It’s a story that has been told thousands of times, most often with the fervor that only a good scandal can inspire. Captivating American historians and Coloradans for more than a century, the famous “Tabor Triangle” is the tale of Leadville’s Silver King, Horace A.W. Tabor, and the two women that he loved – one who watched him rise to become the richest man in Colorado and another who watched him fall to poverty.
Characterized by glamour, tragedy and hubris, the story is rich in its recorded detail. One can read the story in books, see it on television and hear it in the streets of Leadville, but this weekend offers a singular opportunity to watch the story play out in a rare and synchronous event. On Saturday, May 20, the Central City Opera will portray the story with a performance of The Ballad of Baby Doe in Tabor’s own opera house, especially fitting since the opera company premiered the production in 1956. This event also marks the beginning of the Tabor Opera House’s 2017 season, the first under the City of Leadville’s ownership and under management by the Tabor Opera House Preservation Foundation.
In 1878, a few lucky speculations after a fateful grubstake (a loan of mining equipment in exchange for shares) earned Tabor his fortune and launched him into the center of the Colorado Silver Boom and the economic stratosphere. Made possible by the U.S. government’s regular purchase of wholesale silver under the Bland-Allison Act, the silver boom flooded wealth into the entire state for more than a decade. And Tabor, with investments in the most productive mines such as the Chrysolite and Matchless, made more money than anyone.
At the height of his glory, Tabor set his mind to build the grandest opera house west of the Mississippi. The Tabor Opera House, built in 1879 in 100 days, was heated and lit by Tabor’s own gas-works company. The Victorian theater was 25,000 square feet and four stories high and included a grand ballroom, a five-room suite, a catwalk to the neighboring Clarendon Hotel and a stage that would welcome Oscar Wilde, Harry Houdini, Anna Held and, eventually, the opera depicting Tabor’s life.
This is where The Ballad of Baby Doe, with music by Douglas Moore and an English-language libretto by John LaTouche, begins. Tabor (played by Tom Sitzler) is the newly crowned Silver King, with his wife of more than 20 years, Augusta Pierce Tabor (Sarah Barber), at his side. Biting her tongue about the lavish spending and speculation habits of her husband, Augusta foresees an end to their outrageous fortune.
The year is 1880 when Tabor falls in love with Elizabeth “Baby Doe” McCourt (Emily Murdock), an emblem of Victorian beauty 24 years his younger. In the production, their meeting happens as Tabor overhears Baby Doe singing one of the opera’s best-known arias, “The Willow Song.” Act I continues to follow Tabor and Baby Doe through their love affair, each of their divorces and eventual marriage to one another.
Act II relates the loss of the Tabor fortune, which came just a decade later. Throughout the 1880s, Tabor and Baby Doe indulged together in all the opulent excess their wealth could supply. But the bubble burst in 1893 with the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, an absurd federal law that demanded an increase in government purchase of silver by 4.5 million ounces each month.
As quickly as their fortune had come, it melted away, and Tabor was forced to sell his beloved opera house and home that year to his friend Judge A.S. Weston. Tabor died shortly after in 1899. Baby Doe remained devoted to her late husband and, though still young, never remarried. She spent the last decades of her life writing in a cabin at the Matchless Mine. She was found frozen there in 1935.
The opera house lived on. Judge Weston sold the property to Dr. J.H. Herron in 1901, who gave it over immediately to the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks for $12,000, under whom it operated as the club lodge. The Elks renovated and expanded the theater and continued to hold performances both big and small until 1955 when they commissioned the building of a new lodge and sold the opera house into the family that would keep it until last year. The property passed from Florence J. Hollister to her daughter Evelyn Livingston Furman (to both of whom much of the historical record and preservation of the Tabor Opera House is credited), and then to her daughter and son-in-law, Sharon and Bill Bland.
ithout the immense funds to maintain the structure, however, the Tabor Opera House fell into disrepair and stayed alive on an iron lung of volunteer support, with each rattled breath begging the question, “What’s next?”
The Blands put the opera house on the market in 2009, and for seven years everyone from barflies to ballet dancers talked about buying it. But dreams and visions don’t qualify as a down payment, and every aspiring buyer was eventually scared away by either the cold, the ghosts or, most likely, the daunting prospect of total renovation.
But last November, the very city that Tabor helped build rose to the occasion. For $600,000 the city of Leadville purchased its most impressive Victorian building on Harrison Avenue and, as city officials boast, did so without using a single taxpayer penny. Six sources of funding (primarily a grant of $300,000 from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, or DOLA), helped the city acquire the opera house, which they then leased to the preservation foundation, a nonprofit since 2004 and the life support system that has kept the building breathing over the past decade. It’s a game changer for the foundation, which can now pull from new avenues of grant funding previously inaccessible. These include DOLA urban renewal authorities and federal sources like the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
Salida has seen a similar acquisition take place with the SteamPlant Event Center, a formerly defunct power plant on the Arkansas River that was purchased by the city in 1987 and converted into a theater, event hall and multi-use complex. Studies of the facility’s economic impact in Salida show positive results — over $1 million dollars of direct economic input. And the city has since become known to feature some of the best offerings of art in the state. The Mayor of Leadville, Greg Labbe, who spearheaded the city’s biggest ever real estate purchase looks to the SteamPlant as a model for the future of the Tabor Opera House. But a long road that lies ahead.
“It’s the right time,” says Labbe. “If we didn’t have a plan, it would be a high-risk proposition, but because we knew what we were going to do – and felt confident about it – we did the right thing. What I want more than anything, I want people with passion.”
Labbe was instrumental in landing The Ballad of Baby Doe in Leadville. An avid attendee of the Central City Opera House for 25 years, Labbe went to the 60th anniversary production of Baby Doe last year and proposed a relationship between the Tabor Opera House and the Central City Opera, the fifth oldest professional opera company in the country. In just a few months, Deborah Morrow, the opera company’s director of education and community engagement, gave the mayor a call and said she wanted to bring The Ballad of Baby Doe to Leadville. And they weren’t going to put it on at the high school.
Morrow is the producer of this touring production of Baby Doe and is excited to bring the troupe’s “signature opera” right where it belongs. “It’s fitting – and exciting – that the two are coming together to present a unique Colorado story with roots in both Central City and Leadville. Baby Doe lived and worked at a mine in Central City before she came to Leadville and quite probably attended performances at the Central City Opera House. This touring production, partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, demonstrates CCO’s commitment to fostering the arts for all the citizens of Colorado.”
It’s an event that will affirm the prolonged efforts of so many: the city of Leadville at large, the TOHPF and all of its members, including President Stephanie Spong, Artistic Director Scott Carroll and Tammy Taber, friend of Evelyn Furman, Tabor aficionado,and now house manager. It will also be a sign of good faith moving into yet another chapter of the landmark’s history.
“The great American opera” The Ballad of Baby Doe will first perform on Friday, May 19, for students of Lake County School District, followed by a public performance Saturday, May 20, at 7:30 p.m. The Tabor Opera House is located at 308 Harrison Ave. in Leadville.
Tickets cost $20 for adults and $10 for seniors, students and children. VIP tickets cost $40 and include early seating and access to the VIP lounge. Purchase them by calling 719-486-8409 or visiting TaborOperaHouse.net.
For those that can’t make it this weekend, the Central City Opera will include The Ballad of Baby Doe in their summer festival along with Carmen and Così Fan Tutte. Visit CentralCityOpera.org for additional information.
And in the words of Mayor Labbe, “If you want to enjoy the opera, just let it wash over you.”