FREETIME: Celebrating a decade with High Desert Opera

Marnie Benson
Cultural Confidential Contributor


High Desert Opera will hold another audition for the New Year’s Eve production of “Les Miserables” at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7. This will be a general audition for men and women over the age of 17. All singers who are interested, call James Werner at 970-270-7989 for an audition time and for more information.

During the last 10 years, Grand Junction has been witness to a theater phenomenon that, through a slow and steady pace, has taken the art community to a new realm.

The impetus behind the company comes from James and Marnie Werner, the two founding members of High Desert Opera (HDO), who share the passion to perpetuate the art forms of opera and musical theater and to create opportunities for vocalists.

This New Year’s Eve and the presentation of “Les Misérables” will mark the pinnacle of the 10th anniversary year for this local nonprofit company!

The Werners moved to the Grand Valley in 1998 as a result of a spontaneous meeting with old friends. As of 2003, James had been performing as a Broadway musical baritone and operatic tenor for 30 years. He was ready to enjoy time at a less frenetic pace as a vocal teacher and local performer in an environment where artistic pursuit could be based simply on the love of art and the joy of performing!

This couple loved being homeowners and quickly demonstrated their enthusiasm for community involvement. James’ voice studio had grown to the point that he saw the need for his students to have opportunities to sing on stage. Recitals were offered and they were good, but the Werners began imagining something more.

A concert was planned for New Year’s Eve of 2003. James served as artistic director, singer, advertising manager and set builder, while Marnie fulfilled her contributions as hostess, ticket master, set decorator and props maker. Upon learning of this show, singers from all over the valley expressed their desire to be involved.

On opening night, well over 100 concert goers lined up outside the door of the First United Methodist Church, overwhelming the capacity of the sanctuary. This gala event, featuring opera excerpts and Broadway selections with piano accompaniment, revealed the need for a company that could accommodate vocalists anxious to perform in a professional setting.

In the summer of 2004, the Werners, in response to the success of the concert, were inspired to produce a full opera — Jacques Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann.” First United Methodist kindly allowed them to take over the basement and its 13’ x 20’ stage. In spite of the simple piano accompaniment, the $1,000 budget, and the tiny stage, a new level of production was established. A door had opened to the possibility that Grand Junction could be the home of an actual opera company. High Desert Opera became a reality.

Another gamble ensued, in the form of a second New Year’s Eve gala concert. It was held at the Avalon Theatre. The show’s simple format was successful and an annual tradition was born. A manageable plan was developed to produce an opera every summer and a musical each winter. HDO’s audience grew and the value of their productions increased with each performance.

In 2005, the Werners decided to form a nonprofit corporation which benefited from an enthusiastic group of founding donors and a growing number of volunteers. Marnie became the first executive director and board president and learned more about set design and ticket sales while James kept expanding his production skills to include orchestrating. The aspect of performers and audiences experiencing live orchestra formed one of the very special attributes now witnessed in HDO shows.

In its first year as a nonprofit, HDO benefited greatly from the exposure gained through a collaborative production with the Grand Junction Symphony. “Die Fledermaus,” the lyric opera by Johann Strauss, drew over 2,500 people.

The New Year’s Eve shows evolved into full Broadway musical theater classics. Four Broadway shows, produced by HDO, have been seen by Western Slope audiences: “Man of La Mancha,” “Sound of Music,” “Camelot,” and “I Do! I Do!” Since that epic performance of “Tales of Hoffman,” seven full scale operas and operettas have been performed — “Die Fledermaus,” “Pagliacci,” “Tosca,” “The Sorcerer,” “The Mikado,” “The Barber of Seville,” and “The Elixir of Love.”

In addition to bringing opera and Broadway shows to the West Slope, HDO provides vocalists and actors with great opportunities to enjoy the experience of being on stage and performing with live orchestra, oftentimes collaborating with dancers and professional singers from all over the nation!

In the culmination of its 10th year, High Desert Opera looks back with pride and gratitude to all those who have contributed and helped to create this cultural oasis in the high desert of western Colorado.

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