Colorado Opera House Attic Holds Century-Old Painted Sets

Colorado Opera House Attic Holds Century-Old Painted Sets
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Colorado Opera House Attic Holds Century-Old Painted Sets

Colorado Opera House Attic Holds Century-Old Painted Sets

LEADVILLE, Colorado – One summer day three years ago, Wendy Waszut-Barrett stumbled upon quite a discovery at the Tabor Opera House, high in the Colorado Rockies.

“I’m still excited about it now,” she said in a recent interview, “and I’m all red.”

Waszut-Barrett, a period theatrical painting specialist who runs Historic Stage Services, was driving around various locations from her home near Minneapolis in Santa Fe, NM. She stopped here in Leadville, 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 that old sets were stored on the top floor of the Italian-style theater and asked her if she could snoop around.

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

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

Waszut-Barrett knew better: “It was this incredible expanse of scenery from 1879 to 1902, which is unprecedented in North America,” she said. Tabor’s hitherto hidden collection contained samples illustrating both the theatrical design’s wing and flap system (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 because the local Elks put away the old set when they bought the opera house in 1901, and everyone has forgotten about it.

On a longer trip last fall, Waszut-Barrett, then documenting his findings for the Tabor Opera House Preservation Foundation, unearthed wings and shutters; apartments stacked against the walls; and painted backdrops as large as 12 feet wide and 16 feet high – a mountain view, a living room, a forest. In total, reflecting the fact that some of them were double-sided, there were around 250 “painted compositions”.

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Following one of Waszut-Barrett’s visits to Tabor earlier this month – the building is open for regular tours while it is undergoing renovations and performances resume next year – I was speechless at large painted canvases stretched out as if they were ready to be moved to the stage, while others were rolled up.

Brushing gently with a dry sponge, Waszut-Barrett demonstrated how she can reveal images hidden under decades of soot. A century-old setting would be revived, and what was remarkable was that if you looked at it through your phone’s camera, it magically acquired three-dimensional depth: and the camera performed a similar function, ”explained Waszut-Barrett.

Design was an essential part of Tabor’s audience enjoyment. In 1899, a local newspaper ran an ad for a weeklong engagement by the Kyle Thomas Comic Opera Company (“The Chimes of Normandy”, “HMS Pinafore”, “Les pirates de Penzance” and “Olivette”) which took place. boasted “new and beautiful costumes” and an “increased cast” of 25 artists.

A piece of decor depicting a cabin door had been used in a performance of the Viennese operetta “Fatinitza”, and may have been left by the visiting troupe of Bostonians after their performance in Leadville in 1889. Or perhaps Was it forgotten in 1893 by the Calhoun Opera Company, which descended on the Thabor with, according to a newspaper ad, “a solid cast of principals, a strong choir and THEIR OWN ORCHESTRA, conducted by Carl Martens ”.

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

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Or you may have seen soprano superstar 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 made the opera accessible to the American masses. singing in English.

“The history of the Tabor Opera House is quite fascinating and the fact that we can share it physically through the historic building and the stage sets is remarkable,” said Jenny Buddenborg, President of the Preservation Foundation of the opera house, which operates the building in partnership with its current owner, the town of Leadville.

Only a privileged few today will recognize the name of the theater’s dedicatee, Horace Tabor, but he has played an important role in the cultural history of the American West. In the 1880s, Leadville was climbing in altitude (his elevation is just over 10,000 feet) and mining for money, and Tabor was a prominent dog. He had made a huge fortune in money – the city also turned JJ and Molly Brown, of “unsinkable” fame, into millionaires – and like many rich men, he decided to spend some of it on an entertainment hall. , “the biggest and best west of the Mississippi.

The Tabor opera house quickly gained the attention of a bustling, rowdy city full of competing theaters, saloons and brothels. (The tycoon opened the even larger Tabor Grand Opera House in Denver in 1881, but it was demolished in 1964.)

Tabor doesn’t just put on shows; he has become one. He scandalously traded his wife Augusta for a younger woman, former Elizabeth McCourt Doe, and lost all of his money when the money collapsed. After her death in 1899, Baby Doe, as she was known, moved to a cabin next to the old Horace mine. The harsh Colorado winter dealt the last blow, and one day she froze to death; the saga became the subject of Douglas Moore and John Latouche’s 1956 opera “The Ballad of Baby Doe”, one of Beverly Sills’ most beautiful turns. Biking near the mine site on the Mineral Belt Trail was oddly moving, the isolation of the setting underscoring the extravagance of Tabor’s entire history.

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The discovery of the scenery adds a new chapter. Not only do they give us a rare glimpse into 19th-century American set design, but they also evoke a time when entertainment was not as siled as it is today, and what we call classical music was part of the language. vernacular, with vaudeville. and play.

“The artists who painted this landscape were painting operas, World’s Fair halfway shows, big circus shows for Ringling Brothers, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show,” Waszut-Barrett said. “They were creating the same visual aesthetic. “

As exciting as it all is, the sets created a new puzzle for the small foundation that runs the Thabor, as they now have to figure out how to restore and maintain them, in addition to fixing the building. Waszut-Barrett cited as a potential source of inspiration the Drottningholm Palace Theater near Stockholm, which features stagings using 18th-century machines and sets.

“Ideally, we would like to continue to use the sets in productions and share them with the public through our building tour program and other educational programs,” Buddenborg said. “We’re still thinking about what we have.”

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