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How Opera Revived a Ghost Town

After the silver mines were played out, an opera house put Central City, Colo., back on the map. MUSIC: INTERVIEW

By M. S. MasonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 30, 1990


WHEN you think of the wild mining towns of the Old West, do the words ``opera house'' immediately spring to mind? No? Nonetheless, in 1878 the miners in a certain thriving silver camp high in the Rockies built an opera house at their own expense. The term was grand, to be sure, but the Central City Opera House here in Central City, Colo., played host to entertainments of all kinds in its heyday.

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And today Central City is even better known for its opera than its silver mines, which have long since played out. This town of only 325 permanent residents presents a summer festival devoted to opera, which, since its inception 14 years ago, has built an international reputation.

The reasons are many: For one thing, no other town of this size hosts an opera season. For another, the company's priorities set it apart from many other opera organizations. These include developing new talent, providing not just luscious singing at the expense of acting but making the theatrical side of opera as convincing as the music, and fully engaging an American audience by performing in English.

One result is that the festival attracts the cream of up-and-coming opera talent, who flock to the exquisite Rockies for a working vacation. They relish the opportunity to play in this 756-seat hall, with its excellent acoustics and intimate space.

Tenor Gran Wilson, who sings Ferrando in this season's production of ``Cosi fan Tutte,'' remarks, ``Central City Opera House is the size of many European houses, the size of the houses Mozart wrote for. ... You don't have to ... scream at the top of your lungs. And that's important for `Cosi,' because it is an intimate opera.

``All the great American singers have sung here,'' he continues. ``When you walk out on that stage, you feel a sense of lineage, a solid tradition of American singer/actors. ... In some ways, the star performer ... is the house. It's an American gem. A lot of people travel here just to hear productions in that house.''

``The acoustics are very good,'' says Janice Hall, starring as Violetta in this summer's ``La Traviata.'' ``And the audience can see every detail, every breath you take, every small action. You can sing as quietly as you want to, and they will hear you in the back row.''

John Moriarty, chairman of the opera department at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, took over the artistic direction of Central City Opera in 1983, after the house had been dark for a year to retire its debt. Under Moriarty's leadership, the opera festival has bounced back with a vengeance, already approximating the ``golden era'' of the '30s, '40s, and '50s by selling out nearly 100 percent of its performances.

Of course, the festival's proximity to Denver, 40 miles away, helps assure an audience as well as a healthy supply of stage crews, musicians, and various craftspeople.

``To us older people, there's something magic about the name Central City,'' said Mr. Moriarty during a recent interview in his office. ``It was the first great summer festival. Now, of course, there's a lot going on in the summers. But in the '30s it was a major, major event.''

The renown during the '30s came after the opera house had become rundown in the first two decades of this century. In 1932 Anne Evans, daughter of the then-governor of Colorado, formed the Central City Opera House Association, refurbishing the hall and inaugurating an almost unbroken modern history of upscale performances in theater, dance, and opera.

Lillian Gish opened the 1932 season, and since then many of the great established stars and rising stars have graced its boards.