For Denver’s remarkable performing arts season, a real celebration, but a reality check, too.

The city’s biggest fine arts groups are having banner years, but ramping up ticket sales has meant turning their wares populist. Companies say they do push audiences to be high-minded — but have to heed the bottom line, too.
Denver’s leading arts organizations are coming off a solid season, marked by record revenues for the Colorado Ballet, extended runs at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and robust ticket sales for the Colorado Symphony and Opera Colorado.

The offerings, headquartered at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, are wholly professional and audiences are clearly happy. Denver’s foremost art institutions are, for the most part, thriving, lessening financial pressures on the administrators and donors who are called upon to balance the books when box office is weak.

But sales are only part of the story. Luring customers, company directors acknowledge, has meant a certain amount of rethinking — some might say compromise — on the artistic front.

Looking at the situation another way: How much credit should company’s claim for recycling reliable hits like ballet’s Swan Lake or subbing Beethoven for the orchestra’s accessible Star Wars programming? For every well-worn Carmen or pre-sold Frozen, shouldn’t there be a less-well-known opera or more challenging theater piece on the slate to broaden the experience and challenge the tastes of audiences?

The eternal question is, where is the line between populism and pandering in the arts?

We go in big numbers, but why?

Colorado leads the country in terms of arts attendance, according to a 2016 NEA study. We are number one in the way we connect with culture and arts presenters are reaping the rewards.

“We are all prospering at the moment, it’s a really nice feeling,” said Gil Boggs, Colorado Ballet artistic director. He notes this was the first season in the company’s history to exceed $4 million in ticketing revenue. Ticketing growth has been steady since 2013.

“All of us combined are putting something on the stage that is enticing the audience, so the product is good out there,” said the Ballet’s Boggs.

The Colorado Symphony saw moderate year-on-year growth in ticket sales this year, according to CEO Jerry Kern.“We've had a lot of activity in trying to expand the audience. Our audiences are getting younger and more diverse, which makes us feel like we're moving in the right direction.”

Opera Colorado painted a somewhat less rosy, short-term picture. “This year had more challenges than the past few. We’re still trying to figure it out,” said Camille Spaccavento, who recently departed as director of external affairs and marketing for Opera Colorado. Still, the opera routinely packs them in, filling some of the highest percentages of seats per performance in the nation and counting on audiences to attend warhorses by Mozart and Puccini.

No qualms about “Swan Lake”This season the DCPA will offer the usual range, attempting to serve all theater tastes, from MacBeth to Frozen, from Hamilton to Disney’s Aladdin.

But the pandering question is an ongoing debate. Do we go because it’s too easy? Artistic companies struggle with it, too.  

“I want to give audiences something they like,” Boggs said, “and I also want to challenge audiences with something they may not know about, introduce them to something new. Quite frankly, I want our dancers here to enjoy what they’re dancing. I want to program for them.”

At the same time, Boggs said, “I’m not bashful in saying the reason I programmed Swan Lake last year was I knew how many people are moving to Denver. This is a very recognizable work. I have no qualms with our production of Swan Lake. It’s stunning, a lot of people saw that, it reflected return attendance.” Similarly, he noted, The “Nutcracker is a holiday tradition.”

The Ballet company’s MasterWorks, a selection of repertory performances offered every other year (this season including Stravinsky’s Firebird and Petit Mort), are a harder sell, Boggs acknowledged. “People don’t necessarily know what that is unless they are a true balletomane.”

He’d like to add a fifth production and make the MasterWorks an annual event. His philosophy: “If you build it, they will come. If we put good product on the stage, people will trust what we’re doing.”

The classics, like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty,  are “very valid,” Boggs said. Besides, their presence on the schedule allows him to introduce new works: “new choreography, works that haven’t been seen here in Denver — that’s the lifeblood.”

Of course Petit Mort didn’t have the marquee value of last season’s production of Little Mermaid, which sold out the Newman Center months in advance. Boggs saw it as a good kids’ alternative to The Nutcracker.”“You could hear a pin drop, it’s a great introduction for them to the art form.”

Boggs acknowledges he has to balance between “what I know will sell, which will allow me the opportunity to present works that are challenging, that are not as well known.”

The balance is not 50-50 right now, Boggs said, “but with some diversity, we could possibly get there.”

Pushing audiences — carefully

Where do the Colorado Ballet’s Little Mermaid, the Colorado Symphony’s “Geek Package” of Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.-themed programs, and the DCPA’s Broadway-bound adaptation of Frozen fit on the scale of artistically worthy productions? That’s open to debate. Companies know it’s a careful balancing act.

Only about a quarter of the Colorado Symphony’s slate for 2017-18 falls into the organizations pop music-inspired categories of "Pops," "Geek," or "Movies at the Symphony," according to Anthony Pierce, chief artistic officer. “That number may creep up once the season starts, but every year, our priority is the same: perform masterworks of the world's greatest living and past composers. By and large, our audiences are satisfied with the balance of our programs, and that's what matters.”

Opera Colorado’s season suggests what happens when an arts institution reaches a beyond the most-performed crowd pleasers. It really did take a chance last season, programming the new work, As One, about a transgender woman coming to terms with her identity. The two-singer show was a credible success, but audiences, for the most part, stayed away.

“This year we had wonderful productions but they were not in the Big Five (of most-produced operas),” Spaccavento said. “That is where we found a little struggle.” Head-to-head competition with the Santa Fe Opera schedule didn’t help; Opera Colorado’s last season opened just as the Santa Fe Opera season closed.

 “Next year is selling really well. It leads off with La Bohème, one of the most recognizable titles. “So there is something about populism in Denver,” she said.

Opera Colorado General Director Greg Carpenter acknowledged his divergent tasks in a press release: “We give our audiences beloved classic productions while continuing to support new and rarely performed works…” including one production per year in a more intimate setting. This upcoming year, it will be two at the Ellie, one at the smaller Wolf Theatre across town.

Seeking MillennialsThere has been extended runs at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and robust ticket sales for the Colorado Symphony and Opera Colorado.

Broadening the audience and bringing in younger newcomers remains a tough assignment. Think “opera” and you don’t automatically think “Millennials.”

But the struggle to get younger folks to attend may have a surprising champion in Kim Kardashian, who is forever dressed to the nines, attending operas worldwide. Millennials do seem to like having “a Kardashian moment,” Spaccavento said. “20somethings do want the experience of a special night, wearing a tux or a pretty dress,” Spaccavento said.  Opera may be tailor-made for selfies and instagram posts.

Opera Colorado has an active Facebook presence to engage potential newcomers. And while they don’t encourage tweeting during performances like outdoor venues do, they do offer Tweet Seats: “it’s a battle every organization that has an enclosed theater tries to figure out,” she said.

At the Denver Center theater company, despite dizzying executive changes, the most recent annual report (2015-16) showed an annual attendance increase of 32 percent — if you add invited dress rehearsals and test audiences to the traditional count, a new measure.

Specifically targeting Millennials, the Off Center arm of the DCPA had a hit with Sweet & Lucky, an immersive, off-site piece that was a collaboration with New York’s Third Rail Projects. The run was nearly doubled to accommodate demand. Bringing the local, alt-rock band DeVotchKa into the production of Sweeney Todd was another bold stroke, that successfully captured the younger audience’s imagination. “Sweeney” played to 99 percent capacity, according to the report.

This season the DCPA will offer the usual range, attempting to serve all theater tastes, from MacBeth to Frozen, from Hamilton to Disney’s Aladdin. It remains to be seen how audiences will respond.

For the Symphony, it’s all about long-term sustainability and incremental experimentation, according to Pierce. “We pay attention to what people like here in Denver and the region, and doing so has resulted in some unconventional and wildly popular programs.” He cited collaborations with local performers Gregory Alan Isakov, Elephant Revival, and the Wonderbound dance company; playing Movies at the Symphony (LA LA LAND this summer and Jurassic Park next season); and performing with electronic acts like Bonobo and ODESZA.

There’s no magic formula, he said, but the key is to avoid alienating dedicated patrons. “We avoid making drastic changes to programming because we understand the value of our patrons' trust. It's all about balance,” Pierce said.

Hiring a 37-year-old as Music Director for the coming season should be an advantage: Brett Mitchell is “an ideal mix of an open-minded and forward-thinking strategist who takes his role as curator and presenter of masterworks seriously.”

While Denver is booming, the benefits may accrue more to real estate than to arts and culture. The Colorado Symphony’s Pierce isn’t celebrating just yet.

“Denver’s growth is exciting and welcome” he said. “A larger population doesn't guarantee a larger audience: it's our responsibility to continually engage newcomers and draw them to Boettcher Concert Hall.”

The hall was packed for both Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the Harry Potter Movie at the Symphony performance this season. “We don't sell out every performance, but the array of our programming means that some concerts will cover the shortfalls of others.”

“I'd love to say that we share the same "boom" as Denver, but the reality is that every arts organization relies on steady funding from donations and ticket sales to remain solvent. We've only just gotten out of our deficit, and have a long road ahead of us as we continue to fundraise for our annual operations fund (that keeps us on the stage each year) and for our endowment fund, which is essentially our savings account.”

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