Did You Know? Famous Stars Performed at Central City Opera

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Experience Central City Opera with an inside look at the festival’s history, performances, and people.

Since Central City Opera’s opening in 1878, many stars of the stage and screen have performed in the 550 jewel-box theater. Even before the creation of Central City Opera, the theater hosted famous acts such as P.T. Barnum’s circus and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.


After the creation of Central City Opera, however, the number of movie stars and opera legends that came out to perform in the Colorado mountains skyrocketed. Not only would they come out to perform operas, but also plays during the Central City Play Festival, hosted by the Central City Opera House Association from 1932-1942 and from 1946-1970 along with the Central City Opera Festival. You only need to walk around the Central City Opera House or the Williams Stables to find famous names listed on previous seasons’ marquees. Many of these signs advertise “All-Star New York Casts”, as many performers from the Metropolitan Opera and other large New York companies would come here during their summer off-season, escaping hot summers in New York City  to the glorious mountains of Central City, Colorado.

Lillian Gish in Camille, 1932

Lillian Gish in Camille, 1932

Lillian Gish was the first big name to perform with Central City Opera. Gish was a pioneering force in the budding film industry of the early 20th century, a star of silent movies, and was known as the First Lady of American Cinema. She came to Central City in 1932, the first season of Central City Opera, to play the title role in Camille. In her memoirs, she said about her experience, “The governors from adjoining states and their staff would come [to the show] in private trains and would travel the last few miles in stagecoaches. Everyone would be dressed in the costumes of the period of our play. Seats would cost $100 apiece and would be available only to those whose ancestors had come west in covered wagons. As the town was two miles above sea level [actually, only 8,500 feet!], we would be obliged to go to Denver for three weeks of rehearsal in order to become acclimated. I was captivated and agreed to go.”

Mae West after a production of Diamond Lil', 1949

Mae West in Diamond Lil’, 1949

In 1949, the Central City Opera House Association chose Diamond Lil’ for their annual play season, which was written by and starred actress Mae West. A famous Hollywood starlet who started her career in Vaudeville and had written, produced, directed, and starred in multiple Broadway shows, West was a huge name in the entertainment industry. Three years later, Helen Hayes, known for her roles in movies such as The Sin of Madelon Claudet and plays such as Time Remembered came to Central City to star in Mrs. McThing. Hayes and the entire New York cast of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play performed 33 showings in the Central City Opera House.

Samuel Ramey (back row, in front of the post, smiling) in the chorus of Don Giovanni, 1963

Samuel Ramey (back row, in front of the post             smiling) in the chorus of Don Giovanni, 1963

Of course, a large percentage of the stars that have come to Central City have been huge figures in the opera world. Samuel Ramey, the world-renowned bass-baritone who set the standard with his performances of some of the greatest bass and baritone roles, began his operatic career singing in the Central City Opera chorus in 1963. In Central City Opera, Looking Back Over Sixty Years, Ramey stated “That was a great summer for the low male voice. Sherrill Milnes was there, and Spiros Malas, Richard Cross, Justino Diaz… I’d never met these men before, but we have known each other ever since… it was the beginning of many working relationships.”

Denyce Graves as Carmen

Denyce Graves as Carmen

Beverly Sills, the famous American soprano who Time Magazine called “America’s Queen of Opera” came to the Central City Opera stage in the summer of 1960. Coming off her critically acclaimed performance in the title role of the New York City Opera’s production of The Ballad of Baby Doe, Sills was asked by conductor Emerson Buckley to come to Colorado and sing the title role in Aida. More recently, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who has performed in prestigious opera houses around the world, on television, at the 2005 presidential inauguration, at national memorial services, and more, sang in the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Artists Training Program as a Studio Artist in 1986 and 1987. She called her position with Central City Opera her “first big contract”, and a mere eight years later, she made her Met debut as the title role in Carmen.

Central City Opera is no stranger to big names in the entertainment industry. It is known throughout the arts world as a place where established stars come to perform and budding stars come to make their first professional strides.




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