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Lyrical Leadville Legend 

Opera Theatre of the Rockies tackles The Ballad of Baby Doe

Springs diva Martile Rowland has played the great opera houses of the world, from New York City to Nice, Buenos Aires to Prague. But her biggest thrill lies right here along the Colorado Front Range with her love child and brain trust, Opera Theatre of the Rockies.

Now in its second year, Rowland's OTR last year drew together singers from the Springs and across the region for a production of The Merry Widow, a production Rowland describes as "fun and not so difficult," compared to this year's undertaking -- a full cast and orchestra production of Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe.

"It's at least a million times more difficult," said Rowland at a recent dress rehearsal of Baby Doe. The 54 singers in the cast are all from Colorado Springs, Denver, or elsewhere in Colorado, and have been working together since January on the music and libretto which Rowland describes as "rhythmically difficult and complex."

Literally thousands of hours went into the preparation of the chorus and principal singers, combined in recent weeks with elaborate costuming, the re-creation of the original set from Central City, including an exact copy of the curtain that hung in Leadville's Tabor Grand Theatre during its heyday, and the mixing of voices with the orchestral score.

First produced in Central City, the opera retells the Colorado-based story of Horace A.W. Tabor, a rich mining baron in Leadville in the late 1800s who fell from grace when he lost his fortune made in silver to the gold standard and a fated love affair with a woman named Baby Doe.

As written by Moore, The Ballad of Baby Doe visits familiar operatic themes -- the rise and fall of personal fortune, the driving force of romantic love and the tragic consequences of pride. And as sung by Rowland's formidable cast, it is rousing art and entertainment of the finest sort.


Child of the moon

Judeth Shay Burns, originally from Colorado Springs but now living in Aspen, plays the title role of Baby Doe. Diminutive and fine-boned, Burns' soprano voice lends an angelic quality to the legendary Colorado figure, who outlived her husband, Horace, by more than 30 years and died in seclusion, reportedly freezing to death at the Matchless Mine, source of Tabor's financial downfall.

"Judeth's naturally a deep brunette," said Rowland, "but she died her hair blonde to get into the character of Baby Doe. Now it looks perfectly natural to see her that way."

Costumed in pastels and off-white, Burns is a vision onstage, most particularly in the final scene of Act I, the wedding reception of Baby Doe and now Senator Horace Tabor. The entire cast, splendid in formal costume, crowd the stage as Horace, played by baritone Steve Taylor, and Baby Doe hold center stage. When a group of taunting businessmen tell Tabor that silver is doomed and the country must adopt the gold standard, Baby Doe steps in with a defense of her new husband, a stirring aria referred to as the "silver aria."

"Gold is the sun, but silver is the moon," sings Burns in tones rich with devotion. "I am a child of the moon."

That central metaphor backlights the rest of the opera as Baby Doe's silver jewels -- "Queen Isabella's jewels for my little queen," a gift from Horace -- eventually give way to rags and a mane of silver hair.


The voice of reason

Rounding out the cast of principal singers is renowned Colorado mezzo-soprano Marcia Ragonetti as Augusta, Horace's first wife of 27 years, who claims the bulk of his fortune when they divorce in order that he might marry Baby Doe.

Augusta is the opera's most complex character -- cold and harsh but powerfully sympathetic as the woman scorned. In the scene where she discovers Horace's extramarital fascination with Baby Doe, Ragonetti sings a heart-wrenching ode to the hard work of marriage: "Working side by side with him," she sings, gazing at her hands. "No, they're not pretty hands, not like hers, not like hers."And later, when confronting Baby Doe, Augusta represents the voice of common sense, warning the young woman: "I've come here to warn you there'll be trouble. I suppose he's told you there have been others ...."

The ghostly climactic scene of the play shows Augusta and other figures from Horace's past, haunting him before his death, penniless and destitute. Ragonetti's powerful delivery virtually buffets ragged Horace about the stage, forcing him to see the folly of his ways.

Still, when he dies in the arms of Baby Doe, he croons to her: "You were the only real thing. ... Love alone is fixed in time."


The desert blooms

Funded by ticket sales, individual donations and a small grant, Opera Theatre of the Rockies production of The Ballad of Baby Doe is opulent, professionally done and rich in every aspect. Rowland has personally trained many of the singers in her years coaching in Colorado Springs, and many have received training at schools and conservatories across the country. That she has so deeply mined the singing talent of the region and brought it together to form, in such a short time, such a strong company, is nothing short of miraculous.

"We have no staff," said OTR board member Kathleen Collins. "It's just us doing it." Collins points out the musical community's dedication to Rowland and her well-earned loyalty in Colorado Springs and across the state.

"You are the pioneers who have made our desert bloom," sings presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in the second act of Baby Doe, when he stops to stump for the votes of the citizens of Leadville.

The chorus might rise up in song, echoing those words for their artistic director, Martile Rowland. Out of what sometimes seems a cultural desert, she has brought together a plethora of voices that will ring in full bloom on the stage of Armstrong Theater this weekend. Don't miss the spectacle.

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