. Stanley Hotel
e. There were two separate casts for this production, consisting of over thirty-five performers
f. Swayder Theater; the final performance of the Morrison Opera Company celebrating its 5th anniversary
Four Corners Opera Association (1978-1983)
Four Corners Opera Festival (1984-1990)
Baritone Robert Gregori and his wife, soprano Judith Turano, returned to the United States after singing for 8 years in the opera houses of West Germany and co-founded the Four Corners Opera Association in Farmington, NM, in November 1978, and served as artistic directors. The company gave performances in the 1,200-seat Civic Center Auditorium with the orchestra for most of the productions being the New Mexico Symphony, conducted by the late Yoshimi Takeda. While in Farmington, Gregori and Turano conducted an opera workshop at San Juan College during 1980-81.
In 1984 the company relocated to Durango, CO, and changed its name to Four Corners Opera Festival where, during the summer, it staged operas in the auditorium of Fort Lewis College. Also in 1984, the company launched a Singer-Apprentice Program in conjunction with its June festival. The Four Corners Opera Festival board incorporated members from all four of the four-corner states, and included Micky Thurston and Morley Ballantine of Durango.
Several of the leading singers employed by the company were established artists, including Metropolitan Opera tenors Enrico Di Giuseppe, Raymond Gibbs, Jerold Siena and William McDonald; Met baritone Dominic Cossa, Met bass Thomas Hammons, as well as Robert Gregori and Judith Turano. Susan Marie Pierson made her professional debut with the company, as Norina in Don Pasquale, went on to win the Pavarotti competition in Philadelphia and then to sing Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera with Luciano Pavarotti at La Scala. She has enjoyed an international career as a Wagnerian soprano. Adam Klein, one of the young artists, became a leading tenor at the New York City Opera and is now also enjoying an international career. Stage directors included Metropolitan Opera director Patrick Tavernia and the late New York City Opera director John Lehmeyer.
Before going to Germany, Robert Gregori had appeared frequently with opera companies in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Dallas and Tulsa. He died of complications from multiple myeloma in 1999 at age 67. Judith Turano, a native of Farmington, currently teaches voice at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, the largest and oldest-- now 100 years old-- community school for the arts in the United States, and also maintains a private studio in Philadelphia.
Bold Lion Theatrical Opera (1988-1989)
Bold Lion Theatrical Opera, a Boulder company named from directors Richard Boldrey and Polly Liontis, husband and wife, in 1988 to 1989 staged chamber operas: L'Enfant prodigue, La Voix humaines, and Médée. In its first season it appeared as Colorado Opera Festival (the same name as the 17-year-old company in Colorado Springs) and discovered the conflict too late to reprint its material.
Colorado Opera Troupe (1994-2004)
Irene VanHam Friedlob was the founder and principal star of Denver's Colorado Opera Troupe. We are unable to elicit a response from anyone who might provide definitive information about the company and only have established that Tosca was performed in 1996, Madama Butterfly in 1997, Die Fledermaus in 1999, La Bohème in 2000, I Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana in 2001, La Traviata in 2002, abridged and fused versions of Carmen and Salome in 2003, and Otello in 2004.
Augustana Opera Theatre (1997-2003)
Passaggio Opera (2004-2005)
Passaggio Opera was launched in Denver by Amy Stuemky as "a place where talented artists of Colorado could present their favorite operas, hone their craft and build up their resumes." In its two seasons, Passaggio presented five short operas, Menotti's The Old Maid and the Thief and Penhorwood's Too Many Sopranos in 2004 and Ward's Roman Fever, Vaughn Williams Riders to the Sea and Menotti's The Telephone in 2005.