The Art of History
Because I grew up in London, where the ghosts of Roman soldiers, Saxon traders, Renaissance poets, Victorian merchants, Cockney fishmongers, bishops and queens and kings and murdered princes whispered beneath the pavement, it took me a long time to acknowledge that there was any such thing as Colorado history -- though the state's ancient topography has always filled me with awe. My ignorance was hardly unique. I once told a sixteen-year-old English friend that my house in Boulder -- built around 1900 -- is considered old by local standards. "Oh," she said thoughtfully. "How sweet!"
The weird little books you find in gift shops about Colorado ghosts, madams and miners did nothing to stimulate my interest, though every now and then I encountered an article by a serious historian illuminating the grubbiness and desperation of the early settlers' lives, the violence against Native Americans, the ways in which the myth of the frontier has blinded us to Western realities.
When Colorado history really began to come alive for me, it was through art. In 2004, Curious Theatre Company presented Joan Holden's Paris on the Platte, which dramatized the mixture of greed, vision, ambition, politicking and altruism that shaped Denver. A year earlier, in Central City, I'd seen Gabriel's Daughter, which told the story of a freed slave who moved to that mountain town, became rich and devoted herself to good works and helping other freed slaves. Throughout her long life, she searched for the daughter who had been taken from her as an infant and sold.
This year, Central City Opera is celebrating the fiftieth birthday of Douglas Moore's famed The Ballad of Baby Doe with a lively, glowing production: beautifully proportioned sets that look like Victorian Christmas cards, a talented, energetic ensemble and a cluster of glorious voices. The opera conjures up all the expected Old West icons: flouncing prostitutes, bearded miners, historical figures such as William Jennings Bryan and President Chester A. Arthur, and, of course, big, booming, workingman-turned-mining-magnate Horace Tabor, who left his uptight, New England-born wife, Augusta, for the beautiful Elizabeth "Baby" Doe. But Moore's music -- which makes use of such American idioms as folk ballads, dance-hall numbers and even a touch of jazz -- and John Latouche's libretto probe a little more deeply to explore some of the grimmer elements of nineteenth-century frontier life. The opera shows the psychological cost of the familiar rags-to-riches mining story and makes two of the three main characters interestingly complex.
Tabor, who established opera houses in both Leadville and Denver, lived a showy, extravagant life with Baby Doe. Their liaison was harshly criticized in society and hindered his attempts to become governor of Colorado. (He served as lieutenant governor and -- for one year -- mayor of Leadville; he was also a U.S. senator for a month.) Eventually, the bottom fell out of the silver market, and all of the Tabors' money was lost. Baby Doe may have married Horace for his money, but she remained faithful to him through years of penury and, after his death, attempted to revive his Matchless Mine. She lived alone there in an abandoned miner's shack, becoming paranoid and delusional over the years, and finally froze to death in 1935.
Moore makes Baby Doe an idealized figure, a fount of pure, endless and accepting love. Hers are the loveliest songs in the opera, and they're done full justice by the honey-warm soprano of Joanna Mongiardo. In the early scenes, Augusta seems little more than a self-righteous scold, but as the action progresses, her depth of character becomes apparent. We learn that it was her financial acumen and hard physical labor that helped build her husband's fortune. In song, she acknowledges that she must seem hard compared to the effortlessly tender Baby Doe, and she laments her inability to express love. Joyce Castle's acting in the role is expressive and powerful, though the deliberate harshness of her singing sometimes grates. Timothy Noble -- substituting on opening night for Jake Gardner, who was suffering from throat inflammation -- plays Tabor with authority, and his big, rounded baritone fills the historic opera house. Under the baton of John Moriarty, the music flows, exquisitely paced, and Michael Ehrman's direction is clean and strong.
This is an exciting production, and although the second-act arias felt long, I found the ending purely and beautifully redemptive. There may be operas of greater musical brilliance than The Ballad of Baby Doe, but none that bring an American era so vividly to life.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.