A hidden trove gives a glimpse of opera in the Wild West

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A hidden trove gives a glimpse of opera in the Wild West
Seating in the Tabor Opera House, which was used for everything from operas and lectures to vaudeville and circus shows, in Leadville, Colo., July 12, 2021. A visiting specialist in period theatrical painting discovered a trove of some 250 painted set compositions dating from 1879 to 1902 when she dropped in during a road trip and asked to poke around the Italianate theater, which has been designated a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Benjamin Rasmussen/The New York Times.

by Elisabeth Vincentelli

LEADVILLE (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- One summer day three years ago, Wendy Waszut-Barrett stumbled onto quite the discovery at the Tabor Opera House, high in the Colorado Rockies.

“I still get excited about it now,” she said in a recent interview, “and I get all flushed.”

Waszut-Barrett, a specialist in period theatrical painting who runs the company Historic Stage Services, was visiting various venues on a drive from her home near Minneapolis to Santa Fe, New Mexico. She made a stop here in Leadville, Colorado, about 100 miles west of Denver, to check out the Tabor, which opened in 1879 and has since been designated a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Waszut-Barrett had heard rumors about old scenery being stored on the top floor of the Italianate theater and asked if she could poke around.

“Basically, I got, ‘Sure, but you’re by yourself,’” she said. “So I went up there, and it was unreal.”

What she found may not have looked like much to the untrained eye: Greg Labbe, the mayor of Leadville, recently said, with laconic wonder, that “there were dusty rolls of stuff in the attic.”

Waszut-Barrett knew better.

“It was this amazing scope of scenery from 1879 to 1902, which is unheard-of in North America,” she said.

The Tabor’s hitherto hidden collection held samples illustrating both the wing-and-shutter system of theatrical design (in which sets move horizontally across the floor) and the fly system that replaced it (in which they move vertically, with ropes and pulleys).

And all this because the local Elks put the old scenery away when they bought the opera house in 1901, and everybody just forgot about it.

On a longer trip last fall, Waszut-Barrett, by then documenting her findings for the Tabor Opera House Preservation Foundation, unearthed wings and shutters; flats stacked against walls; and painted sets as big as 12 feet wide and 16 feet high — a mountain vista, a parlor room, a forest. All in all, reflecting the fact that some of them were double-sided, there were around 250 “painted compositions.”

Tagging along on one of Waszut-Barrett’s visits to the Tabor earlier this month — the building is open for regular guided tours while it is being gut-renovated, and performances resume next year — I gaped at large painted canvases stretched out as if ready to be moved to the stage, while others were rolled up.

Brushing delicately with a dry sponge, Waszut-Barrett demonstrated how she could reveal images lurking under decades’ worth of soot. A century-old piece of scenery would be revived, and what was remarkable is that if you looked at it through your phone’s camera, it magically acquired three-dimensional depth.

“Sets were painted so both distance and stage lighting would make them pop, and the camera performs a similar function,” Waszut-Barrett explained.

Design was a vital part of the Tabor audience’s enjoyment. In 1899, a local paper ran an ad for a weeklong engagement by the Kyle Thomas Comic Opera Company (“The Chimes of Normandy,” “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “The Pirates of Penzance” and “Olivette”) that boasted “new and magnificent costumes” and an “augmented cast” of 25 artists.

A set element representing the door of a shack had been used in a performance of the Viennese operetta “Fatinitza” and might have been left behind by the visiting Bostonians company after their performance in Leadville in 1889. Or perhaps it was forgotten in 1893 by the Calhoun Opera Company, which descended on the Tabor with, according to a newspaper ad, “a strong cast of principals, a strong chorus and THEIR OWN ORCHESTRA, under the baton of Carl Martens.”

Walking around the opera house is like being teleported back to its glory days, when you might have settled down for a melodrama, a circus show, an Oscar Wilde lecture or the musical “Out of Bondage” by the African American Hyers Sisters, whom an ad in a Colorado paper described as “the distinguished serio-comic queens of song and operatic prima donnas.”

Or you might have seen superstar soprano Emma Abbott, whom Katherine K. Preston, author of the book “Opera for the People,” called a “cultural activist” in a recent video chat — because Abbott had made opera accessible to the American masses by singing in English.

“The history of the Tabor Opera House is utterly fascinating, and the fact that we can physically share it through the historic building and stage scenery is remarkable,” said Jenny Buddenborg, president of the opera house’s preservation foundation, which operates the building in partnership with its current owner, the city of Leadville.

Only a select few today will recognize the name of the theater’s dedicatee, Horace Tabor, but he played a significant role in the cultural history of the American West. Back in the 1880s, Leadville was riding high on altitude (its elevation is just over 10,000 feet) and mining money, and Tabor was a top dog. He had made a huge fortune in silver — the town also turned J.J. and Molly Brown, of “unsinkable” fame, into millionaires — and like many rich men, he decided to spend some of it on a temple to entertainment, “the largest and best west of the Mississippi.”

The Tabor Opera House quickly grabbed the attention of a bustling, rowdy city full of competing theaters, saloons and brothels. (The tycoon opened the even bigger Tabor Grand Opera House in Denver in 1881, but it was torn down in 1964.)

Tabor did not just present shows; he became one. He scandalously traded his wife Augusta for a younger woman, the former Elizabeth McCourt Doe, and lost all his money when silver collapsed. After his death, in 1899, Baby Doe, as she was nicknamed, moved to a shack next to Horace’s old mine. Colorado’s harsh winter dealt the last blow, and one day she froze to death; the saga became the subject of the 1956 Douglas Moore and John Latouche opera “The Ballad of Baby Doe,” one of Beverly Sills’ finest turns. Riding a bike by the mine site, on the Mineral Belt Trail, was oddly moving, the setting’s isolation underlining the outlandishness of the whole Tabor story.

The discovery of the sets adds a new chapter to the Tabor story. Not only do they give us a rare glimpse of American scenic design in the 19th century, but they also evoke a time when entertainment was not as siloed as it is now, and what we call classical music was part of the vernacular, along with vaudeville and plays.

“The artists that were painting this scenery were painting opera, World’s Fair midway exhibits, grand circus spectacles for Ringling Brothers, the Wild West show by Buffalo Bill,” Waszut-Barrett said. “They were creating the same visual aesthetic.”

As exciting as all this is, the sets have created a new headache for the small foundation that runs the Tabor, since it now has to figure out how to restore and look after them, in addition to fixing up the building. Waszut-Barrett brought up as a potential inspiration the Drottningholm Palace Theater near Stockholm, which presents stagings using 18th-century machinery and sets.

“Ideally, we’d love to continue using the sets in productions and sharing them with the public through our building tour program and other educational programming,” Buddenborg said. “We’re still wrapping our heads around what we have.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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