Ready To Walk
CHAUTAUQUA – While it may seem that the 2014 Chautauqua season is just beginning, in fact we’re nearly half way through, and the final opera of the season will have only two performances, on Friday of this week and Monday of next week, July 28.
The name of the coming production is ”The Ballad of Baby Doe,” by Douglas Moore, with a libretto by John Latouche. It was written in 1956, and while the title may sound like a sequel to the film ”Bambi,” it’s basically a true story, about real people, based on a legend from the Wild, Wild West. The performances begin at 7:30 p.m., both days. You can purchase tickets by phoning 357-6250, or by visiting Chautauqua’s website at www.ciweb.org.
There are many reasons why you should find your way out to Chautauqua’s Norton Hall to hear one of these performances, and I wanted to devote this week’s column to telling you some things about the opera itself, and then we’ll wade into a free-for-all which I encountered when I scheduled individual interview appointments with the three leading singers, then arrived at Chautauqua to find all three of them ready to talk at once, which they certainly did. Fortunately, conductor Steven Osgood braved the horrors of a Post-Journal interview, all by himself, which lacked the energy of three-on-one, but made for more information.
”The Ballad of Baby Doe” tales place in Leadville, Colorado – once one of that state’s largest cities – around the turn of the 20th century. Its characters include a President of the United States, Chester A. Arthur, and a famed orator and candidate for president, William Jennings Bryan.
The central character is a wealthy and successful mine owner, Horace Tabor. He has earned his enormous wealth through his ownership of a silver mine, which is named “The Matchless Mine.” Tabor has gotten rich because of some very successful business decisions which he made early in his life. His prim and somewhat domineering wife, Augusta, probably deserves most of the credit for his success, as she took in borders and cooked and did laundry for miners, while her free-spending husband made friends with their money.
When the curtain rises, the Tabors are taking the air, during an intermission of an opera performance at the opera house which Augusta and her ladies organizations have had built. An attractive young woman stops to ask Tabor for directions to her hotel. She is Elizabeth McCourt Doe, a married woman, just past her 25th birthday. In an instant, he fell desperately in love with her.
Elizabeth was one of 14 children. In her late teens, she won a skating contest at the Congregational Church of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. This was shocking for a young woman to win, but especially for a Catholic young woman. Her victory won her the heart of a young man named Harvey Doe, Jr. They courted, married, and moved off to Colorado, where Harvey had inherited a half-interest in a silver mine.
When her husband wasn’t able to make a go of the mine, Elizabeth herself donned overalls and went down the shaft to dig for silver. This won her the nickname ”Baby Doe: the Miner’s Sweetheart.”
She had already decided Harvey was a lost cause when she met Horace Tabor. As Horace’s star rose, and his political donations increased, he was eventually appointed to serve out a term representing Colorado in the U.S. Senate. He divorced Augusta and married Baby, who also divorced Harvey, in a District of Columbia ceremony which was attended by the leaders of congress and the president himself. The Tabors became the parents of two daughters, and a son who died in childhood.
One of the biggest political issues of that day was whether the U.S. Government should continue to buy silver, for use in coins, or whether it should revert to the Gold Standard, using only the more precious metal? When silver lost its largest customer, Tabor’s fortune began to decline rapidly. When he backed Bryan for president, and lost, the money virtually disappeared.
Tabor got a job as a postmaster in a small Colorado town. Baby stayed with him, and he instructed her for the rest of his life that she should always stick with the Matchless Mine, and it would be her salvation. The opera tells us whether she did.
Today, there is a society of people who have found enormous interest in the story of the Tabors and Baby Doe. They call themselves ”Doe Heads,” and among their activities, they are running a website, where much of this history was found, and traveling around the country to wherever Douglas Moore’s opera is being produced. A delegation of Doe Heads is expected at Norton Hall for the coming performances.
Although the opera does not have the grand melodies of Puccini, its music is melodic and some of it, especially the five arias performed by Baby, have become frequent audition pieces and parts of solo recitals for lyric sopranos. When American-born soprano Beverly Sills discovered the role and expressed herself willing to perform it with various companies, the opera became part of the standard repertoire, many places. There are several recordings of part or all of the score, including two complete recordings, one of which features Sills in the title role, and mezzo-soprano Frances Bible as Augusta, a role which she repeated at Chautauqua Opera, with Julia Lovett singing the role of Baby.
In Chautauqua Opera’s production of ”The Ballad of Baby Doe,” Horace Tabor will be performed by bass-baritone Mark Delavan. This is his second go-round with the role at Chautauqua, having sung it a few years back in Chautauqua’s second production of the opera.
Delavan is a much-celebrated artist, whose resume reads like a listing of the most grand and demanding roles in all of opera. These include Scarpia, in ”Tosca,” Wotan in the ”Ring” operas, Radames in ”Aida,” the title character in Wagner’s ”The Flying Dutchman,” Iago in ”Otello,” Jokaanan in Strauss’s ”Salome,” and many, many more. Rumors have it he can do a pretty effective set of songs by Johnny Cash, as well.
I asked if his view of his character had changed since he sang it here, last. He said it has. ”When I sang it last, I was pretty judgmental of the guy,” he said. ”I thought it was all just a mid-life crisis. Now I’m the same age as Tabor was when he met Baby Doe, and while I understand that what he did was wrong, I understand how it could happen. I’ve gotten less philosophical.”
Delevan is a big, friendly man, who interrupts his interview to shout out comments to cast members, who are passing by the outdoor picnic table which he has chosen for our interview, using a variety of cornball accents which result in laughter, all around. Soon his energy has attracted lyric soprano Cree Carrico, who will be singing the role of Baby Doe, and whose interview was planned for later in the afternoon.
She is a beautiful young woman who has had a stellar career, already, especially for one so young. You read about her in these pages when Jay Lesenger, Chautauqua Opera artistic director, directed a production of John Corigliano’s opera ”The Ghosts of Versailles,” at the Manhattan School of Music, which won attention all throughout the opera world as a very workable and effective revival of an opera which had been nearly retired from performance. She played the ghost of Marie Antoinette, in a performance which would have been thrilling from an established diva, not to mention from a student artist.
Carrico is in her second year as a young artist with the Chautauqua Opera Company. She appeared earlier in the season in the chorus of the Amphitheater production of ”Madama Butterfly,” and last year performed a small role in ”Peter Grimes.” Elsewhere, she has performed Gilda in ”Rigoletto,” Jenny in ”The Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” Frasquita in ”Carmen,” Bridget Booth in ”The Crucible,” and the saucy maid Despina in ”Cosi fan Tutte.”
Because she wears her hair, when not wigged and coiffed for a role, in a smooth, straight bob, she joked that she sometimes feels she is cast for her hair, suggesting that the title role in Berg’s opera ”Lulu” might be an appropriate goal.
She said that one of the greatest challenges for her, in the role of Baby Doe, is that first of all, four of the five arias in her role take place in the first act of the opera, which requires enormous stamina, but for her, what’s worse is that through much of the opera, the audience – especially the women in the audience – don’t like her. She has to sing soulfully to an audience who may well radiate hostility.
Delevan is quick to indicate that by the end of the opera, the character has nearly always won her audience over, by dealing with the events of her life with dignity and maturity.
The two drift off into a discussion of another of Carrico’s characters, Gilda. That character gives her life to save the life of the Duke of Mantua, who has cast her off cruelly, earlier in the opera. Delavan considers this noble. Carrico considers it ”dumb.”
I fail in my responsibility to manage the interview, because I really want to hear what they have to say about their roles, and while they’re disputing, mezzo soprano Leann Sandel-Pantaleo comes out to see if we’re ready for her turn to answer. Instead, she and Delavan fall into a discussion of performing opera while having their children watch Mom and Dad commit murders, and the other tribulations required by the plots of operas.
Local audiences will certainly remember her for a thrilling performance as Santuzza in ”Cavalleria Rusticana,” a few years back. She also sang her first Carmen on Norton Hall’s stage, the subsequent year.
All of them agree that the ”Baby Doe” production looks to be a good one, but the two more-experienced singers tease Carrico about the fact that as a young artist, not only does she need to do rehearsals and fittings and the similar requirements for producing one opera, she needs to prepare to sing in the evening performances in the Amphitheater, to sing in support of operalogues and other community participations of the opera company, and to attend classes and training sessions, which largely take up all day, every day.
The three move on to the fact that ”Baby Doe” is popular with audience members, even if they aren’t opera buffs. ”Some people are put off by goddesses flying through the air and some of the more ‘larger-than-life’ events which can be part of more traditional operas, but these three characters are real, believable people, and everyone can understand what they do, and why they do it,” Sandel-Pantaleo said.
I wonder, considering in recent months a number of opera companies have gone out of business, including New York City Opera and San Diego Opera, whether theirs isn’t a vanishing art form. All three of them are quick to deny it.
”Sadly, the ability to put a thrilling work of art onto the stage and the ability to balance ticket sales and labor problems and the availability of donations are not always present in the same person,” Delavan said. ”Sometimes creative people can bankrupt themselves because they can’t manage money. Also, sometimes the business end of the art form can intrude so much into the creativity area that it makes for dull, uninspired art, and that is deadly. In any art form, you’re going to have programs which go to one extreme or the other.”
All three singers say, at some point in this conversation that they truly love opera, and they can’t imagine a world in which it isn’t widely available. Delavan adds that he feels as though he has been married to opera for many years. ”Marriages which last many years may need to change or grow a bit,” he reasoned. ”To deal with outside forces, but strong marriages survive and prosper.”
At this point, Steven Osgood arrived, for his interview. Osgood will be conducting the Chautauqua Opera Orchestra, and he has some good news for the singers’ concerns. San Diego Opera has been rescued, and will be continuing to produce quality opera. Sharing that good news, and a great many laughs, the singers drift away, and I’m thrilled for the opportunity to talk with the conductor, but part of me wished I could go with them, and to stay part of the party.
Steven Osgood is a young man, but one whose career has placed him on the staff of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, made him the conductor at opera companies all around the U.S. and across the world, as well as for six professional recordings, including a number of world premieres. And it has brought him frequently to Chautauqua Opera, where among his conducting assignments have been ”Tosca,” ”Peter Grimes” and a great many of the performances by the opera company in the Amphitheater, with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.
The conductor has not yet had the opportunity to rehearse with the CSO for the Baby Doe production, at the time of our interview, but he said he greatly admired their performance in ”Madama Butterfly,” and has attended all their concerts during the 10 days he had been on the grounds.
”This will be my first production of ‘Baby Doe,'” he told me. ”I have conducted concerts in which someone sang one or more of the arias, and I’ve always admired the music, but frankly, I’ve wondered about how a full evening of it would go. Now that I’ve been studying the whole score, and experiencing the orchestration, I think it’s just thrilling. The music is tonal and melodic, but it’s filled with little surprises, where it doesn’t go exactly where you think it’s going to go. That makes it all the more interesting,” he said.
Returning to the revival of San Diego Opera, Osgood said that the Southern California community simply rose up and refused to accept that the company should go under. People were approaching the board of directors of the company, offering to donate money or to host fundraisers or to do whatever it would take to put the company back in business.
”Sometimes opera lovers can become so involved in the beauty of recordings that they neglect live performances, because they trust that the choice of going to local performances will always be available,” he explained. ”And while we may love to hear great artists on recordings, and thrill to the unique sounds of Pavarotti and Sills and Sutherlund, every time we play them, they will sound the same. You have to go to the theater and sit in the seats to hear who the new geniuses will be and what they will bring to the familiar scores, and what new scores are being produced. When a company threatens to close, a great many fans remember that, and they want to get involved.”
Osgood said he feels a new energy, a new tide in the opera profession which he thinks well lead to a new golden age for opera.
As for ”Baby Doe,” he thinks its audiences will find it both emotionally thrilling, and a whole lot of fun. ”They’re going to find big, exciting choruses, and gorgeous singing in the roles, by a first rate cast. It will be well worth the experience,” he said.