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Historic 1878 Colorado Opera House Still Attracting Crowds - 2002-09-14


The Colorado Rocky Mountains is a region that tourists appreciate for spectacular views, great ski slopes and good mountain hikes. But Central City, Colorado, a small town in the Rocky Mountains, has an additional attraction. It is home to one of America's oldest opera houses. The Central City Opera hosts one of the nation's most popular summer opera festivals.

Most opera houses use bell chimes or blinking lights to remind patrons that the house is open and the performance is about to begin. In Central City, Colorado, ushers sing this little ditty instead. The theater lobby is so small that patrons gather outside, so the ushers, dressed formally in black and white, perform at the door facing the street. An usher is also sent next-door to the Teller House restaurant to summon the patrons from the bar and dining room. Tonight's performance is Lee Hoiby's opera Summer and Smoke based on the Tennessee Williams' novel by the same name. It is a relatively new and little known opera, but the tiny theater is filled to the last seat.

This season also includes Bizet's Carmen and Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Since the mid-1970s, the Central City Opera has been hosting a summer festival of three operas per season, including several world premieres. Director Pel Pearce says the company has been recognized for its innovative and adventurous spirit.

"Probably the three most important things were the commission in 1956 of the Ballad of Baby Doe. The most recent important thing would be (Benjamin Britten's opera) Gloriana - the first American production that we did last season. Upcoming, we've also got another commission, another world premiere that we are doing next year, based on the life of Clara Brown, who is the first African American to come to Colorado. And she's got a very interesting life. And composer Henry Mollicone and librettist William Luce are writing us a wonderful opera based on that story."

Colorado's Central City Opera is probably best known for The Ballad of Baby Doe, commissioned in the 1950s from American composer Douglas Moore. The story, based on local history, is about Horace Tabor, once the wealthiest man of the American West, and his young second wife Elizabeth Doe. The couple met and fell in love in Central City. They married in Washington D.C., causing great scandal and much sympathy for Tabor's abandoned wife Augusta. When Tabor, who put all his stakes in silver mining, eventually lost his money, few people felt sorry. He died soon thereafter, leaving his wife in poverty. Elizabeth Tabor was found frozen to death in a small mining town of Colorado.

Central City has barely 400 residents, not enough to fill the 552-seat theater. But visitors from throughout the United States as well as international opera lovers come to attend its summer opera festival. The theater was built in 1878, during the gold mining boom in Gilpin County, Colorado when the population had swelled to tens of thousands.

"Those guys worked six days a week 10 hours, 12-hour days and they needed some entertainment," she said.

James Prochaska, the director of the Gilpin Historical Society, says when lode gold was discovered in Colorado in the late 1850's, people from all over the world, and from all kinds of professions, flocked here to become miners. Some of them were quite educated.

"At one time half of the population of Central City and [the nearby] Nevadaville were Cornish miners. The Cornish have this reputation for having fantastic voices. They love to sing. Stories I've read [said] that they'd be singing to and from work, they'd sing in the mines. They had beautiful voices," he said.

So these miners raised funds to build an opera house befitting the town's reputation as "the richest square mile on earth." The gold rush ended by the turn of the century and the towns in Gilpin County began to decline. The opera house in Central City fell in decay and closed down for many years. In the 1930's, during a brief period of gold mining revival, Central City formed an association that raised funds to refurbish its Opera House.

In 1932, it re-opened in all its former glory, complete with ornate ceiling frescoes, gold-embroidered velvet curtains and carved hickory chairs. For a long time it was used for all kinds of performances and social events. But it was the summer opera festival that put Central City back on the map in the 1970s. Since then, summer vacationers have enjoyed opera performances in the picturesque old mining town on the slopes of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

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