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Winter Opera's first American production is 'The Ballad of Baby Doe'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 4, 2013 - The popular American opera “The Ballad of Baby Doe” will have its St. Louis premiere on Feb. 8, more than a half century after it was first presented.

Winter Opera will present the true story of a generous, and rather reckless, Colorado silver king’s rise to national fame in the Senate, a love triangle he muddled into and the silver boom bust that spun him and his love “Baby” Doe into free fall to poverty.

With a cast of 40 singers this is the largest production Winter Opera has presented since the company’s debut in 2008 at St. Ambrose Church, company founder, and artistic director Gina Galati said.

The company’s choice of operas used to be limited by the small stages and lack of back stage space at venues it was able to rent. Winter Opera now has a stage that can hold 100. The $28 million, 80,000-square foot Viragh Center opened at Chaminade in fall 2011 and seats 730 downstairs. If ticket demand grows, Winter Opera can use the 270 balcony seats.

At a Jan. 31 rehearsal, high energy and real affection for the American opera shone through. “I’ve never had a character with such an arc of emotions, love, and from rags to riches (when he wants to help everyone) back to rags, then to hallucinations,” Adelmo Guidarelli said. He sings the role of silver “king” Horace Tabor.

The Italian-Irish American singer from the Bronx making his St. Louis debut pictures Tabor as a larger than life Western character that John Wayne might have played.

In the 1880s, Tabor, then Colorado’s lieutenant governor, caused a scandal when he left his wife, Augusta. She had married him when he was a Vermont stonecutter and endured the hardships of moving West with him and working side by side in their Colorado store. After their divorce, Tabor married the “other woman” the beautiful, younger “Baby” Doe McCourt in 1882 (the wedding took place somewhere in St. Louis, actually).

The newlyweds lived in Washington when he served as a Colorado senator; and they were dubbed “The Silver King and Queen.” They had a glittering life, counting President Chester Arthur and William Jennings Bryan as friends. Their party screeched to a halt in 1893 when federal monetary law changed. Congress repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act dropping the requirement that the U.S. Treasury back the dollar with a monthly purchase of 4.5 million ounces of silver. The silver prices sunk. Eventually Tabor closed but never sold his Matchless Mine.

“This is honestly my favorite role” Guidarelli said. The baritone has made a solid reputation singing Figaro in both Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” and Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” and many Italian tenor roles. But Tabor is more interesting to him.

Many cast members are taken with the idea that this is American history.

“The opera is pretty accurate to the true story of these real people,” said Galati, who sings the title role.  

“I love playing a real person who actually lived,” she said about the Irish-American Elizabeth “Baby” McCord Doe Tabor. “I’ve read her life and see her as a strong woman who stood by her choices, though I would not have agreed with all of them.

“She’s loyal to Horace to the end of her life. At first (Tabor’s) wealth may have attracted her but she grows to love him. After he loses everything she stays with him. She was still young and beautiful then. If she were only after his riches, she could have found another husband. But even after he died, she was loyal to him.

“She froze to death near the mine. That (death) is not in the opera but the stage director is going to work it in.”

At the rehearsal, stage director David Toulson encouraged the cast’s high energy as he blocked them into places for a political rally scene. Tabor introduces hopeful Democratic Presidential Candidate William Jennings Bryan to Leadville, Colo., supporters.

“This political rally scene with is large cast and very American feel is almost like something in an American musical,” Toulson said. “It’s lyrical and tuneful, and is very American,” but (musically) it’s as Italian as an opera can be and still be American.”

Toulson’s aim is to make the story “naturalistic” and authentic but infused with his and many Americans’ infatuation with the romantic 19th century West. In this story, miners replace romantic cowboys.

As a boy, Toulson’s mother and grandmother took him on a car trip for more than a month from their home in Binghamton, N.Y., out West. That boyhood infatuation with The West was fanned over the six summers he worked at Central City Opera House in Colorado where “Baby Doe” had its world premiere in July 1956.

This is Toulson’s first go at directing “Baby Doe.” None of the production staff and only one cast member has ever appeared in “Baby Doe.”

“It’s refreshing with almost all the singers starting from scratch on the opera,” Toulson said. “The cast is coming with fresh ideas and exploring the layers of meaning.”

The old hand in this production is Mark Freiman, a bass who moved to St. Louis from New York several years ago. He sang the William Jennings Bryan role in the 40th anniversary production at Central City Opera House and reprises his role here. He’s on the Colorado company’s 40th anniversary cast recording, the only other commercial recording available besides the mid-20th century New York City Opera recording with Beverly Sills in the title role.

Several cast members said that despite the sad ending, the American spirit and joyful tunes made the production fun. The youngest cast member Chloe Haynes, 12, a student at Immaculata Grade School in Richmond Heights, holds a strong opinion.

“This is really, really fun” she said. She’s no naïve neophyte but an opera vet with four Winter Opera appearances and two Opera Theatre of St. Louis appearances in her past. She sings a daughter of the Silver King and Queen.

While the opera is new to the singers, many of the songs will be known to St. Louis audiences. St. Louis concerts and auditions have included the opera’s “The Willow Song, “The Letter Song” and “Warm as the Autumn Light."

“I sang ‘Warm as the Autumn Light’ in a recital when I was a student at Quincy College,” said Philip Touchette, who sings President Arthur.

A dozen men in the cast have thrown themselves into their roles to such an extent that they have grown and carefully trimmed 1880s beards or mutton chop sideburns. “I started mine (mutton chops) back in November,” Touchette said. His chops are approaching the luxuriant quality of those in President Arthur’s portraits.

Nancy Mayo, Winter Opera’s collaborative pianist and a well-known St. Louis accompanist and voice teacher, has been working with the cast since first chorus rehearsals in early January. She’s pleased with the progress. “It has a lot more color with the orchestra” she said.

“Baby Doe” is Winter Opera’s first American opera. To put it on the company raised extra funds to pay the $3,500 in royalties to obtain rights to produce it. Most “standard” operas are older and in the public domain and free. In 1956, the Library of Congress’ Koussevitsky Foundation commissioned American composer Douglas Moore and librettist John Latouche to write an American opera.

Their “The Ballad of Baby Doe” had its world premiere in Colorado at Central City Opera house that July. The next season New York City Opera presented the opera with Beverly Sills in the title role.

“The Ballad of Baby Doe” ranks with Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa” and Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah” as one of the three most performed American operas. Many American operas have not had legs. They’ve rarely been given more than three different productions. Often they’ve withered after just one.

“We thought St. Louis should have a chance to see this,” said Galati.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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