Central City Opera House History
The Central City Opera House was built in 1878 by Welsh and Cornish miners. This National Historic Landmark, centerpiece of the historic gold mining town of Central City, has hosted performances of the nation’s fifth-oldest opera company since 1932 (after the Metropolitan Opera, Cincinnati Opera, San Francisco Opera and Chautauqua Opera). As the second oldest summer opera company (following Chautauqua Opera), Central City Opera’s national summer festival attracts patrons from all over the country and abroad to enjoy intimate opera in its 550-seat opera house.
In 1877, the citizens of Central City organized a fundraising drive for a grand new opera house befitting the gold mining town’s reputation as “the richest square mile on earth.” Many of the town’s residents were Welsh and Cornish miners, who brought with them a rich tradition of music from their homeland. While locals pitched in during construction, the organizers also retained some of the best building professionals in the area. Prominent Denver architect Robert S. Roeschlaub provided an elegant, understated design for the stone structure, and San Francisco artist John C. Massman added elaborate trompe l’oeil murals to the interior.
Her early glory years following the 1878 grand opening were short-lived. When the Central City mines were played out, the Opera House fell into disrepair. Fortunately, a volunteer-driven effort led by Ida Kruse McFarlane, Edna Chappell and Anne Evans led to an extensive restoration of the Opera House in 1932. That summer, the legendary actress Lillian Gish opened the newly restored opera house with Camille, launching an annual tradition of summer festivals in Central City that continues to this day.
Early festivals featured both opera and theater; more recently, the six-week festival has been a celebration of traditional and progressive works. In addition to Lillian Gish, other stars of the opera and stage have performed in the Central City summer festivals, including Beverly Sills, Jerome Hines, Helen Hayes, Samuel Ramey, and Catherine Malfitano. Successful commissions for the company include the American classicThe Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore, premiered in 1956, the popular one-act opera The Face On The Barroom Floor by Henry Mollicone, premiered in 1978 and the 2003 world premiere of Gabriel’s Daughter, also composed by Henry Mollicone. Learn more about the opera legends that have graced the Central City Opera stage (pdf).
Central City Opera’s prestigious Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Artists Training Program, founded by Artistic Director Emeritus John Moriarty, has served for more than two decades as a national model for training young singers.
Today, the Central City Opera House features modern comforts with plush new seating, installed in 1999. Continuing a tradition from 1932, many of the chairs commemorate Colorado pioneers, notable performers, and opera supporters. Illustrious names like Horace Tabor, Buffalo Bill, Beverly Sills, and Lillian Gish are carved on the backs of the seats.
The glorious history of the Central City Opera House lives on with exciting new productions each summer.
For more on Central City Opera’s history, check out our historic properties or order the commemorative book, Theatre of Dreams: The Glorious Central City Opera – Celebrating 75 Years.
The Central City Opera House is the oldest surviving opera house in Colorado. For more information on early arts culture in this state, visit Opera in Old Colorado.