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Music Review: High Desert Opera: A Colorado Gem

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Western Colorado is known for its cows, cowboys, desert canyons, gold and silver mines and, yes, a gem of an opera company known as “High Desert Opera.”  High Desert Opera put down its first tenuous roots around 2000 when James Werner and his wife, Marnie, moved to Grand Junction, CO.  James Werner,  a veteran of Broadway and the great opera venues of Europe and the United States, chose to settle down in a part of the country that had never before hosted a permanent opera company.  News of Werner’s sumptuous tenor voice spread like a wildfire through Western Colorado, and he was quickly established as a premiere vocal talent for performances ranging from oratorios, to concerts, to liturgical offerings. 

In 2003 High Desert Light Opera was introduced with its first New Year’s Eve concert which took place on the modest stage of The First United Methodist Church in downtown Grand Junction, CO.  Werner had developed a collaborative relationship with the church and it has headquartered his vocal studio and rehearsal spaces for many years.  The first concert was a potpourri of opera and musical comedy favorites.  Simply staged, minimally financed, it was nevertheless sold out.  Requests poured in for encore performances.  Many people asked “what would be next in the opera season?”  The key to any successful musical production is, of course, the talent.  Werner cast the first concert largely with local talent: singers of all vocal ranges and ages. The mostly non-professional singers tackled intricate and difficult pieces from Madame Butterfly, Carmen, and Lakme, with impressive skill and finesse.  But the audience most anticipated the moments when Werner would enter and fill the auditorium with his rich and emotive solos.

Flush with a sell-out opening night and accolades from an opera-deprived audience, the company would produce a succession of not-so-light productions: The Tales of Hoffman, Die Fledermaus, Pagliacci, and the instant tradition of the New Year’s Eve Gala.  The following season Werner changed the name of his fledgling company to “High Desert Opera,” (HDO) since, with the accompaniment of a symphony orchestra, there was nothing light-weight about its productions or talent.

Werner’s wife, Marnie, an artist and set designer, has been an indispensable partner in the development and growth of HDO. Working on a shoestring budget and a small army of devoted volunteers and part-time employees, they have presented fully staged and orchestrated operas and concerts with little of the grant money upon which small performing arts organizations often depend.  HDO is a non-profit organization, and its support comes primarily from donors and ticket sales.  Its fans are devoted as well, returning for every production, along with an ever-growing following of new opera acolytes.  

The words of Werner help one to grasp the magic and appeal of HDO. “I decided to create an opera company in Western Colorado,” he says, “because I wanted to show people that anyone can create something excellent. I wanted to give talented people, in a place where singing opportunities are few,  the chance to perform.”  The community-centered and gracious attitudes of the Werners, their few employees, and flock of volunteers and fans make opera locally accessible, and very friendly.

As HDO has grown in renown and skill, nationally recognized voices have traveled to Western Colorado to participate in its Summer Opera Festival.  Puccini’s Tosca, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer, and The Mikado, are recent summer productions. Rossini’s Barber of Seville will be performed this July.  The HDO Summer Opera Festival expands each year, and in 2012 will stage Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.  The effort and energy of James Werner and his company does not just end with fully staged shows.  Each calendar year is dotted with numerous concerts, grand and intimate, and monthly Dinner and an Opera events which are designed to acquaint novices, as well as seasoned, fans with great opera music–the famous and the obscure.

An opera, it has been said, is the consummate performance: voices, symphonic orchestrations, ballet, and gorgeous costumes and sets, combine for a heady, high-culture experience.  Colorado, historically, is the land where a little digging can produce silver, gold, and all manner of treasure.  No digging at all is required to uncover the shining gem in Western Colorado’s desert country.  High Desert Opera is a gem, a local treasure; and its bling is getting the attention of opera prospectors from far and wide.

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About Marjorie Haun