Opera Colorado started in the early 1980s as Denver’s main opera-production company. Founded by the husband-and-wife team of Nathaniel Merrill and Louise Sherman, the company performed at the Denver Performing Arts Complex’s Boettcher Concert Hall before moving to the new Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre in 1992. The Buell remained the home of Opera Colorado until it moved into its current home, the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, which opened in 2005. Today Opera Colorado typically presents three-to-five full-scale opera productions per year. In a city long hungry for national recognition, the rise of professional opera and a state-of-the-art opera house gives Denver a claim to world-class respectability.
Early Operas in Denver
Starting in the 1870s, Denver experienced opera through short-lived local groups and traveling troupes, such as Emma Abbott’s Grand English Opera, D’Oyly Carte Opera, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. Such visitors often played Denver’s Tabor Grand Opera House, which opened in 1881. Denver strove to keep ahead of rivals such as Central City, which constructed its own notable opera house.
In Denver, the Denver Post Opera, the longest-lived group, performed for free outdoors in summer in Cheesman Park from 1934 to 1972. At the same time, Central City Opera began to stage summer performances at the restored Central City Opera House. These summer festivals gave many twentieth-century Coloradans their first taste of opera. In the 1970s, Nicholas Laurienti, a Julliard-trained musician, spearheaded the formation of the Denver Opera Company, which performed in the Municipal Auditorium and in Denver’s grandest movie palace, the Paramount Theater. Its demise in 1979 led opera lovers to form the Friends of Opera.
Starting Opera Colorado
Friends of Opera met in 1980 at the Grant-Humphreys Mansion to discuss the need for an opera company in Denver. Members included Dick Dillon, who taught opera at the University of Colorado–Denver’s English Department, and philanthropist Ellie Caulkins. In striving to establish a major production company, the Friends attracted the husband-and-wife team of Nathaniel Merrill and Louise Sherman, two veterans of the Metropolitan Opera. That duo made it possible for Opera Colorado to open its first season on April 4, 1983, with Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, which ran for three performances and featured internationally acclaimed tenor James McCracken. During its first season, the company also performed Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, starring world-renowned tenor Plácido Domingo. Enthusiastic audiences encouraged the opera aficionados. Opera Colorado presented two mainstage productions for the next ten seasons, performing in the round at Boettcher Concert Hall in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. To celebrate Opera Colorado’s tenth anniversary season, Merrill added a third mainstage production at the Arts Complex’s newly opened Temple Buell Theatre in 1992.
After Nate Merrill
In 1998 Merrill left Opera Colorado and was succeeded by Stephen Seifert, who became the company’s president and general director. Two years later, Seifert appointed a new artistic director, James Robinson, who had worked at many grand opera houses, including New York City Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Los Angeles Opera, and Opera Ireland. Three years later, Peter Russell replaced Seifert as the new president and general director after leading the Lindemann Young Artist Program at the Metropolitan Opera and the Wolf Trap Opera. Under the leadership of Robinson and Russell, Opera Colorado championed and won a 2002 Denver bond issue to restore and renovate the 1908 Auditorium Theater to create the 2,225-seat Ellie Caulkins Opera House. On September 10, 2005, the hall was unveiled with a star-studded gala concert featuring Renée Fleming, Ben Heppner, and James Morris. The building was named for a major fan and supporter whose husband, a wealthy oilman and developer of Vail ski resort, gave the lead gift of $7 million on the condition that he never have to attend an opera.
In 2007 the company appointed its current general and artistic director, Greg Carpenter, who previously served as Opera Colorado’s development director. He had worked earlier with the National Symphony Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. His work was complemented by the 2015 addition of Opera Colorado’s first-ever music director, Ari Pelto.
Opera Colorado’s mission includes education and community-engagement programs that reach more than 45,000 students and lifelong learners throughout the state with touring productions, customized workshops, free resources for teachers, and literacy programs aimed at Colorado’s diverse communities. Opera Colorado’s Artists in Residence Program trains emerging artists from across the country.
The COVID-19 pandemic closed Opera Colorado’s live performances. During that time, the Opera developed its remote digital programing. In fall 2021, Opera Colorado came back to the stage with a season that included three full-scale productions: Tosca, The Shining, and Carmen.