Central City Opera

Inducted: June 29, 2024

Central City Opera is one of Colorado’s cultural treasures. So it’s appropriate that its roots can be traced to a gold strike.

John Gregory found a rich vein of the precious metal near Central City circa 1859, and after the deposits nearest the surface were collected, hard-rock miners from the English county of Cornwall were imported to dig deeper. Many of these workers soon decided they wanted to enjoy the beauty of Central City permanently. But according to Eric Chinn, CCO’s director of historic properties, their wives on the other side of the Atlantic needed some convincing.

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“The men would stay because of the saloons and places like that,” Chinn says. “But in order to get the women to come to town, you had to have a church and a school — and an opera house.” Cornish natives enjoyed a long tradition of love for the musical style, as epitomized by 1924’s The Queen of Cornwall, a cornerstone of English-language opera.

Foundry owner Peter McFarlane helped build the Central City Opera House.

Foundry owner Peter McFarlane helped build the Central City Opera House, designed by famed Denver architect Robert S. Roeschlaub, in 1878 and eventually became its owner. But keeping the operation on the right financial track was a struggle, and in 1927, the performance space closed its doors, seemingly for good. But a few years later, Ida Kruse McFarlane, Peter’s daughter-in-law, came to the rescue. She helped spearhead a fundraising effort that led to the formation of the Central City Opera, which officially debuted in 1932 with a production of Camille, an operetta starring film icon Lillian Gish.

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Plenty of other Hollywood notables would grace the Central City Opera House’s stage over subsequent decades: Mae West, Helen Hayes, Shirley Booth, Myrna Loy and more. The venue, which has earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places, also played host to Broadway productions during the month of August, when theaters in New York would shut down because of the intense heat. The tradition continued until the late 1970s, when the last of the Broadway edifices finally installed air conditioning.

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In the meantime, CCO became known as a world-class opera company thanks to inspired renderings of venerable works and introductions to worthy new offerings presented as part of its annual summer festival — a seasonal rite for classical-music fans from far and wide. The Ballad of Baby Doe, a tale of Colorado’s Baby Doe Tabor that would go on to become one of America’s most renowned contributions to the genre, premiered in 1956. Just over two decades later, in 1978, Henry Mollicone’s The Face on the Barroom Floor, an acclaimed one-act opera, made its first mark. The Mollicone favorite Gabriel’s Daughter followed in 2003.

Another way Central City Opera has looked ahead is the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Artists Training Program, created in 1978 by artistic director John Moriarty, a Colorado Music Hall of Fame inductee. The ten-week initiative is something of an educational boot camp for those wanting to make opera a career, helping fledging vocalists learn about diction, stage combat, career management and everything in between. Hundreds of hopefuls apply annually for the thirty or so available slots, and no wonder, since so many of those who’ve completed the program have gone on to tremendous success, led by soprano supreme Cynthia Lawrence, also a Colorado Music Hall of Fame inductee.

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Central City Opera is still going strong. The nation’s fifth-oldest opera company (only the Metropolitan and Chautauqua in New York and institutions in Cincinnati and San Francisco predate it) continues to set a standard for quality even as it symbolizes Colorado’s musical diversity. In other words, its reputation is solid gold.

By Michael Roberts

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