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Portrait of a Lady

On September 10, Denver will celebrate arts advocate Ellie Caulkins by inaugurating an opera house named in her honor. F. PAUL DRISCOLL visits with Denver's "First Lady of Opera."

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Caulkins in "her" opera house in late spring 2005, before construction was completed
© Howard Sokol 2005
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© Howard Sokol 2005
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Star power: Caulkins with
Plácido Domingo

Courtesy Ellie Caulkins
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Caulkins with Renée

Courtesy Ellie Caulkins
Within the shell of the Newton Auditorium, a Denver landmark since 1908, a brand-new, world-class opera house has been constructed - a process that some have likened to building a ship in a bottle. The Ellie Caulkins Opera House, as the new facility is known, opens on September 10 with an all-star gala produced by Opera Colorado, one of the companies that will call the Caulkins home. Designed by Peter Lucking of Semple Brown Design, the Caulkins is billed as a "lyric jewel," with luxuriously appointed public spaces and state-of-the-art backstage support systems. The 2,280-seat auditorium has been designed to envelop its performers with energy; the feeling within the hall - apparent even on a February 2005 hard-hat tour of the unfinished, unheated theater - is one of intimacy and warmth, an ambience that many in Denver say is in keeping with the character of the theater's namesake, Eleanor Newman Caulkins.

Ellie Caulkins confesses that she was "blown away" in January 2004, when she was informed that her family had pledged $7 million toward the enhancement of the new opera house - part of a $75-million renovation of the nine-theater Denver Performing Arts Center - and that the new facility was to be named after her, in recognition of her dedication to local and national performing-arts organizations. This past May, while in Manhattan for a board meeting at the Metropolitan Opera, Caulkins pronounced a recent early test of the acoustics "thrilling." A past president of the Met's National Council, Caulkins is currently a National Council vice president, as well as an advisory director on the Met's board. Elegant and poised, with the easy grace of a natural athlete, Caulkins is markedly more enthusiastic when speaking about opera than she is when discussing herself; although she is gracious and friendly, she shuns the limelight and still seems slightly dazed that she will "be a building," as she puts it, in just a few months.

A native of New Jersey, Caulkins moved to Denver when she wed local businessman George Caulkins ("after a courtship of two whole weeks," she admits with a grin), to whom she was married for forty-three years, until his death from cancer in March 2005. The Caulkins raised their five children in Denver, and it was in Denver that Ellie Caulkins fell in love with opera, when she took an opera course at the University of Denver. She now calls herself a "real middle-of-the-road opera person. I love hearing new things, but I keep coming back to Der Rosenkavalier and Die Walküre, which are two operas that I can never get enough of. There's something about them that just stops time for me - I completely surrender to them. I suppose that makes me a hopeless romantic, doesn't it?" Caulkins doesn't have a least-favorite opera, but she says she is "still trying to crack Siegfried. That can be tough. I love Walküre so much that I feel almost guilty that Siegfried is such hard work. But I haven't given up on it yet."

Caulkins's commitment to opera seems to be informed by the same sense of adventure that has led her to hobbies as diverse as flying - she took flying lessons in order to become "less fearful" about traveling in small planes and still has her pilot's license - and mountain-climbing, a pastime she took up because "Denver has a lot of rocks," but which has taken her to the top of the Matterhorn and to the 18,000-foot-elevation base camp of Mount Everest. Her involvement with Opera Colorado began in 1981, when the company, then a "shoestring operation," was founded by Met stage-director Nathaniel Merrill and his wife, Louise Sherman. "Frank Taplin, who was president of the Met then, and whom I knew from the National Council - I was already involved with the National Council at that point, but I don't think I was president yet - told me, 'There's this director from the Met, Nat Merrill, who'll be starting a new company in Colorado. I'm not saying that you should or shouldn't do this, but just give him an ear.' I was working at Graland Country Day School in Denver at the time, as a development director, and Nat came and talked to me about what he intended to do with this company. I have to tell you, I had no idea what he was talking about when he got on to the subject of rehearsal schedules, and I couldn't catch half the Italian phrases that always seem to come into the conversation when professionals are talking opera. They zipped right by me. And I thought, 'This guy is way over my head.' I didn't want to go on the board at Opera Colorado right away, because I thought that it would be a conflict of interest with the Metropolitan Opera National Council. I realize now that was silly because - obviously - those of us who live outside of New York really need to be involved with local opera companies, because regional opera is where everything begins. Everything."

For most of its existence, Opera Colorado has performed in two Denver Performing Arts Center venues, Boettcher Concert Hall and the Temple Hoyne Buell Theater, neither of them acoustically or physically ideal for putting on opera. "We have great memories of those theaters," says Caulkins, "but our future looks brighter - and a lot more comfortable!"

Chief among the comforts of the new theater is the auditorium itself. The rows of seats throughout the Caulkins are deep, with ample legroom. The main floor is raked, and each of the hall's three upper levels - mezzanine, loge and balcony - is broad and shallow, with every seat in the house affording an excellent view of the stage and conductor. No matter where one sits, even in the last row of the balcony, the stage never seems far away. Everything - including an adaptable orchestra pit, commodious principal and chorus dressing rooms and a full humidification system - has been built without disturbing the building's historic exterior walls.

In the twenty-two years since the company gave its first performances - a La Bohème with Plácido Domingo and Catherine Malfitano - Opera Colorado has had its ups and downs, a progress that Caulkins compares to a roller-coaster ride. She remembers an early Opera Colorado Turandot that was "absolutely beautiful to look at, with the most wonderful costumes, but it cost so darn much money. Silk and satin and gold and silver and wigs and shoes and headdresses, all of them just fantastic, and all of it more than we could afford at that time, really. I still remember every nickel that we spent on that production - I shudder just thinking about it, even though it's more than twenty years later. When I look where we are now as a company, I suppose those early worries were worth it - but there were some rough days in there. It was never dull, that's for sure." In recent seasons, the company has gained artistic and financial ground, for which Caulkins, now "Lifetime Honorary Chair" of the Opera Colorado board, credits the company's president and general director Peter Russell, who arrived in Denver in 2001, and James Robinson, OC's artistic director since 2000. Robinson will direct all three of the offerings in OC's new home during the regular 2005-06 season: Carmen, Norma and Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

Peter Russell has known Caulkins for almost twenty years. "I was general director of Wolf Trap Opera then, and judging auditions for the Metropolitan Opera National Council, of which she was chair. I liked her instantly. She was and is so personally generous - so charming and so outgoing. The thing that struck me immediately was that she asked so many questions about me. When she does that, she is not just making idle conversation, she's really taking the information in. Her level of engagement is extraordinary. Two years can pass - during which she's met hundreds of new people and heard all of their life stories - and as soon as she sees you, she remembers you instantly - 'How's your mother's health coming along? How are your dogs?' How does she do it? People who are patrons of the arts on her level are - typically - shy or even wary. But she's genuinely friendly and relaxed about the whole process. I wish she could be cloned."

Caulkins has even sung onstage with the Opera Colorado Chorus - she plans to do so again when the company performs "Va, pensiero" at the September 10 gala - and is, above all, a vital, welcoming presence in the life of the company outside the theater walls, often volunteering to fetch visiting artists at the airport and hosting company supper parties at her home. Invitations to the latter are usually issued verbally, a method that fits with Caulkins's trademark unstuffy style of doing things. "Some people don't understand that. We had one star here, early in the life of the company, who was not amused. When I asked her to a supper party at the house, she said" - here Caulkins slips into a slightly haughty mittel-Europa accent - "'Darlink! A party? Ven vas I mailed the hhhinvitation?' 'I'm sorry, madame, but I'm not mailing any invitations.' 'Aaah. Vell, my dear, I go NOWHERE vithout the wrrrrrrrrrrritten invitation!' So, we had the party, and she didn't come. We had a great time." Caulkins winks. "I guess if you want to know what kind of an evening she had, you'd have to ask her."

Russell recalls Caulkins's late husband, George, as "a character who had real character. Nat Merrill once said to him, 'So, George, I understand that you don't like opera.' And George said, 'Well, I suppose I do like it - relative to root canal.'" Caulkins laughs when reminded of that story, saying, "George loved me. It didn't matter if he didn't love opera. He used to boast that he had sat through three different productions of Die Fledermaus in a single season and survived! I never tried to convert my husband, or my children, for that matter, to loving opera. The important thing was that George respected opera, and he respected the people who loved it and the people who worked to make it happen. He had that kind of class - that ability to treat everybody with decency and respect - from the day I met him. Certainly this new project, this new house, is happening because George was convinced that Denver deserved the very, very best space possible for the arts. A lot of people in George's position wouldn't have seen things that way. They'd have put their own passions first.

"This new house was a great gift to everyone who loved George - George knew that as he was descending, because of his illness, the project would be ascending. And it will always be there. It's great that Opera Colorado will benefit from that - it's my hope that when artists see and feel how wonderful this house is, they will all clamor to perform here - but the important thing is that the entire community of Denver will benefit from this. That was one of George's great passions, and something that we have passed on to our children - the importance of giving back to the community. That's partly why we chose to make our life here. In Denver, our children could feel that they were part of a real community, with real values. They respect other people, and I'm proud of that. What mother wouldn't be?

"All of us who work in the arts are forever talking about where the new audiences are going to come from - that's a problem for symphonies, for ballet companies, for theater companies. Education can solve part of the problem, but it's not going to solve the whole problem. New audiences aren't going to grow unless that atmosphere of respect - the kind of respect for the arts that George had - is there in every community. The arts get shoved around so much in public discourse by people who don't or won't try to understand them - favoring government support for the arts gets you labeled as a liberal, pushing for private sponsorship brands you as a conservative. That kind of name-calling is silly and undignified - and uncivilized, when you think about it."

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