A piece I wrote about Central City Opera, published in Opernwelt.
Oper Central City
Full English version:
BABY DOE’S ROCKIES
Landing at Denver airport can be unsettling for the unprepared Brit. If, like me, you set off from the gate at a good lick, eager to overtake the dawdlers, you quickly find yourself wheezing, your heart pounding in your chest. For Denver is a mile above sea level. The air is thin.
Drive west on I-70 from Denver and you’ll be climbing into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the great continental divide which separates the massive eastern plains from the Pacific states. The landscape is impressive, swathed in pine forest, and frequently impassable in winter. The air is even thinner. It was here in the mid 19th century that prospectors collectively said to themselves “there’s gold in them thar hills” and often prompted by nothing more than hunch (in other words men after my own heart), started digging.
In 1859 a man called John Gregory struck gold, literally; hordes of beardy men with names like Jeremiah and Elmer followed, and within a year, ten thousand people were living in what came eventually to be known as Central City (though by the time it was officially called that, two thirds of the prospectors had moved on again in search of other riches). All over the Rockies, small but immensely wealthy mining towns were springing up with delightful names like Golden, Fairplay and, my favourite, Leadville, which was originally called Slabtown but which actually prospered from silver. As Americans say, go figure. Central City became known as “the richest square mile on earth”; though given the national appetite for hyperbole, this is possibly a wild exaggeration.
A mere 18 years after John Gregory yelled “eureka!”, with the population now standing at around 2,500, the people of Central City decided that what they really needed, like any small, mountain mining town at over 8,000 feet above sea-level, was an opera house. And so, a year later in 1878, shortly after Wagner had finished his gruelling, four-year struggle to open the Festspielhaus five thousand miles east in Bayreuth, one was built. Just like that, in the space of a few months. You could be forgiven for thinking that the driving force behind the project was a large body of Italian and German emigrées, but you’d be wrong. They were Welsh and Cornish, no doubt missing all of that opera pouring out of Wales and Cornwall at the time.
I jest of course. Back then, an opera house wasn’t designed for the exclusive production of opera. The name was aspirational, designed to put the stamp of sophistication upon a town, to elevate it, to set it above its neighbours. A year later, not to be outdone, Leadville too built an opera house. It took only one hundred days to construct in brick, steel and stone, and Oscar Wilde lectured there, dressed in velvet breeches and diamonds; his subject: “The Practical Application of the Aesthetic Theory to Exterior and Interior House Decoration with Observations on Dress and Personal Ornament”. It didn’t go down terribly well with the audience of miners, many of whom fell asleep. Downing a post-show restorative in a Leadville saloon Wilde spotted “the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across.” Over the piano there hung a notice: “Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best…”
Leadville wasn’t the only other town to build an opera house. You may have to sit down for the next bit. Between 1860 and 1920 a staggering 150 opera houses were built in Colorado, many of them in obscure corners of the Rockies. I’ll just repeat that number. One hundred and fifty. So, while we all imagine the so-called Wild West was nothing but gun fights, saloons and lynchings, in fact they seem to have been rather partial to a bit of Offenbach, Verdi and Gilbert & Sullivan. If Wagner had only been American, he might have had better luck getting his theatre built on time. The pity is that of those 150 houses, only a handful have survived.
Taking opera to the masses was quite a business, often undertaken by small troupes who would pick up extra orchestral players and chorus singers locally, if they could find the players and singers. Some of the big names – Patti and Melba for instance – sang in Denver, whose population rapidly grew from around 35,000 in 1880 to 135,000 in 1900. (In 1870, Denver’s population was just 4,700.) The appetite was for opera sung in English, though you might have to wait a while to catch one in the remoter houses. Central City’s first opera (though it’s really an operetta) was The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein and, as far as I can discover, they had to wait another thirty years before The Lombardi Grand Italian Opera Company dropped in to do Il Trovatore with “48 artists and singers”, for one night only and presumably in Italian.
As the precious minerals rapidly depleted so did the fortunes of the Colorado mining towns, not least Central City and its opera house. By 1910 the boards once trod by Buffalo Bill (who is buried not very far away), P.T. Barnum, and the 48 artists and singers of The Lombardi Grand Italian Opera Company creaked no more and the house became a cinema. The population of the town was rapidly diminishing. By 1920 there were only 552 people living in Central City, two more than the seating capacity of the one-time opera house that now only showed movies; which makes it all the more remarkable that three ladies from the dying town decided to turn things around. The opera house was given to the University of Denver and a summer festival was started, in 1932, when Lillian Gish starred in Camille. Plays dominated for the first few years, with only The Merry Widow and The Gondoliers for music fans, but from 1939 onwards (with a break for World War 2) opera became more dominant and it has remained so ever since.
The opera house billboards were painted in a distinctive Wild West font, the sort of thing you see on “Wanted, Dead Or Alive” posters, and still are to this day, and they have all been kept, lining the walls of rehearsal rooms. They read like a Who’s Who of 20th Century American stage and opera. Mae West appeared in 1949 in her own play Diamond Lil. The 1963 board lists Richard Cassilly, Sherrill Milnes and Justino Diaz as three of its festival artists, but it doesn’t tell you that Samuel Ramey was in the chorus that year. He was on the apprentice scheme that still continues. For two months, young singers get to understudy, sing small roles and work in the chorus. They also get training and coaching, and appear in their own small-scale productions and showcases. This year they did Trouble in Tahiti.
In 1956, Central City produced one of its most famous successes when it premiered The Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore. Like many American operas (except for those by the fashionable minimalists) it’s a work that isn’t widely known outside the States, where it has become a staple. Beverly Sills sang the title role many times and recorded it in 1959. Based on a true story, Baby Doe is local too. She came from Central City and ended up in Leadville after a scandalous affair with the silver millionaire who built Leadville’s opera house and which bears his name, Horace Tabor. The price of silver crashed and so did the fortunes of Leadville, Tabor and Baby Doe, who died penniless in a shack; the very stuff of which operas are made.
Incidentally, Horace Tabor had also built and given his name to a large opera house in Denver. The Leadville opera house survives, almost unchanged, and is open for tours but little else. The Denver house was torn down in 1964.
Central City Opera has become the most enduring of America’s summer opera festivals – of which there are many – which is truly extraordinary given that the town itself has continued to decline. The 1970 census listed just 228 inhabitants. In 1990, in a bid to revitalise the local economy, the town and its close neighbour Black Hawk were granted gaming licences, and the handsome Victorian brick buildings that line Main Street, once shops and hotels of varying salubriousness, became, almost without exception, casinos. Until recently, Black Hawk was first stop on the small switchback road from Denver and therefore used to catch all the gamblers driving up the hill. So, at a cost of $41 million, Central City had a four lane road built from the main highway that circumvented Black Hawk, dropping customers in the midst of its casinos. It will take a long time to pay for the road, but at least it makes the uphill journey to the festival easier for operagoers.
Central City now suffers from a sort of schizophrenia, struggling to be both a cultural hotspot and a somewhat dissolute gambling dive. There’s nowhere to eat, nothing to do, that doesn’t involve walking through the doors of a casino. Wild West-style gunfights are staged on Main Street while just around the corner, the audience waits to enter the opera house for La Traviata. Anyone who imagines, as I did, that this is some sort of American Glyndebourne should try eating out for breakfast. It’s an eye-opening experience, munching on pancakes at 8 a.m. surrounded by slot machines, constantly flashing and chiming as sad-looking punters fill them with dollars, working the buttons. But then, perhaps this is not so different to how life was in the town when it was “the richest square mile on earth”.
For the last eighteen years Central City Opera has been headed and managed by Pelham Pearce. Witty, avuncular, often dressed like a character written by Tennessee Williams (white hat, silk handkerchief and wingtip shoes), he could be mistaken for someone stuck in the past. He is anything but. Whereas his personal dream would be to perform every single Britten opera (he’s about half way through the cannon) he has to be a realist and present a range of work that will challenge, entertain and put bums on seats. The current formula seems to be working: one classic from the mainstream opera repertoire, something less familiar that is modern or baroque, and a piece of music theatre. This year’s productions were Le Nozze di Figaro, Dead Man Walking and The Sound of Music. Pearce has an infectious passion and the genuine will to do whatever it is that opera must do to change and survive. He may have a favourite catchphrase, delivered in a fine Southern drawl – “It’s all good!” – but he knows that running an opera festival up a mountain in a Victorian jewel-box theatre is never going to get easier.
Central City Opera clearly doesn’t rely on the patronage of its townsfolk. It couldn’t. It survives thanks to the opera lovers of Denver. And they must love the art form a great deal. Since only 20% of the $5 million budget can be raised from box office, a lot of generous people are giving away serious amounts of cash. A $10 million endowment helps too.
My wife is singing in Central City this year, which is why I drove up the mountain. We’ll be back next year too, spending the first week fighting for breath, coping with altitude sickness. The fees are modest, but are made up for by a generosity of spirit, a common determination in the company that, bonkers as it may have been for those Welsh and Cornish miners to have built an opera house in the middle of nowhere, at 8,500 feet, the pioneering devotion to an ideal of creating good art will be upheld as long as there is a gasping breath in their bodies. I think that’s rather remarkable.