New Wheeler Opera House director talks shop
Gena Buhler had her first day in the office last Wednesday at the Wheeler Opera House where she is the new director. A day after taking the reins of the historic, city-owned venue, she hit the road to Telluride Mountainfilm with the Wheeler crew, scouting films for the Wheeler’s MountainSummit festival in September — which will be her first programming mission.
The Aspen Music Festival takes over the historic concert hall for its opera performances in the summer. And the Wheeler is set for a major renovation in the fall after MountainSummit. So, in what appears to be a gradual, ideal entrée into one of the most prominent arts administrator jobs in Aspen, Buhler doesn’t have to book events until December.
“For now a lot of it is getting the lay of the land, figuring out who the players are, what we’re doing and what we need to do,” Buhler said over coffee in the Aspen Art Museum café on Tuesday. “There’s no pressure, no rush.”
Off the bat she’s planning meetings with Belly Up Aspen owner Michael Goldberg and other figures in the local performing arts scene — aiming to work with them as partners rather than against them as competitors. Local should expect to see Buhler out and about at events this summer as she digs in to the Aspen scene.
Buhler comes to Aspen from the Vail Valley, where she had directed the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek since 2008. A midwesterner and University of Michigan alum, and childhood dancer and community theater performer, Buhler’s programmatic tastes are wide-ranging. (Her personal music tastes, she noted, tend toward Broadway, new country and singer-songwriters.)
During her tenure at the Vilar, Buhler landed a string of acts that didn’t play elsewhere in Colorado for exclusive Beaver Creek dates. She also broadened the audience demographic at the venue — “The joke had been that you needed to have your AARP card to get in there,” she laughed — by creating events such as an annual Halloween party with Colorado jam band stalwarts The Motet.
Owned and operated by the nonprofit Vail Valley Foundation, the Vilar has grown into one of the more prominent performance venues in Colorado, and tends to be the centerpiece of live entertainment in Vail. That’s not always the case for the Wheeler.
“We were kind of the only game in town,” Buhler said. “We didn’t have a Belly Up. We didn’t have all these amazing festivals and events year-round. In the winter, it was kind of just us.”
Running a city-owned, tax-funded venue like the Wheeler, Buhler said, she hopes its programming can reach a broad base of the local community and tourist crowd. She’s interested in booking quality family programming, educational performances integrated with local school curricula, sit-down shows that appeal to ski bum 20- and 30-somethings, musicians that draw baby boomers and Broadway acts that can please us all.
Buhler cut her teeth in the industry as a booking agent. With the Road Company in New York, she booked national Broadway tours for family shows and blockbusters such as “Wicked” and “The Color Purple,” handling performances in the western U.S., Mexico and Canada. Before that, she was an agent for IMG Artists, booking touring musicians and dance companies around the country. The experience of working with local promoters and venues helped her develop a sixth sense for what works where and when (a road biker and rock climber, traveling as an agent also led to Buhler circling the Rocky Mountains on a map as her ideal future home).
Being on the other side of the booking equation bred in her a pragmatic appreciation for collaborating locally.
“Agents love it if you have two competing venues who will bid against each other,” she said, noting that such bidding wars, in the end, drive up ticket prices. “I’ve already told agents that I’m not playing that game. It’s about bringing an artist to Aspen. And if that artist is the best fit for Belly Up, great. If it’s a fit for the Wheeler, great. If it means working together to bring someone here, great.”
She’s aiming to integrate the whole town into Wheeler-produced events and festivals. For MountainSummit, for instance, she’s looking to host companion events — coffee talks or late night gatherings — outside the opera house.
“We want to break out of the doors of the Wheeler,” she said. “We’re the producers of the event, but everything doesn’t have to happen in our four walls.”
The Wheeler already has the Aspen Laff Festival on the books for February, keeping the long tradition of winter comedy festivals alive in Aspen. Buhler sees that event as a work in progress, and she may convene a community focus group to get feedback on questions like whether it should run two or three days and what kinds of comedians most interest people.
“We are evaluating what it is, what works and what doesn’t work,” she said. “We may be changing it up. … But in the middle of winter, we need comedy. Mentally, we need it.”
The Wheeler also has funds for a third festival in its budget. That slot has been empty since the end of the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival after 2012. It’s unlikely that the Wheeler will launch a new one for early 2016, but Buhler has her eyes on 2017 to start a third Wheeler-produced festival in the winter — and is all ears for ideas about what niche it can fill.
“We’ll be asking around about what we need,” she said.
The renovation in the fall will expand the size of the first- and second-floor lobbies — along with reconfiguring the oft-overcrowded restroom area – and add a small second stage to the venue’s second floor. That area, with seating for about 85, will give Buhler and her team a larger canvas to work with and could open up the Wheeler for a bigger slate of smaller scale events such as poetry slams, singer-songwriter competitions and community events.
As a new Aspenite arriving in offseason, when most anybody you run into on the street is going to be someone who lives here year-round, Buhler said she’s felt welcomed. Whether moving boxes into her house with her husband and dog, or getting a drink at Peach’s, she said, her new neighbors have greeted her warmly.
“My first impression is that everyone is so welcoming and nice,” she said, “and they don’t know who I am, but they want to talk to me.”
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