Colorado History

Central City Opera Revives the Ghosts of a Colorado Scandal

It was a cover story that could easily scream from today’s supermarket tabloid rack: He was a typical American slob and she was a hot mess. Horace Tabor lucked into wealth, then built a flashy, short-lived empire on it. He dumped his longtime wife for a young, beautiful woman — Elizabeth McCourt “Baby Doe” Tabor. He sought political office with scant success. Then he lost all of his money through pigheadedness and died in poverty, leaving his trophy wife behind to grow old, isolated and crazy.

It sounds like a soap opera, but it’s the stuff of history — and real opera. On Saturday, July 9, the Central City Opera launched its revival of Douglas Moore’s marvelous 1956 The Ballad of Baby Doe — an opera written specifically for the company, and one that made its reputation.

“It’s a great way for people who are new to the state to actually get the flavor of what it was like here through this story, this rough-and-tumble, rags-to-riches story,” says Pelham G. Pearce, Central City Opera’s general/artistic director, who’s been riding herd on the operation in one way or another since 1996.

Pearce — and opera in general — is no stranger to putting historical figures on stage. Central City’s 2001 North American premiere of Benjamin Britten’s riveting Gloriana, about Elizabeth I, was a milestone for the company, as was Henry Mollicone’s Gabriel’s Daughter — the story of Central City’s pioneer African-American businesswoman and philanthropist, Clara Brown — in 2003.

But how “true” is this opera based on historical facts? The Tabors were Colorado’s couple du jour, a pair right out of the go-go, glitzy, glam, greed-is-good ’80s — 1880s, that is.

Tabor was a 59er from Vermont, part of the gold-seeking horde that clambered up Colorado’s gulches in 1859. Not the sharpest pick in the tool shed, he kept store and prospected, and he and his wife Augusta settled in and became part of the life of the town of Leadville. In 1878, he grubstaked two miners who found the Little Pittsburg lode, a bonanza of silver. Tabor was rich. Soon he was building banks, business blocks and opera houses, all branded prominently with the Tabor name, à la Donald Trump.

Soon he met a young divorcée, Elizabeth Doe (who shaved five years off her age for appeal’s sake, and who wasn’t quite divorced from her first husband yet). Their affair culminated in Tabor’s divorce and his defiantly public and possibly illegal wedding to Baby Doe in Washington, D.C., in 1883, three days before ending his temporary term as a U.S. senator. President Chester Arthur was a guest.

Horace and Baby Doe were not on top for long, however. A battle over the unlimited coinage of silver resulted in the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893, which destroyed silver’s value and bankrupted Tabor. They lived on the handouts of friends until Tabor died, in 1899.

After Horace’s death, Baby Doe returned to the Leadville site of the once-profitable Matchless Mine. Tabor had told her to hang on to the property no matter what, and she lived there in eccentric isolation until she was found dead, frozen to the floor of her cabin, on March 8, 1935.

Three years earlier and eighty miles away, the Central City Opera House sprang back to life. It was built in 1878 with funds raised from the prosperous residents of the boomtown. Acts such as Buffalo Bill and P.T. Barnum’s circus saw the stage, but as the mining boom waned, the opera house fell into disrepair. A revival effort by preservationists and arts lovers resulted in the reopening of the venue in 1932, with a run of Camille starring Lillian Gish.

When it premiered in Central City in 1956, Baby Doe was described by many critics, condescendingly, as a throwback — a tuneful, lyrical opera in a time when most contemporary classical pieces were spiky and atonal — “randomly dissonant,” as Pearce describes them. One big beneficiary of Baby Doe was Beverly Sills, a young soprano who made a splash when she played the title role in the New York premiere in 1958.

These days, a new appreciation of melodic opera is in the air, and Baby Doe is seeing a revival of interest.

“Now we’re getting back to that line of writing music for people to sing,” says Pearce. “You’re seeing Baby Doe arias as recital pieces. A lot of sopranos use them as audition arias. One was sung at my sister’s wedding, and one at a recent boardmember’s funeral. It’s work with very deep emotional content.”

“America’s where it’s happening for new works,” says director Ken Cazan, a longtime Central City Opera associate. He’s not intimidated by the work’s reputation, which has soared in recent decades. (He’s not intimidated by anything, apparently: This is a guy who successfully staged a production of West Side Story in Norway. In Norwegian.)

“It’s an epic piece on a small stage,” Cazan says of Baby Doe. “I love this space, and I come back year after year. The great thing about the small space is, everything reads. The audience misses nothing, so as a performer, you have to be completely present and focused. There’s no background to fade into.”

Lest you think the Opera is a one-trick pony, the season’s schedule this year also includes Puccini’s Tosca; a humorous one-act by Mozart, The Impresario; and a new work by John Musto, Later the Same Evening, which is based on five Edward Hopper paintings. Pearce is adamantly programming work that can tour, fit into non-traditional spaces and reach audiences who are unused to or intimidated by opera. Central City is presenting selected works this summer in venues in Boulder, Colorado Springs and Denver.

Like Tabor’s, Central City’s fortunes have waxed and waned. The legalization of gambling in 1991 didn’t provide the town with the kind of economic boom experienced in adjacent Black Hawk. As a result, Central City avoided some of the worst of the ugly redevelopment that litters the area.

“We are looking at other things up here,” says Pearce. “With the city of Central, we are looking at ways we can turn this place into [one] that’s driven by arts and culture. I mean, if you look at the history of the town, there’s one constant, and that’s the opera.”

“There are three misperceptions we fight every day,” says Pearce. “One, opera is expensive; two, it’s long; and three, it’s foreign. Well, none of these are true for us, and we want to liberate people from these notions. There’s this idea that you have to ‘know things’ to enjoy opera, but in the end, it’s a story; it speaks to you.”

Another challenge for performers: The opera house is 8,500 feet above sea level. Breathing normally is a challenge, and Colorado’s dry air is tough on the tonsils. Fortunately, Anna Christy, the soprano playing Baby Doe, lives and trains at altitude.

“I’ve been very lucky,” she says. “I have gotten to sing baroque, bel canto, new music and many of the popular heroines. It’s amazing — we have a lot more information about the people than Moore did when he wrote Baby Doe, so it’s fascinating to dive into that and augment what’s in the libretto.”

The part demands a bravura aria at the very end of a long night of singing. Christy likes the challenge, comparing it to another role that demands heavy lifting at the very end: that of Lucia di Lammermoor.

“You would think it would have been tough, but by the time of the last aria, the mad scene, I felt very free,” she says of her experience with Lucia. “It’s a marathon, but by the end, I felt like I was just going to my playground.”

Cazan sees Baby Doe as a classic tragedy. “Horace Tabor willed his own destruction,” he says. “We do know many more facts about Horace and Augusta and Baby Doe now. He knew that silver was doomed, but his pride and male ego wouldn’t let him save his fortune, even when everyone around him told him to get out of it — repeatedly. I think that’s why not many helped him after his fall. And Baby Doe, God bless her, she stuck by him. People go down the tubes, but we still love them. I think that’s a huge part of the appeal of this story.

“The next opera we should write is about what happened to Baby Doe after Horace died. She spent decades alone in that cabin, just a crazy lady of the town, dressed in rags and wearing a big wooden cross. But she wrote tons and tons of visionary writings that ended up in trunks in a convent, which scholars have been analyzing. The sequel would be something thrilling.”

Tabor’s name still resonates, adorning properties in the region and even serving as an acronym for the state’s widely despised 1992 Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which restricts tax revenues. Baby Doe’s moniker adorned a prominent local restaurant for decades. To see these household names locked in on-stage struggles, singing their hearts out, is an odd sight. (Baby Doe’s other characters include President Arthur and famed orator, perennial presidential candidate and eventual Scopes Trial prosecutor William Jennings Bryan.)

Time has its way with us. Scandals turn into tragedies, which in turn are mined by artists looking for symbolic material. Eventually, a new kind of truth is forged from the jumble-pile of facts and dates, one that the original protagonists would probably find unrecognizable. And then our memories slide into line with the new way of looking at what happened. That’s how art works.

“It speaks to people no matter what, because it speaks to our collective humanity,” says Pearce. “That doesn’t change. If we do the art and we do it well, that is the part that doesn’t need to change.”

The Ballad of Baby Doe
Through August 6, showtimes vary, Central City Opera House, 124 Eureka Street, Central City, 303-292-6700.

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Brad Weismann became an award-winning writer and editor after spending years as a comedian. He's written about everything from grand opera to movies for a diverse array of magazines, newspapers and websites worldwide.