Building THE ELLIE LOBBY MAIN HALL OTHER SPACES OPENING NIGHT The STARS MOVERS & SHAKERS CARMEN
THE ELLIE CAULKINS OPERA HOUSE: JAMES ROBINSON - Artistic Director, Opera Colorado

MOVERS & SHAKERS

SUSAN & JEREMY SHAMOS
ELLIE CAULKINS
PETER RUSSELL
JAMES ROBINSON
PETER LUCKING
ROBERT MAHONEY
MAYOR HICKENLOOPER
JACK FINLAW
CHRIS WINEMAN
MARC SCORCA





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He is JAMES ROBINSON and he is considered one of America's most distinguished stage directors. So, what's he doing in Denver?
Why isn't he in New York, or LA, or another city considered a cultural magnet?  The truth is Denver didn't mean anything to him until he got there - and then he stayed.

"That's an interesting question," he said when we caught up with him by phone during a rehearsal break of Opera Colorado's season opener Carmen, a few weeks after The Ellie's grand opening concert.

"It was about 6 years ago when I got a phone call asking if I would be interested in becoming the Artistic Director of Opera Colorado. I said, 'Well, no.' because I was then so busy and also, I had never worked in Denver. And I had no idea what the city was all about. So I turned them down. They said, 'Could you please come to Denver and just take a look at the theater, and meet some of our Board Members.' So I did, and I thought it was such an energetic group of people, who were determined to take the Opera Company forward. I said, 'OK, I'll give it a shot. I'll do what I think I can.'


"I was here for about a year or maybe even less. And then the interim General Director was leaving, and he knew that the company needed a true opera person as General Director. So I called Peter Russell who was at the Met. I said, 'Peter, I think this is a wonderful opportunity for you, are you interested?' And he said 'I will be there in a second.' So it worked out well for everybody. I was very happy with the way it all happened and I'm very proud that the Company has rallied around the new theater and Opera Colorado is now recognized as a premier performing arts organization.
"

Indeed, the recognition of Opera Colorado as one of America's finest regional opera companies is due to his partnership with Peter Russell (shown in photo at right with Robinson). Of course he had a great deal to do with the success of the Grand Opening Concert - the programming, which covered the whole spectrum of opera, was excellent. He is quick to share the credit with his other noteworthy colleagues.

"Well, it was a collaboration with Stephen Lord and Peter Russell. We tried to do something that would include many different things and appeal to a lot of people, and also something that we could put together on very short notice. I think when you put a Gala together, you have to be very practical."

He agreed that commissioning Jake Heggie to write an original piece of music for the evening made the opening concert very special. "Yes, we thought Jake would be a good choice. He is a very popular opera composer right now. People know Dead Man Walking and he just seemed to be the right person to do it."

And if the world premiere of Heggie's commissioned work "At the Statue of Venus" seemed to have that added special touch, credit James Robinson for it, as soprano Kristin Clayton, who sang the piece did during a separate interview with FanFaire. He directed her performance and set up the stage - yes, with a statue of Venus - so that it became a veritable operatic scene, the only one in the entire concert. It was like seeing a mini-opera, and the audience loved it.

"Exactly. That was the goal. I thought it worked out really, really well. We were fortunate.I was very pleased. I think it was one of those things where necessity came into play. Jake and Kristin arrived and asked, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had a statue?' And I said, 'All right, we'll see what we can find and work from there.' And it just turned into one of those things where we rolled up our sleeves and started to work.

"It's always a pleasure for me to work on new pieces. And I guess what I do when I'm directing operas is obviously give the singers lots of information and try to help them get their performances to be the best. It's a lot of fun working with them."

The concert featured 16 singers altogether, not counting the Opera Colorado Chorus. "Did you give each of them some kind of stage direction?" we asked.

"No, really there was just no time to do that. You know, they're all such pros, they basically just relied on their own experiences, and that worked out really well. I think that was actually the best way of approaching it."

James Robinson is technically Opera Colorado's first full-time Artistic Director. Before him, there was Nat Merrill who not only co-founded Opera Colorado, but also wore several other hats as its founding Artistic and General Director, among others. Thus when he came to Denver, Robinson had his job cut out for him.

"Nat Merrill was there for about one year. Then he resigned and the Board was running things and they decided that they needed some real direction; they wanted to change. And they also knew they needed a new theater, which was why they wanted to get a couple of people, such asPeter and myself, who are really in the opera world to help figure things out."

Opera Colorado is lucky to have the dynamic duo of Peter Russell and James Robinson at the helm. Indeed, The Ellie seemed to have been made in heaven: everything about it fell into place at the right time, the right place and with the right people. And quite unusually, even the political structure was and continues to be so supportive, not to mention the residents of Denver themselves.

"That's true! It's funny, because it doesn't always happen that way. It was really incredible. Sometimes things just align in a really fantastic way and everybody comes out a winner. We've been very, very lucky."

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CARMEN - from James Robinson's point of view, it's actually Don José's story

In November 2005, Opera Colorado opened its first season in its new home, The Ellie, with Georges Bizet's Carmen. We asked James Robinson: "Why Carmen and not one of the other popular operas - such as La Bohème, for example."

"I think it was because we had done Bohème not long ago, and we were looking at a production that had not been done recently, nor had been done with a real starry cast. We determined that Carmen was the opera to do. So we got involved with a co-production with Seattle Opera, Pittsburgh and Florida and we put together a big production. And Denyce Graves happened to be available for it. We were really thrilled because we were starting a new theatre, and we needed a really splashy, truly fabulous Carmen to be in it."

And did they get one! Denyce Graves, as everyone will agree, owns the role today. "Exactly. She's here for rehearsals now. And she's just having a terrific time."

And we could tell Robinson, who had never directed her before, was having a great time himself too: "You know, I'd actually never met her before. It's funny - she arrived and I felt like I'd known her my whole life! I think Peter helped to get her one of her first jobs. That's another reason why she was really keen to come here and work for us."

Carmen is, everyone will probably again agree, a great choice for a season opener: "I think a lot of people would be excited to come to the theater. It's an opera that everybody seems to enjoy. In fact, it's for people who don't normally come to the opera."

But that was not always the case. In fact, Robinson reminded us, when it first premiered at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1875, Carmen was far from the success that it became over the years.  "There's an interesting thing that people always miss with Carmen. It's important to remember that Carmen was a disaster when it was first premiered. And for plenty of reasons. It's such a violent story. You know, they didn't have people like that on stage before - not a leading male figure who's not heroic. Don José is not a heroic figure, he's a tragic figure. And also, because the composition of the piece evolved as the opera went on, very much in the model of opéra comique. And then as it went on it became a very Greek tragic opera. At the Opéra Comique, they never knew what to make of that."

As expected and perhaps partly because it is also "A James Robinson Production," Opera Colorado's Carmen, drew Denverites to their new opera house. We asked Robinson: "What exactly does the label "A James Robinson Production" mean - that the totality of the concept was born in your imagination? Including the sets, costumes, lighting effects - everything?

"Yes. It's basically everything. I have a team of designers I work with on a regular basis. You know, we put these productions together, and I think these days people know what they're going to get. When we go into co-productions particularly, people know they're going to get something that is of the highest possible quality, because they really believe in maintaining the integrity of those productions."

Robinson's productions are always fresh, because he tries to bring a new point of view.  As he did in this Carmen.

"I think people are kind of wrong when they initially think of Carmen. They look at Carmen as the most interesting figure, and obviously she's a fascinating figure, but one of the problems is that Don José is the one who keeps evolving and Carmen never changes. You know, Carmen is always Carmen is always Carmen. And Don José - he's the one that goes through a much broader, more dramatic character shift."

And so in this somewhat unconventional production which was first staged at Seattle Opera in January 2004, Robinson shifted the focus of the opera from Carmen to the male protagonist, Don José, played in this production by Australian tenor Julian Gavin (shown at left with Denyce Graves). "And the funny thing is," he was quick to point out, "most Carmens would agree when they hear it's mostly about Don José, they would say, 'Yes, you're absolutely right!' I think Don José is one of opera's most tragic figures, like Mimi in Bohème. He's an attractive figure on many many levels. So, I'm right there with Don José."

In developing Don José's character, he took a more psychological approach . "Most of it is, I would say, about how Don José perceives the world. He starts off seeing the world in a very conventional way - it's all very pretty, and very organized; and, as the opera goes on, things become much more distorted, more chaotic, more pessimistic. By the end, I think he is absolutely desperate, and he is so broken that his whole perception of the world is shattered."

Don José's character shift and deteriorating world-view are also dramatized by the stage sets and the lighting. Robinson, by the way, saw no need to update the production to modern times. "It's all set during the time that it was written. It's very much like a classic production of Carmen, but the landscape of it - the physical environment - changes; it becomes more abstract, more terrifying-looking as the opera goes on."

So, how does James Robinson develop a concept for the staging of an opera. Does he immerse himself in the music, listening to it over and over again? Does he watch videos of older productions? "Yes, I listen to the music. I also like to study the piece and its performance history. But no, I typically don't watch videos. I don't find it useful and it sometimes can be confusing. I'd rather form my own opinion."

And it helps to have a working knowledge of foreign languages? "It really does. And Carmen is particularly interesting because it has a very subtle text. I'm fluent in French, but I'm not fluent in German, I'm not fluent in Russian. So, before I go into any production I always study the language as much as I can. But sometimes you just get a very strong translation, or you get someone who knows the language incredibly well, and you go from there. Also, a lot of opera houses have translators. We even have someone here whom we brought in because people needed help with the language. They come in and they just help singers refine their language or explain things, and that's always helpful."

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THE STORY OF HIS CAREER: from composer to stage director

So, how did it all start, this fascination with opera? We asked James Robinson to briefly walk us through his career. Did he come to opera from traditional theater? His answer was somewhat of a surprise: "I have a strong musical background. I studied composition with Dominick Argento who is a well-known opera composer. I composed music, but never an opera."Occasionally I would still write things down, but I don't have time these days. I think you really have to keep at it, like any discipline - and it's a very difficult thing, composition is."

He agreed that the journey from composing to directing is a bit of a quantum leap, but "It just happened. Although I think I've always been interested in theater, and have always done little things here and there, but never on a large scale. Actually I wanted to learn about opera, so that's why I took a job as an assistant in Santa Fe. I wanted to learn how this all worked, and was fascinated by it. And then - they have an Apprentice Program out in Santa Fe, they asked if I would direct one of the Apprentice scenes. So I did, and based on that they asked me to do a lot of work for them. Then I took a job at the New England Conservatory with the opera program, and my directing career just sort of took off from there."

And composition vanished. But the background surely helped.

James Robinson grew up in Claremore, Oklahoma near Tulsa, where there was an opera company. "When I was in high school, I actually sang in one of their opera productions. I had my first opera experience in a production of Boris Godunov." But he can't say that he began to love opera then. "I was intrigued by it.  And I think then, it grew into a full-blown affair."

Full-blown indeed.  Today, he has many well-known productions to his name. Turandot is one of them. First produced in 1995 for the Minnesota Opera, the highly acclaimed production has been mounted by more than 25 companies in the US and Canada, and is still going places. "I knew it was going to travel a lot. It was a pivotal production for me because it went to so many theaters. The last time I saw it was in Houston two years ago. I just happened to be there and I have to say it still works." Robinson used to show up for each of them, to show how to put the production together. But "It's been done so many times now I am unable to chase it around the country anymore. It's taken on a life of its own."

Another of his productions that has received many accolades is his La Bohème for New York City Opera, which was nationally telecast on PBS (US Public Television) in 2001 as part of the "Live from Lincoln Center" series. It's a wonderful production, one that Robinson, who does not believe in the necessity of updating of operas, found good reason to update to the eve of WWI. It earned for opera a wideaudience as it really clicked with the younger generation. "It really did. And it also had a wonderful cast. I enjoyed that a lot." Other operas that Robinson found updated ("gentle updatings") are Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio set in the '20s and Handel's Julius Caesar set in the '30s.

Robinson's most recent new production is the contemporary opera Nixon in China by John Adams that will come to Denver in 2008. "But it goes to many places before that. It goes to Portland (Oregon), Chicago, Houston, Cincinnati." Most recently staged by Minnesota Opera, the new production (the first since the original premiered in 1987) debuted in the summer of 2004 at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.  Minimalist in style, and using media technique ("Yes, we have a lot of video in it."), it has been praised as "hugely imaginative and highly dramatic."

In this production, Robinson worked very closely with the composer John Adams. "You know, actually it's interesting working with the composer because you get an idea of what he or she wants. But most of the work is really done with the conductor."

This started a spontaneous discussion of the role of the stage director vis-à-vis the music director and conductor. "Does not opera by its very nature limit the stage director's freedom?" we asked. "For one thing, unlike in film or theater, the stage director in an opera has no control whatsoever of the dialogue. Then there's the singer who has always to focus on the conductor, who always has to see the singer. Do these not pose a problem for an opera director?"

Robinson's rather surprising, but firm, answer was: "Not at all. There's actually something very liberating when you're working with these very rigorously put together pieces. The fact that it's live theatre, live music, and that it's always going to be something different, is really exciting. And I don't think the limitations are an obstacle at all...no, they're actually liberating."

Sometimes one reads or hears about film or theater directors who, on directing opera for the first time, really have a hard time getting used to the inherent limitations of staging opera.   On these matters, Robinson had this to say: "The thing they don't understand is that - and you know, I've done plays in my life too - on the first day of rehearsal with a cast when you're doing a play, nobody has it memorized. Frequently people still have the scripts in their hands, for a very long time. But with opera, people have it memorized the first day they get there. So that's one down. I think sometimes they say the time in the theater is limited, and that I would say is true. You know the thing about opera people, opera directors, the people who spend a lot of time doing it, is they get used to that schedule and they make it work. So I don't look at it as problematic. We all have challenges."  

But, unlike a film director, an opera director never gets to pick his or her own cast, right? Robinson has a ready answer: "Actually, these days I have a lot of influence on that." But that's because you're the Artistic Director, we countered. "Well, here, but also in other theaters. Usually they'd ask me if there are people who would be particularly good for a production, so I'd share my thoughts with them."

This answer convinced us that the stage director has really come a long way from the days when opera was just singing in costume and all that the singers had to do was stand and "deliver." The stage director today has a very important role to play indeed.

"Yes, I think these days it's very different because audiences are so visual and people expect and want to see something, as well as hear it. So yes, I would say that today the stage director has quite an important role."

And is the conductor less of a God than he was years back? "A Demigod," he said jokingly, knowing in his heart that he enjoys working with conductors, particularly Stephen Lord who guest-conducts regularly at Opera Colorado. "Stephen is one of the conductors I love to work with. I think he's my favorite conductor. We've collaborated on many, many projects. He's a wonderful conductor, a wonderful man of the theater - there are very few like him. And I'm thrilled that he's sort of our honorary resident conductor."

Robinson expressed a lot of confidence in the acting ability of today's singers. When directing, he does not feel compelled to dictate each and every one of their gestures.

"Today's singers are generally very well trained. They know how to act pretty well. They don't want to just stand and sing. And I would go out of my mind if I had to tell them to do everything. Denyce Graves has never done this production of Carmen, for example. She knows it's very different from what she has normally done. So in rehearsal, sometimes I'll just say, 'OK, the objective in this scene is to do this. Let's look for this moment,' and we'll find a way of making it work. And you know, they have enough skills and enough experience to really make it work.  I try to rely on that."

What does Opera Colorado's Artistic Director see as his biggest challenge today?

"Well, let me see.... I would say doing repertoire that is not the same old thing. There are some 20 operas that are still making the rounds. I think the trick is to find works that haven't been done or have a Company take a chance on something that may be interesting that's not Bohème, Carmen, Tosca, or whatever and convince people that some of these operas they've never heard of are actually quite wonderful. For Opera Colorado the biggest challenge is to introduce the community to operas they hadn't seen before. Actually, this season, we're producing two operas that have never been done at Opera Colorado and they are Norma and Abduction from the Seraglio, two great operas that needed to be done. Down the road we're doing a Nabucco and a Trittico."

The last opera, Il Trittico by Puccini is a production he recently did for New York City Opera, and Bellini's Norma was the vehicle of his directorial debut with San Francisco Opera in September 2005. Though he may be based in Denver, as word about The Ellie and Opera Colorado spreads, many people will soon realize the city and the world are actually Robinson's stages.

"So, next year is already set, and the following year.. and already we're planning through 08-09." And a Ring Cycle perhaps in the foreseeable future? "Yes, we'd love to do that down the road; probably in 2010 we would be looking at something like that. There's a real collaboration among all of us here. We all work together very well - the Board, the staff, Peter, and I. I think the singers who come to work here with us have a wonderful time. They're always very surprised when they come and say, "Wow, this is a really fantastic Company!"

And so, with people of James Robinson's calibre at the helm, the stage is set for The Ellie to be counted among the world's top 10 opera houses. Clearly, it's a very exciting time for Opera Colorado. James Robinson wholeheartedly agrees: It really is, and we know we can do it!

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