A Little Central City Opera History
By Tyler Hypnarowski
With opening night of Central City Opera’s 2013 festival now just a few days away, let’s look back on July 16th, 1932, the opening night that started it all…
Although the Opera House was built in 1878, the Central City Opera House Association was not founded until 1932. It was at this time, that after years of the building falling into disrepair that Central City Opera as we know it began its storied history. All of the stars seemed to be aligned that summer, granting our company a near perfect opening night and inaugural season, which at the time was called “Central City Play Festival.”
What made that night so special? Well that question has about as many answers as it does people who attended. To start, the Association was able to gather an all star cast and production team, including Broadway legend Robert Edmund Jones to be Director/ Producer/ Designer and film star Lillian Gish to play the lead role in Camille. Opera historian Charles A. Johnson commented on Jones’ involvement by saying “To have him appear in a crumbling mining town was akin to having a head of a major studio direct a play at a local high school.” Exaggerated or not, having these big names involved in the opening season certainly did wonders for the reputation and attendance in that first year, especially given the widespread skepticism of outsiders. The hope was to lure many of Denver’s elite to Central City. However many of those “elite” individuals thought it was preposterous to travel to Central City, up the “Oh my God” road only to see a performance that could easily be put on in one of Denver’s existing, established theaters. But when it came down to it, they showed up in droves and the entire first week of performances sold out! In fact, an estimated 5,000 people showed up to Central City just to be a part of the historic event, knowing full well that the Opera House could only seat a fraction of that.
Camille had been a very interesting choice as the first production for the new Association. Based on an adaptation of the 1848 Alexandre Dumas novel The Lady of Camellias,” this piece had been performed in a less formal manner in Central City throughout the late 19th century. Though the 1932 performances of Camille were a rousing success, the production was never staged again in Central City. Additionally, Jones took the production to Broadway the following season where it had little success, especially when compared to the reception it received in Central City. This was due in part, as Charles A. Johnson explained “Part of the problem with the Broadway production had been its inability to evoke a Victorian era in a thoroughly modern city like New York. In Central City, a town that lived in the past, this had been no problem.”
Living in the past is something that Central City Opera thrives on, even to this day. And although a conscious effort is made to stay trendy and innovative both on the artistic and business front, many past traditions remain intact and a large part of the Central City Opera experience. For example in 1932, Camille patrons were encouraged to emulate the fashion of the 1870s, for which many and most obliged. Many patrons also showed up on horse-drawn carriages, further adding to the nostalgia that Robert Edmund Jones and the Association were striving for. Today, while you likely will not see horse carriages or 1870s attire scattered across Eureka Street, nostalgia and tradition come in the form of the Flower Girls, the Usher Song and the famed dynamite blast to ring in the beginning of the festival.
There is no doubt that the success experienced on opening night of Camille was a catalyst to the prosperity that Central City Opera has experienced in the 81 years since then. With favorable media attention from outlets such as The Denver Post, Vanity Fair, Time Magazine, New York Times and the Weekly Register-Call, the Central City Opera House Association seemed poised for success from the very beginning. Stay tuned next week for another “throwback Thursday” examining the rich history of Central City and the Opera House Association.