Of Casinos, Cotillions and Opera Choruses

UnknownOne of the more surreal evenings I’ve spent in a good long while happened on Saturday when I went to Central City, CO, an old gold mining town in the Front Range turned gambling hotspot. I was in town to experience opening night of The Central City Opera‘s 2103 season, which includes The Barber of Seville (which I saw), Ned Rorem’s Our Town, and Show Boat (in Denver.)

The Central City Opera is a fascinating institution, not least because its perched in the hills at high altitude, which must be tough on the singers. Built in 1878 by Welsh and Cornish miners, the building houses the country’s fifth oldest opera company. In its glory days at the turn of the last century, it hosted P T Barnum’s Circus and Buffalo Bill. Lillian Gish performed there in the 1930s after the 550-seat house had been restored following years of disrepair.

Judging by this one production I’ve witnessed first hand, the company is doing high-quality work these days: The Central City Opera’s production of The Barber of Seville brims with energy. I particularly love mezzo soprano Jennifer Rivera’s no nonsense Rosina. Instead of cowering in front of the feckless bully Dr Bartolo, she maintains a haughty dignity that’s in stark contrast to the cage-like circumstances in which she’s entrapped. My favorite voice of the production belongs to the tenor David Portillo as the Count. Portillo’s voice glistens at the top and combines lightness and gravity in equal measure. Daniel Belcher’s gives the best acting performance in my opinion. Belcher doesn’t have as much facility in his voice as some baritones I’ve heard in the role. He scratchily sprechgasanged the famous title song of Act 1 — I imagine the fast passages are particularly challenging at altitude. But the performer has an endearing, clown-like energy about him and you can’t help being taken in by his broad smile and charisma. The orchestra played tightly under the baton of conductor John Baril. The piano sounded a little jarring for the recitative passages, however. And the chorus did a wonderful, robust acting and singing job.

What made my time in Central City particularly memorable, however, was the weird incongruity between what was going on at the opera house on Saturday night versus the atmosphere in the rest of the small town. The casinos — the only places in Central City to get an evening meal — were mostly pretty empty. A few people in shorts and t-shirts stared blankly at slot machines or sat at poker tables. (I wish that there were one decent place to get a meal before the show during the Opera season. But this sadly isn’t the case. It’s pizza or chicken nuggets or nothing. The Opera company should work on that.)

Up the hill at the opera house, though, the scene was very different. At around 5pm, there were roughly a hundred people dressed in their finery dancing waltzes to classical string music in the street.

It turned out that I had stumbled upon Central City’s annual debutante coming out parade. Dozens of sweet sixteens dressed in matching peacock blue ball gowns wobbled about on their heels on the street cavorting with their pimply young beaus in white tuxedos. The older generation, equally gussied up, stood about and danced. It wasn’t performance art, but it was certainly a performance. Don’t you love it when a show is more than what happens under a theater’s roof? On Saturday, the  whole of Central City felt like it was part of an unusual, mixed-up rite.

P.S. If my iPhone hadn’t run out of juice, I would have taken pictures. Instead, for the purposes of this blogpost, a similar shot of the cotillion from another year will have to suffice to suggest the pre-performance atmosphere. (You can tell that the image isn’t from 2013 because the  girls are sporting red rather than blue frocks.)

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  1. MWnyc says

    Chloe, do you know about The Face on the Barroom Floor, the chamber opera by Henry Mollicone that is set in (and often performed at) Central City?

    As it happens, a new documentary about Face and Central City Opera – directed by Lawrence Kraman and written by fellow ArtsJournal blogger David Patrick Stearns – is being released later this month.

    THE FACE ON THE BARROOM FLOOR: The Poem, the Place, the Opera
    IMDb entry here

    You think it’s hard to get a decent meal in Central City? Try shopping for groceries or finding a laundromat.

    • Chloe Veltman says

      Thanks Matthew for the headsup about Face. I’ll look into it. Sounds interesting. Where does a Central City dweller go for groceries and laundry then? I imagine buying a shower curtain is also tricky.

  2. Erin says

    The Kevin Taylor restaurant group runs both Rouge and The Face Bar for food during the opera season, in the historic Teller House just downhill from the opera. However, they were catering the Opening Night celebrations so perhaps they weren’t open to the public that evening. These restaurants and other dining suggestions can be found on Central City Opera’s website.

    • Chloe Veltman says

      Good to know! There was absolutely nothing available food-wise to people not involved in the cotillion on opening night. Though I did manage to have a glass of wine at the Teller House.

  3. Emily says

    Correction – the CCO opera house was built in 1878, not 1787. That would be pretty impressive for a Western state to have an opera house THAT old! :-) The opera COMPANY is the fifth-oldest opera company in the United States (running since 1932). You can read all about CCO’s history here: http://www.centralcityopera.org/history. Thanks for a great review!

  4. says

    Perhaps my view is jaundiced, but it seems unfortunate that even in a “remote” opera house, that the atmosphere has to be hoity-toity for what should actually be a relaxed form of popular entertainment. I don’t think combining opera with debutante events does opera any good. Opera is not a cultrual country club. It belongs to the people. Where I live in the Black Forest, there are 9 fulltime opera houses within two hours that run all year. Opera should be commonplace and not an over-blown special occasion – especially for Coloradoans. Like me down here in NM at the Santa Fe Opera, they should wear their boots and cowboy hat, and if the areeestocrats give them any lip, they should just point to the nearest cactus they can jump on.

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