A History of the Central City Opera Guild
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’murals to the interior.
The early glory years following the 1878 grand opening were short-lived. Musical and theatrical events appeared on its stage: Buffalo Bill Cody performed here as well as P.T. Barnum’s circus. When the Central City mines were played out, the Opera House fell into disrepair.
In 1929 a dedicated band of Denver preservationists and music lovers formed the Central City Opera House Association and went to work to turn the spotlights back on. 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. Although the maintenance of the building began to decline after the 1950’s, the Central City Opera House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973.
Continuing its history of peaks and valleys, in 1974 a second band of dedicated women, under the direction of leading lady Barbara H. Ferguson, with Janet Phipps, Gail Gordon, Linda Roberts, Betty Veit, Judy Nichols, Marjorie Rentz, Mary McGlone and Celeste Fleming established The Central City Opera House Association Guild to assist the Central City Opera House Association with educational projects, with a focus on youth education, apprentice artists support, historic preservation and maintenance of over 30 Association owned properties in Central City, audience development and various fundraising and social events throughout the year.
The word opera means “work” in Italian (it is the plural of the Latin opus meaning “work” or “labour”) and what work and labor these founding ladies did and today’s Guild members continue on.
The ﬁrst meeting of the Guild was held on April 20, 1974 at the home of Barbara Ferguson and a founder’s tea quickly followed on May 4, 1974 at the Polo Club home of Mrs. McIntosh Buell. Two-hundred charter members attended this event. Following this tea, a membership drive was held which boosted the Guild membership to 573 by September 1975.
In these early years, the Guild assisted the Association with numerous events and projects including: Opera Stars of Tomorrow Gala (staged in the Central City Cemetery), Unexpectable and Collectibles Sale at the Phipps Tennis House, extensive preservation and historic renovations to the numerous Association properties, expansion of the education of opera to larger audiences, which started as “brown bag Opera” and has evolved to the “Opera Teasers”. These events highlight the season’s upcoming Operas, which are reviewed and selections are performed at venues in and around Denver. At the same time, “Ladies Day at the Opera” was initiated and has become a popular activity for Guild members to have lunch in Central City and attend a matinee performance of an Opera. Youth education has always been a focus for the Guild and the “Take a Child to the Opera” was created to enhance a family experience at the opera. Adults and children enjoy lunch with opera singers and additional educational activities surround these family performances. Various other guild sponsored educational event’s occur throughout the year in the Denver area.
In 1976, the “L’Esprit de Noel” home tour was launched and is presently the largest fundraising event presented by the Guild. The tours, located in varying Denver area neighborhoods each year, feature professionally decorated private homes and historic properties, a holiday boutique and cafe, a gala patron party and three days of holiday cheer and fundraising for the Central City Opera. These annual events require many “stage-hands” to perform and the grand-ﬁnale contributes from $50,000 to $80,000 yearly to the Association and funds the Guilds yearly sponsorship and educational awards to the Apprentice Artists Training Programs and area Teacher Awards.
The Bonﬁls-Stanton Foundation Artists Training Program is a national model for the professional development of young singers. Created by Artistic Director Emeritus John Moriarty in 1978, the rigorous 10 week program integrates daily training in diction, movement and stage combat; individual coaching and sessions in career management with rehearsals and performance opportunities in the summer’s main stage and surrounding productions. The program, which selects 30-32 participants from nearly 1,000 applicants each year, has provided valuable training for many of America’s most notable young opera professionals.
In addition to the Guild’s monetary awards, continued support to the Apprentice Artists is provided in it’s “Greet-a-Singer” program (singers are picked up at the airport and delivered to Central City), the “Apprentice Artist Picnic” held at the beginning of the festival season at a Guild members home. Even before the season opens, Guild members are hard at work preparing the over 30 historic properties for the artist’s summer stays with inventory, cleaning and planting days all in preparation for a successful Festival Season.