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Colorado’s Mountain Opera Festival
A Theatrical Experience Like None Other
By Susan English

Central City Opera’s national summer festival attracts patrons from all over the country and abroad to enjoy intimate opera in its 550 seat Opera House. The House was built in 1878 by Welsh and Cornish miners, drawn to the Rocky Mountains 35 miles west of Denver to mine the more than $85 million in gold extracted from the surrounding hillsides. When the Colorado Territory was established in 1861, Central City was the most prominent town and was home to the state’s entire congressional delegation when Colorado was admitted to the Union in 1876.

Fifty years later, the gold rush was over. Central City became a ghost town and its beautiful theatre fell on hard times. Then a group of civic leaders founded the Central City Opera House Association for the purpose of restoring the Opera House as a venue for a summer music and theatre festival. In July 1932, the carefully refurbished Opera House reopened with a gala performance of Camille, which starred Miss Lillian Gish, and was broadcast live by the new National Broadcasting Company’s radio network. The festival not only revived the Opera House but also the town of Central City. Some 5,000 visitors arrived on opening day, launching an annual tradition of summer festivals in Central City that continues to this day.

Early festivals featured both opera and theatre, and, more recently, a six-week festival has celebrated traditional and progressive works. In addition to Lillian Gish, other stars of the opera and stage have performed in the summer festivals, including Beverly Sills, Jerome Hines, Helen Hayes, Samuel Ramey, and Catherine Malfitano. Successful commissions for the company include the American classic The Ballad of Baby Doe, by Douglas Moore, the popular one-act opera The Face On The Barroom Floor by the South Bay’s very own Henry Mollicone, and the world premiere of Gabriel’s Daughter, also by Henry Molicone.

The Central City Opera House Association is now the nation’s fifth-oldest opera company. Their most recent festival ran from July 3, 2010 through August 8, 2010. Included in their season were Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Heggie’s Three Decembers, and Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. (This writer and her spouse were delighted with the enthusiasm and polish of the performers in Orpheus.)

Many of the performers at each opera are part of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation’s Artists Training Program which is in its 32nd year. Approximately 30 participants are selected from more than 800 applicants each year. Some of America’s most notable opera professionals, including Denyce Graves. Cynthia Lawrence, Mary Mills, Emily Pulley, Samuel Ramey, Celena Shaffer, Matthew Polenzani, and Gregroy Turay, are former students in the program. The ten week program is rigorous, and a national model for the professional development of young singers. It also incorporates outreach to community and schools, helping to build a future for the Arts.

From a small group of volunteers who could see the potential in the old Opera House, the Central City Opera House Association has grown into a professionally run organization now celebrating its 78th anniversary. It is a treat to visit this jewel box theatre and enjoy the performances of dedicated and talented young professionals. The entire Black Hawk National Landmark Historic District, where this opera company performs, is a delightful step back in time. More information about the Central City Opera can be found at

(SJOG Newsletter November, 2010)

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