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.
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.
Moriarty points to shelves of memorabilia dating back to 1932. ``Clippings from every one-horse town up to New Hampshire and northern Minnesota covered it. It was big news to have a performing-arts festival in a restored Victorian theater in a tiny mountain community, which at the time was nearly deserted, nearly a ghost town.''
The Opera Association may be credited with rescuing the little town, calling it back from its ghostly status to a modest but lively tourist trap.
Elaborating on the company's goals, Moriarty says, ``First, we are interested in seeking out and developing American talent.'' To this end, an apprenticeship program provides singers between ages 25 and 30 not only practical experience on stage but a round of daily classes in everything from stage combat to diction.
``Secondly,'' he continues, ``we are intensely interested in a kind of production which balances visual and aural elements.'' The small size of the theater, he points out, necessitates highly developed acting techniques. Because Americans have been conditioned by movies and television to expect naturalistic acting and type-casting, they will settle for nothing less in opera. So Central City casts the best of the young American singer-actors, and each looks the part.
Thirdly, the operas are always sung in English because, Moriarty believes subtitles distract viewers from the total aural/visual experience.
Moriarty strives for the kind of balance each season that can help build an audience for opera. A popular opera (``La Traviata,'' this year) is programmed against a less well-known piece (``Cosi fan Tutte,'' which may be familiar elsewhere but surprised and delighted Denver audiences). A classical operetta (``The Merry Widow,'' this time) rounds out the season.
On opening night earlier this month, Ms. Hall's luminous Violetta, under Moriarty's baton, drew all eyes and ears in ``La Traviata.'' On stage everything has been done to please the eye and direct it toward large emotions and delicate space. Hall's marvelous voice and precision acting persuaded and moved the audience. And oh, those eyes! Astonishingly expressive in the intimate space, they conveyed more than any gesture.
``Traviata'' well suits the confined space of the house, but Mozart's ``Cosi Fan Tutte'' demands it. This chamber piece requires ensemble performances from six singers, and conductor Brian Salesky and stage director Jay Lesenger pick every precious nuance from the piece. Lesenger's direction is particularly engaging, excising every nickel's worth of humor from a cast that clearly loves working together.
There is a joy here rare in any theatrical production, and the viewer exits the theater elated - not from the laughter alone but also from the precision ensemble effort, the perfection of music, and performance from every member of the cast.
Gran Wilson's Ferrando is at once funny and pathetic, powerful and foolish - qualities perfectly matched by Eric Allen Hanson as an amorous ``Albanian.'' The physical humor these two devise is topped only by the antics of Karen Beardsley's impish maid and Andrew Wentzel's arrogant, finely tuned Don Alfonso.
Both productions are beautifully mounted, the sets rich, decorous, and ingenious, the costumes keyed perfectly to the performers' own coloring. The atmosphere is friendlier, less given to the pomp of like events. The productions continue in repertory through Aug. 15.
Charming customs surround opening-night festivities, like the flowers handed out to patrons to throw with their applause at final curtain call. And the unpretentious history of the house has its role, too. When you think of a wild mining town in the Old West, think of the longing among coarse men for grace and beauty that built an opera house in the Rockies.