As live events return to Aspen, ticket demand and emotions run high
After a long wait, Aspen’s celebratory post-vaccine summer arts season is here
After the first night of the Aspen Fringe Festival at the Wheeler Opera House on June 11, I stepped out of the theater and into the lobby, a little teary-eyed and still a bit tense after my first night of maskless live indoor performance in some 15 months. At the bottom of the carpeted staircase I came upon Nicole Levesque, the audience services manager at the Wheeler who had just pulled off the historic theater’s first event since before the coronavirus pandemic.
“Well, we made it,” I said, dizzied still by the crowd and the fact that we were back at in-person events.
“We’re just so happy to have people back in our theater,” she said.
Fringe Fest opened the floodgate of firsts in the culture sector this summer with two nights of edgy new work that addressed head-on the experience of the pandemic in theater, song and ballet. The Wheeler is back, followed soon after by Jazz Aspen Snowmass and its seven-venue June Experience, followed by Belly Up, the Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival and School. New on the scene, we have a half-dozen international art galleries planting a post-COVID flag here.
In this post-vaccine summer, quite suddenly, nearly all of the staples of Aspen’s vaunted culture scene are back at full-speed (R.I.P. to Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, of course, and the bar bands at Red Onion).
And by all accounts, audiences are ready. Producers and presenters report that demand and ticket sales are booming, even as ticket-buyers face higher prices or new surcharges for most performing arts events. And because plans and capacity limits were still so in flux until just the past few weeks, many ticket sales and event details are being announced much later than usual.
The Aspen Music Festival started sales by phone on June 1 and sold in the next three days what it would normally sell in four months leading up to the first concert. Eager and desperate patrons jammed phone lines, as every available staffer was pulled to phone banks at Harris Hall to field calls.
“It was hectic, to say the least, but we helped a lot of people, and hearing from them their joy in coming back, and about what the festival means in their lives, was really gratifying,” said Music Fest vice president of marketing Laura Smith.
For Belly Up tickets, fans will need to stay on top of presale dates to beat sellouts as they’ve seen early sellouts for the entire five-concert Independence Day weekend lineup and late August shows by acts like Black Pumas and Big Wild.
Jazz Aspen sold out its entire JAS Café series for the summer before the season even began, and has its Labor Day Experience sales tracking ahead of this time for 2019’s rendition, which sold out for Sting and John Mayer.
“It’s pretty palpable that people are gigantically excited,” Jazz Aspen president Jim Horowitz said. “None of us has ever been through having life shut down the way it has been for more than a year. So it stands to reason that it’s producing these reactions in people’s behavior.”
Theatre Aspen reported its highest single day of ticket sales in history, more than doubling its previous record and selling out its season passes.
“There’s a lot of pent-up demand and a lot of interest not only in our particular shows but in getting out and socializing and enjoying entertainment,” producing director Jed Bernstein told Aspen Times reporter Kaya Williams.
For passionate fans, it’s often an emotional experience to finally be able to put a show on the calendar.
“People are so intense about what it means to be returning to concerts at the festival,” Smith said. “We always knew people appreciated the music, but this goes so far beyond that. People tell us that they have been coming for 30, 40, 50 years, that this is one of the single most important things in their lives. Some are in tears.”
We all went without live music for so long through the pandemic that just being there may be enough. Audiences may be easily impressed for a while.
But much of Aspen’s 2021 offerings offer more enrichment and entertainment than that. Among the most promising new piece of summer is the Aspen Music Festival and School’s AMELIA initiative, which is bringing action on equity to the stage all summer by performing works by composers of color who have been overlooked previously. It’s one of the disappointingly few public efforts by Aspen area arts organizations to engage with or explore the movement for Black lives that led to large and sustained demonstrations across the U.S. — and in Aspen — just a year ago.
For a live sampling of what’s to come, register and attend the free “Reflections: A Tribute to Essential Workers,” featuring contributions from 10 arts organization at the Benedict Music Tent on Sunday, June 27.
Kaya Williams contributed to this report.
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