OPERA NEWS - Behind the Scenes: Central City Opera
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Behind the Scenes: Central City Opera

Director of historic properties Jim Johnson preserves the past.
by Fred Cohn. 

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Johnson in Central City, Colorado
© Amanda Tipton

YOU WON'T FIND Jim Johnson’s job—director of historic properties—at any other American opera company. But then no other company is quite like Central City Opera, which owns more historic properties than any other nonprofit organization in Colorado. CCO owns twenty-eight buildings in a town that has preserved much of its architecture from its nineteenth-century heyday during the Gold Rush. The opera house is a 550-seat jewel box dating from 1878. Next door, the 1872 Teller House, once a hotel, now houses a restaurant and café, along with the office of the company’s general and artistic director, Pelham G. “Pat” Pearce. Much of the administrative staff, meanwhile, works out of Festival Hall, an 1886 structure that has functioned in various eras as a brewery, a casino and, reportedly, a bordello. But twenty-one of the company’s antique properties serve as housing for the singers, directors, designers and administrators who people Central City each summer during festival season. 

The buildings are full of charm—and headaches. Many of them, originally thrown up as temporary housing for miners, owe their survival to aesthetic appeal, not durability. Most are made of wood, which gets battered by the extremes of Central City’s 8,500-foot-altitude climate. Quite a few sit not on basements but directly on the ground. Only vigilant maintenance keeps them functioning and attractive. 

That’s where Johnson comes in. He’s a Texas transplant, a former oil-refinery operator who came to Central City in the mid-’90s to open a barbecue restaurant. A falling-out with his business partner scuttled the restaurant plan, but Johnson was determined to remain: he had fallen in love with the town. “I took one look at Teller House, with its grand staircase and its huge grandfather clock, and my heart stayed there,” he says. When he first started working for the opera company, it was as a cook during the opera season, but he also did some repairs. “They noticed I had a talent for maintenance,” he says.

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Johnson at work in Central City, Colorado
© Amanda Tipton

Working with his colleague Sam Carrington, Johnson oversees the formidable task of making sure the properties weather the seasons and remain in tiptop shape to greet artists, staffers and audiences every summer. “On May 1, we start opening the houses,” Johnson says. “We get the water and electricity turned on, and I go through them with a cleaning crew. The season winds down in August, so that’s when I turn them off, drain the water lines, clean the houses again, then lock ’em up and shut ’em down. Then, in the winter, we repair everything.” 

All repairs are done under the watchful eye of Central City’s Historic Preservation Commission. “That’s good—it keeps you focused on history,” Johnson says. When a building needs a roof redone, bricks replaced or railings restored, the new materials must exactly match the old. “Back in the old days, they built with two-by-fours,” he says. “Now all the wood is one inch or four inches. It’s easier to find old wood than to make the new wood match.”

He has willing collaborators in the Central City Opera Guild, who decorate the houses and spearhead the donation of antiques. “It’s like a party when they come in—more fun than work,” he says. Among the properties, he has a few special favorites, such as the one he calls the “Hobbit House”—a former stable built into the side of a mountain, with a pot-bellied brick oven in its center. (His own house, in nearby Black Hawk, dates from 1879.)

It’s an ideal setup for a guy in love with history. Surveying his career and his life in Central City, Johnson says, “It just doesn’t get better than this.” spacer 

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