In 1932 the Central City Opera House Association (now Central City Opera) held its first summer festival at the Central City Opera House, making it the fifth-oldest opera company and the second-oldest summer opera company in the United States. In its early decades the festival was able to attract considerable star talent because it faced little competition for top directors and performers during the summer. Starting in the 1960s a long series of financial crises defined the organization’s existence, resulting in the cancellation of its 1982 season, but since then the opera has found a successful formula that mixes opera warhorses, popular musicals, and new or lesser-known works.
Designed by Denver architect Robert S. Roeschlaub, the Central City Opera House opened in March 1878. It briefly made Central City the cultural capital of Colorado but declined after the Tabor Grand Opera House opened in Denver three years later. Peter McFarlane eventually acquired the opera house and in 1910 turned it into a movie house. After struggling for years to keep it open, McFarlane showed his final film there on January 1, 1927, and then closed the building for good.
McFarlane died on May 1, 1929, and left the opera house to his three children. The family initially planned to sell it for use as a warehouse or gymnasium, but McFarlane’s daughter-in-law Ida Kruse McFarlane, a professor of English at the University of Denver, thought it should be restored and returned to its original use. With support from Walter Sinclair, head of the Denver Civic Theater, and Anne Evans, a Denver Civic Theater trustee and daughter of former territorial governor John Evans, Ida McFarlane persuaded her husband and the other two McFarlane children to give the opera house to the University of Denver to host summer opera festivals. This was accomplished in 1931, after the family cleared its title to the building by paying ten years of back taxes (only a few hundred dollars).
Ida McFarlane, Anne Evans, the artist Allen True, and the prominent Denverites Edna and Delos Chappell established the Central City Opera House Association. After extensive renovations that cost $25,000, the opera house was ready in time to hold a festival in the summer of 1932. The opera house association got the prominent Broadway set designer Robert Edmond Jones to design and direct a production Camille, with the silent-movie star Lillian Gish in the title role. Jones liked the town and the theater, and his involvement gave the inaugural Central City Opera Festival national recognition.
Opening night was set for July 16. Jones asked the audience to wear 1870s clothing to evoke the opera house’s early days. The Colorado and Southern Railroad ran a special train from Denver to Black Hawk for the festival, with stagecoaches carrying people the final mile to Central City. Milton Bernet, a vice president of Mountain Bell, helped drum up publicity for the opening. The Denver Post ran a special section, stories went out on national wire services, and the New York Times covered the event. The opening ceremonies, held in front of the restored opera house, were broadcast on NBC radio.
The 1932 Central City Opera Festival was a success despite the treacherous drive from Denver (the main route in was a winding dirt road from Idaho Springs) and the lack of adequate lodging options in town. Most performances of Camille sold out, and plenty of other people came to Central City to see the “rediscovered” mining town and take advantage of the city’s decision to allow gambling during the festival. Since then the opera house has hosted the Central City Opera Festival almost every year.
During the 1932 festival, the Central City Opera House Association reorganized as a separate entity outside the University of Denver’s umbrella. The university gave the opera house association a ninety-nine-year lease on the building. The association was soon able to secure Jones as producer and director of the festival for a five-year term. Jones’s fame and connections helped draw more stars to Central City, including Walter Huston and his wife, Nan Sunderland, who performed in Othello for the 1934 festival. By 1940 the festival featured twenty-four performances and drew a combined audience of more than 20,000.
The festival shut down from 1942 to 1945 because of World War II. It was revived after the war and quickly expanded under the leadership of Frank Ricketson, who had become head of the opera house association. Ricketson’s tenure, which lasted until 1963, is sometimes known as the festival’s “golden years” because of its ability to attract top talent and strong crowds in the decades after World War II. In 1947 the season expanded to three-full scale productions, two operas and one play, and drew the largest audience to date. The play became a regular part of the festival’s offerings; at that time, New York theaters closed in August, so it was easy to get a full Broadway production to come to Central City for the month.
Ricketson, who had a background in movie promotion, also added or expanded a variety of peripheral festival events to draw larger crowds, including a ball, a fashion show, luncheons, and critical panels. In 1949, when Mae West appeared in her play Diamond Lil, more than 300,000 tourists came to Central City during the summer season, of which about 42,000 attended a show at the opera house. In 1955 more than half a million tourists visited Central City.
Riding its postwar success, Central City Opera expanded its artistic role by commissioning new works. In 1955 it asked Douglas Moore, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his opera Giants in the Earth (1951), to write an original opera about the romance of Colorado mining legend Horace Tabor and his much younger second wife, Elizabeth “Baby Doe” Tabor. Moore’s opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe, received its world premiere during the opera festival’s twenty-fifth anniversary season in 1956. More than two dozen music and drama critics from across the country were in attendance. The opera was a hit with audiences and critics alike. In 1958 it opened for the first time in New York City, and in the decades since it has become one of the few twentieth-century American operas to be produced regularly.
Central City Opera’s other commissioned works and world premieres also focused on Colorado history but did not see the same success as The Ballad of Baby Doe. In 1958 the festival presented an original play, And Perhaps Happiness, about the Colorado Gold Rush by poet and historian Thomas Hornsby Ferrill. In 1964 it premiered another commissioned opera, The Lady from Colorado, based on a Homer Croy novel of the same name about Colorado pioneer Katie Lawder. Critics panned the story and the music for being unable to decide whether the show was an opera, a musical comedy, or something else entirely.
After Ricketson retired in late 1963, underlying problems with Central City Opera’s finances became increasingly apparent. The festival had always relied on donations to make up its operating deficit, but fundraising became increasingly important in the 1950s. The old opera house building required frequent maintenance and repairs, and in the 1960s the festival’s attendance began to suffer a worrisome decline. The rebirth of the Santa Fe Opera in a new building drained away some of Central City Opera’s supporters.
The eventual result was a financial crisis, leading to a vastly reduced 1971 festival with no opera productions. Opera returned the next year, but the festival remained on shaky financial footing. In 1975 the Central City Opera House Association began to stage operas in Denver as well as Central City in an attempt to attract larger audiences. Debts continued to mount until they totaled $640,000 in February 1982, forcing the cancellation of the festival’s fiftieth anniversary season that summer.
The festival returned in 1983 under new artistic director John Moriarty, who brought a strong emphasis on staging popular productions from the standard opera repertory. Each season began to feature two operas and one operetta, the play portion of the festival having been dropped in the 1970s after New York theaters stopped taking a summer break. From 1984 until 1987 each season’s operetta went on the road to Denver, Fort Collins, and Colorado Springs to raise awareness of Central City Opera along the Front Range. Moriarty’s efforts resulted in a sharp increase in ticket sales, from $262,000 in 1984 to $635,000 in 1989. By the early 1990s seasons were starting to sell out again.
Moriarty also continued to oversee Central City Opera’s Apprentice Artists Program, which he had created in 1978. Apprentices joined the choruses of the festival’s operas and received ten weeks of intensive instruction in singing, acting, and other aspects of opera performance. The program quickly became popular among young opera singers in their twenties, with about 1,200 applications for only twenty-six openings in 1984.
In the early 1990s Colorado legalized gambling in the mining towns of Central City, Black Hawk, and Cripple Creek. After legalization, Central City Opera leased one of its properties, the Teller House hotel, to a casino operator. The deal resulted in a $17 million windfall, including a $10 million renovation of the Teller House. Most gamblers ended up going to Black Hawk, however, making gaming in Central City less profitable than expected. As a result, the casino operator relinquished its lease on the Teller House after a decade. The building now houses a restaurant and bar, and hosts festival events such as receptions and recitals. Aside from its lease of the Teller House, Central City Opera has also benefited from gaming through the construction of the Central City Parkway in the early 2000s, which made access from Denver easier than ever before.
In 1998 Pelham “Pat” Pearce took over from Moriarty as artistic director. Pearce also serves as the festival’s general director. During his tenure Central City Opera has veered toward somewhat riskier, more adventurous productions of contemporary American and lesser-known operas. In a major change, the festival also switched in 2000 from English-language productions to original-language stagings with supertitles in English for the audience to follow along.
Pearce has presided over a parade of premieres and other important productions. In 2001 Central City Opera presented American premiere of Benjamin Britten’s opera Gloriana, composed for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, and a few years later Pearce gambled on a production of Claudio Monteverdi’s little-performed but historically important seventeenth-century opera The Coronation of Poppea. Meanwhile, in 2003 the festival staged the world premiere of its fourth commissioned opera, Gabriel’s Daughter. With music by Henry Mollicone and a libretto by William Luce, the opera told the story of Clara Brown, a freed slave who was the first black woman in Colorado. In 2007 the company presented its sixth world premiere, the Chinese composer Guo Wenjing’s opera Poet Li Bai.
This relatively adventurous program has proven successful at Central City because the festival has a short summer season (meaning lower costs if a performance does not pan out) and audiences are willing to travel to see new or unusual performances in the intimate 550-seat opera house. As a result, the festival has settled into a stable niche within the Denver arts landscape, which since the early 1980s has had two full opera companies. Opera Colorado in Denver draws bigger stars and puts on larger productions (Wagner, Strauss), while Central City Opera focuses on developing young talent and experimenting with an offbeat repertoire. The companies briefly considered combining in 2013, when Opera Colorado came close to closing, but decided to remain separate in order to maintain their distinct missions.
For Central City Opera, that mission includes the Apprentice Artists Program, now called the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Artists Training Program, which continues to attract top young opera talent for ten weeks of rigorous training and career development. About 900 singers apply annually for the program’s thirty spots. Program alumni, including Cynthia Lawrence, Denyce Graves, Don Bernardini, and Alan Held, have gone on to distinguished careers, with many returning to Central City Opera in starring roles.
In addition, historic preservation has been an integral part of Central City Opera’s mission since it was first established to save the opera house. The opera house association soon bought the Teller House, a nearby hotel, and in the 1940s began to acquire old houses around Central City for use as housing for festival staff and artists. Central City Opera now owns about thirty buildings in town, including Festival Hall (a former brewery that serves as administrative offices), McFarlane Foundry (an 1860s building repurposed as a rehearsal hall), and Williams Stables (a former livery that is now a performance space).