Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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“Always through the changing of sun and shadow”—

The Ballad of Baby Doe Celebrates an Anniversary in Central City

July 13, 2016

I have been fond of Douglas Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe for a long time—almost, but not quite, since its premiere in Central City sixty years ago; a few years after the 1956 premiere my enthusiastic piano teacher played excerpts from the new opera for me, his recalcitrant, all-thumbs, teenage pupil.  More than ten years passed before I saw the work on stage, in an unforgettable performance by the New York City Opera with Beverly Sills, Walter Cassel and Frances Bible.  Over another decade went by before I saw it again, in Central City, the first of three productions I have been privileged to see at the opera house where the work was born.  Along the way, I have seen it elsewhere too—at Long Beach Opera in 1987 and at the San Francisco Opera in 2000, both with Ruth Ann Swenson in the title role.

The work stands up.

The historically based story is known to almost anyone who calls Colorado home.  Horace Tabor and his wife Augusta (named for the capital city of Maine, where she was born) followed the country’s great westward movement, first to Kansas, and then to Colorado at the time of the 1859 gold rush.  Tabor set up shop as a merchant in Leadville and started buying up mining claims.  Some of those hit pay dirt and the Tabors became rich beyond their dreams, making the staggering sum of $10,000 a day.  They practically owned the town of Leadville, and Tabor built an opera house there (it still stands).  The opera opens on the day of its inaugural concert (with Adelina Patti), the day when Tabor met Mrs. Harvey Doe, who has “just arrived from Central City”—Central City, of course, being another mining boom town, the site of today’s summer opera festival and the house that premiered Baby Doe

Elizabeth “Baby” Doe, “the miner’s sweetheart,” a beautiful young woman, was on the outs with her husband Harvey.  Horace and Baby Doe fell madly in love, Horace divorced Augusta, and he and Baby married in Washington, D.C., in the presence of the President, Chester A. Arthur.  For a brief time, Horace was a US senator.  Then the collapse of the price of silver, and the failure of William Jennings Bryan, who supported “Free Silver” and a return to the silver standard, caused Horace to lose his fortune. For awhile he returned to life as a miner, but he died in Denver in 1899 from complications of appendicitis.  Baby Doe lived on until 1935, for three decades in a cabin on the site of the Matchless Mine, which Horace had told her to hold on to with his dying breath.  In the end, Baby froze to death in a March snowstorm.  They are buried together in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Wheat Ridge, just outside of Denver.

Or so the legend has it and so it is presented in the opera, filtered both through memory and time and through the dramatic license needed to turn history into legend into opera.

The story which inspired Moore and his librettist John Latouche while they looked through the ghostly Tabor Opera House in Leadville in 1955 is so archetypally American that the work has never fared well abroad (unlike Porgy and Bess, for instance, or Bernstein’s Candide).  The myths of westward expansion and of the self made man are as basic to the American experience as are capitalist greed, the quadrennial ritual of politicians making promises that they can’t keep, demagogues, and the trophy wife.  Behind it all is a ritual much more ancient than America—the tragic fall of the rich and powerful to devastating ruin, a tragedy as old as drama itself.  Somehow Latouche found a way to weave all of these elements into an immensely affecting libretto and base it on real historical characters.  In doing so, Latouche linked the triangular relationship familiar in so many European operas to Greek tragedy to a setting that is American in its very bones. 

And it all stands up today, even the scene with William Jennings Bryan and the lines about New York bankers and Wall Street greed.  It only takes watching the news in 2016 to realize that things have not changed much since 1956—or 1896.  Seeing it again, I was struck by how up to date are the political themes that flow through Act II.  Back in 2000, a reviewer in San Francisco blasted the libretto’s concern with Tabor’s politics (he was briefly a Republican senator from Colorado) and his involvement with the Democratic candidate for president, Bryan.  That was a weakness, he argued, and a distraction from the central love triangle that animates the story.  But that is all a part of the American landscape, then and now, and it is certainly a vital part of the Horace Tabor-Baby Doe story.

Moore found a musical idiom for the opera to perfectly match these elements.  Like Copland, he worked here to create an American classical-music style from American folk and religious music.  We hear waltzes, polkas, hymn-like chordal arrangements and nineteenth century parlor music (the kind of songs that amateurs would sing around the piano in an age before recorded music).  There is at least one well known western folk-tune woven into the score early on (“Oh my darling Clementine”), but most of the music is original; it just sounds like the popular music of the period.  Like Bernstein or Gian Carlo Menotti, in Baby Doe Moore wanted to create a classical idiom that would appeal to a wide audience, completely removed from the “difficult” academic and often atonal music of his time—music which had caused a steep decline in the popular audience for classical music. 

Moore married his popular American idiom to classic operatic forms which were considered old fashioned even in the 1950’s—stand alone arias, duets, ensembles and big choral scenes.  Baby Doe herself gets five arias—more than Lucia or even Carmen.  She is a lyric coloratura, and some of her arias are ballad-like (the “willow song”), but some would be right at home in any nineteenth century European opera with a role for a coloratura soprano (the “Letter Aria” or the “Silver” Aria, “Gold is a fine thing”).  Like the “marriage” in the libretto between a quintessential American story and European operatic tropes and classical tragedy, Moore made a very effective marriage of popular American musical idioms of the late nineteenth century with the forms and musical styles of European opera.  In a manner that is not typical of Moore’s other music (at least the other operas that I have heard), he created memorable tunes (very much as Richard Rogers did in the ‘operatic’ musical Carousel) or which Leonard Bernstein did in Baby Doe’s near contemporary West Side Story (1957). 

If Bernstein’s and Roger’s work falls on the Broadway musical side of the musical/opera divide, Moore’s work falls definitely on the operatic side.  Many critics, musical snobs I suspect, have been unwilling to call it an opera, some calling it a “musical” or an operetta or a ‘light opera’.  I think that Moore and Latouche told us what the genre is (if it matters) in the title: it is a ballad opera, one of a kind that was very popular in the latter part of the nineteenth century when Baby Doe and Horace lived and thrived.  A ballad opera contains popularly based songs (ballads) and parlor music as well as “serious” traditionally operatic music.  In late nineteenth century America such works were enormously popular.  Charles Ralph’s indispensable list of opera repertory in “Old Colorado” shows that William Michael Balfe’s Bohemian Girl was played almost every year in Denver from 1877 up to 1900 and frequently thereafter; The Bohemian Girl  is ballad opera, and other ballad operas like Wallace’s Maritana or Flotow’s Martha were perennials too, along with a full diet of G&S, French operetta and Italian grand opera.  Along with the characteristics of ballad opera enumerated above, I would add sentimentality.  The Bohemian Girl, Maritana, and Martha are all sentimental—and all end happily.  But The Ballad of Baby Doe, in my view, rises above Victorian sentimentality to tragedy thanks to Latouche’s treatment and Moore’s music, which elevates the characters from fairy tale types to real human beings, human beings in whom we can see ourselves, and where the ideal of love is put into a context of mutability and death.

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The 2016 edition of The Ballad of Baby Doe in Central City is strongly cast and superbly directed.  Director Ken Cazan seems to see the work through the broken lens where history becomes myth.   In recent years researchers have called into question some of the elements of the legendary story, and of course Moore and Latouche took dramatic license in the opera besides.  This production uses projections of old photographs of the protagonists or of Leadville in its heyday, and always the glorious mountains—the Collegiate Range (I think) near Leadville.  Some of these are projected on tattered drop curtains, perhaps suggestive of a truth about the story that we will never know, that is lost in time.  The projections and a few well placed props and pieces of furniture allow for a quick change of scenes.  In some other productions I have seen the one problem with the dramaturgy resided in the many scenes (11 in two acts) that Latouche created; with solid naturalistic sets, changing from one scene to another took too much time and broke the dramatic thrust.  This production avoided that pitfall and moved easily from one scene to the next, covering the 55 years of the story’s trajectory from 1880 to Baby Doe’s death in 1935.

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The presiding feeling was nostalgia for a lost world.  Before the conductor entered the pit, an old woman dressed in a ragged skirt and a floppy, old hat came down stage in the shadows.  She was there at the end too: Baby Doe as she evidently appeared in the last decades of her life, a recluse (or as Judy Nolte Temple called her in her 2007 book, “the Madwoman in the Cabin.”)  It is perhaps in the mind of this shadowy figure that the raucous opening chorus of miners and legendary characters from Colorado history are summoned.  The real Baby Doe kept copious diaries when she lived in that cabin at the Matchless Mine, writings which were long suppressed, perhaps because many of the figures she knew were still alive and afraid of what she might have said.  They are dead now, and excerpts from the diaries have been published (also by Judy Nolte Temple).  As the disheveled recluse down stage remembers, the legend became real before our eyes. 

Costume Designer Sara Jean Tosetti gave us a solid grounding in ‘reality’ with her realistic period costumes.  Suggestive lighting by David Martin Jacques (who also designed the set and projections) set the mood.  Kazan’s stage direction deftly moved the large cast (30 individual roles) and chorus on the small stage, no easy feat.  The principals (and the minor singers too) acted very well.  Everyone was fully involved in his or her role. 

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Vocally, this opera is no sure thing if the main roles are not strongly cast; it is not like La bohème or even Tosca, which are pretty much sure-fire even if the singing is not first rate.  Baby Doe, however, demands first rate singers if it is to succeed, and singers who can give the characters depth and not leave them as stereotypes.  This year’s CC production had it.  Anna Christy sang and acted well in spite of some stridency in her full-throated high notes, brought on perhaps by the power of her big voice in the small opera house.  In the end she had the silvery tones so necessary for the role, and her final aria was moving and beautifully sung.  Susanne Mentzer invested the crucial role of Augusta with dignity and sympathy.  The four-square, plodding music that Moore gives her defines her no nonsense character when compared to Baby Doe’s intense lyricism, but it was Augusta who prospered.  (In real life she took her divorce settlement from Horace and turned it into an astonishing fortune, becoming the richest woman in Colorado.  When she died, she was worth over one and one-half million dollars, a huge fortune in those days.)  Most of all it was Grant Youngblood’s magnetic portrayal of Horace Tabor which dominated the production.  In spite of a few problems sliding into the right pitch, Youngblood acted and sang like the charismatic figure that Tabor must have been.  His haunting final scene on the stage of the Tabor Opera House in Leadville was as shattering as his love song to Baby, “Warm as the Autumn light,” was…well…warm as Autumn light.  Secondary characters were very fine too, particularly Sarah Barber as Mama McCourt and Donald Hartmann as W.J. Bryan.  Everyone in the large cast (30 strong) was good, and the whole moved very well and was well rehearsed.

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Not so many years ago Anna Christy was featured as an up and coming young artist, among several, in Opera News.  Now she is a mature singer.  Time passes.   As an audience member, I too look back over a lifetime of Baby Doe’s.  The singers of the past come back to haunt the mind with Moore’s memorable melodies.  In memory, in the mind’s ear, Beverly Sills or Faith Esham or Ruth Ann Swenson or now Ms. Christy sing of silver and the moon.  Latouche and Moore recreated that sad sense of impermanence perhaps better than they knew, but they offer an antidote too, in the power of love and in the infinite beauty of song: “Always through the changing of sun and shadow, time and space, I will walk beside my love in a green and quiet place.”

Over the years, critics have not always been kind to The Ballad of Baby Doe.  The general feeling seems to be that, yes, it is nice, and the public likes it, but it is too “popular” in its easy melodies, the characters are not well developed, the second act is much weaker than the first,  or it has outlived its time.  In 1988, the astute Will Crutchfield, while being generally positive and welcoming the work back to NYCO’s repertory, wrote that “it is not great music,” and only a paragraph later he repeated himself, arguing that “the music, aiming for a naively accessible idiom, is not ambitious.”  Crutchfield was kinder than many others. 

I see no reason to condescend.  The story is memorable and well told, and it stands up to the passage of time.  The music sticks in the ear and creates a world and a time.  And the end, in the hands and voices of great artists, is overwhelmingly moving.  Do we need anything else?  These days it seems that hundreds of new American operas are coming out every year (several in the last two months, in Cincinnati and St. Louis and Denver and Ft. Worth and St. Paul and…).  As earlier generations were always searching for the ‘great American novel’, it seems that we are now searching for the great American opera, or at least one that will last a few years and not fade immediately into oblivion.  Maybe that work has been here all along, for the last sixty years, hiding in plain sight.

Charles Jernigan

Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network

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