Coming from strong musical traditions in the U.K., Central City miners were known for singing in the mines, in church, in saloons and even forming amateur singing societies. Their love of music was the foundation for building the opera house in 1878.
BY MARGARET SIEGRIST AND ERIN OSOVETS
On a chilly 1878 March evening, the curtains parted for the first time at a new Opera House nestled in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Beneath ornate ceiling frescos, rough and tumble benefactors filled the seats. Gold and silver nuggets showered the stage at the final curtain call, a true frontier encore, and the first of many extraordinary stories to play out within the walls of the Central City Opera House.
Welsh and Cornish hard-rock miners surged into Colorado with the Gold Rush, called in by mine operators to blast away mountains and work at extreme underground depths. Many brought a love of music with them. Coming from strong musical traditions in the U.K., Central City miners were known for singing in the mines, in church, in saloons and even forming amateur singing societies. Though there were several theaters in Central City, “the townspeople felt they needed an even larger theater: an opera house, with all the art and culture the name implied.” Raising over $20,000 dollars and hiring a big city architect, they made their mark on the landscape with brick and mortar. “The miners wanted the riches of life,” said Central City Opera co-founder, Anne Evans. “For their daring and imagination was the stuff that makes and demands good theater.”
The theater mounted productions spanning from opera to minstrel shows, hosting premiere performers of the era one day and staging local amateur concerts the next. However, three short years after the Opera House opened, the Gold Rush gave way to a “silver boom.” Miners moved to Leadville and other silver hubs. Much of Central City’s wealth and influence began trickling down to Denver, newly named the capital city of Colorado. Horace Tabor’s opera houses in Denver and Leadville drew more interest from performers and traveling troupes. The Central City Opera House fell into debt and disrepair. By 1890, local businessman and civic leader Peter McFarlane took over management and personally absorbed the costs of keeping the theater operating. His construction company had a hand in building the Opera House, and he was passionate about maintaining the cultural institutions of Central City. In spite of his efforts, the dwindling town population and lack of interest from traveling acts forced McFarlane to shut down operations in 1927.
In 1931, Denver cultural advocate Anne Evans and distinguished educator Ida Kruse McFarlane banded together with the vision of bringing great theater back into the historic Central City Opera House in recognition of the pioneers who built it. A native of Central City, Ida’s studies in theater took her all over the U.S. and Europe before she married Frederick McFarlane, who had inherited the Opera House with his siblings. Ann and Ida convinced the McFarlanes to donate the Opera House to the University of Denver, where they were actively involved in the English and Theater departments. Together they established the Central City Opera House Association, devised the summer festival, refurbished the building and raised the funds to reopen the Opera House doors.
The grand re-opening of the Opera House, July 16, 1932, had newspaper and magazine journalists nationwide buzzing over Broadway legend Robert Edmond Jones directing and silent film star Lillian Gish in the leading role, not to mention the novelty of the location. The opening night production of Camille sold out quickly with nearly 5,000 visitors flooded into Central City dressed as pioneers out of the 1870s for the opening festivities. The day’s events and the unlocking of the Opera House door were broadcast on NBC radio. Visitors braved the precarious “Oh My God Road,” a narrow and winding dirt switchback from Idaho Springs to Central City, the only route to the theater from Denver. Following the performance, patrons waltzed at the Opera Ball in the Teller House, and celebrations continued until morning in historic homes dotting the hillside. Another generation’s dreams had come to life on the Central City Opera House stage.
Over its 140 year history, the Opera House has undergone several major renovations. When it opened in 1878, the miners sat in folded wrought iron chairs. Later, owner Peter McFarlane replaced them with sturdy hickory chairs that were used until 1927. When Anne Evans and Ida Kruse McFarlane revived the Opera House in 1932, they discovered that most of the hickory chairs were still in good condition and came up with the clever fundraising idea to “sell” each chair and allow the purchaser to name the chair in honor of a Colorado pioneer. Chairs were purchased by the descendants and friends of early settlers, who carved their names on to the seatbacks, along with the date the honoree had arrived in Colorado. Many names are still familiar today—Roeschlaub, Boettcher, Bonfils, Tabor, Elitch, Elbert, Gilpin and more.
During this time, the Opera House could hold 750 hickory chairs. In 1999, the hickory chairs were replaced with plush theatre-style seats which reduced the capacity to 550 and the names from the old chairs were transferred to the new seats. Most of the hickory chairs remain in private collections, in storage or in the various properties in Central City owned by the Opera. As of 2021, over 300 names of distinguished Coloradans have been carved into Central City Opera’s memorial chairs.
Throughout time, the Central City Opera House has endured many changes, withstood hardship and enjoyed acclaim, retained traditions and become an architect for innovation. Central City Opera has maintained the Opera House’s history and staged incredible productions year after year, but these unforgettable experiences would not be possible without the audience. Your attendance ensures captivating history and extraordinary stories on Central City Opera House stage for years to come, a continuation of the dedication and dreams that started it all.
The Central City Opera House is part of the first-ever Colorado Historic Opera Houses Circuit, which connects visitors to five historic mountain opera houses. This new cultural heritage travel offering invites visitors to experience Colorado’s Silver Rush past and the enduring importance of arts and culture in today’s remote mountain towns, all within elegant buildings. Learn more at ColoradoOperaHouses.com.