Excerpt from Theatre of Dreams: The Glorious Central City Opera, 75th Anniversary Book

Central City Opera’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, 2016. Anna Christy (Baby Doe) & Grant Youngblood (Horace Tabor). Photo by Amanda Tipton.

The Ballad of Baby Doe, by composer Douglas Moore and librettist John Latouche, was the first opera commissioned by the Central City Opera House Association. It took CCO President Frank Ricketson two attempts to win approval to commission an original work, while admitting there was only a one-in-a-thousand chance of success, but he prevailed. A rags-to-riches love story about real-life characters in 19th-century Colorado, the opera’s simple expressions of human emotions and universal truths have touched audiences throughout the world. 

Set Designer Donald Oenslager suggested Douglas Moore as the composer. Moore was known for American-themed operas, having composed The Devil and Daniel Webster and Giants in the Earth, which won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1951. After a series of misadventures worthy of its own opera (and requiring an infusion of funds from the Koussevitzky Foundation), John Latouche was brought on as librettist. His Broadway musical The Golden Apple had just won the 1954 New York Critics’ Circle Award. 

Director Hanya Holm conferring with conductor Emerson Buckley (center) and composer Douglas Moore during rehearsal for the first production of The Ballad of Baby Doe in 1956.

Finally able to start work in early 1955, Moore and Latouche were assigned the story of “Silver King” Horace Tabor, his scandalous divorce from Augusta, and his remarriage to the beautiful Baby Doe—a true story that had become a Colorado legend. The creative team included Hanya Holm, a Broadway choreographer making her directorial debut; her co-director Edwin Levy, a drama professor at the University of Denver; Donald Oenslager, creating sets, costumes, and lighting; and conductor Emerson Buckley making his Central City Opera debut.

Oenslager designed eleven different sets and lighting for The Ballad of Baby Doe, as well as costumes for a cast of thirty-seven. The same sets were used for subsequent productions, including five more seasons at Central City Opera. By 1976 the original sets were battered and worn, so set designer Klaus Holm (son of Baby Doe director Hanya Holm) re-created Oenslager’s original designs for the 1981 and 1988 productions. Singers from the New York City Opera filled the two casts of principals. Dolores Wilson and Leyna Gabriele played Baby Doe; Martha Lipton and Frances Bible sang Augusta Tabor; and Walter Cassel and Clifford Harvuot both played Horace Tabor.

Walter Cassel (Horace Tabor) and Dolores Wilson (Baby Doe). The characters first married in secret, then wed again in a lavish ceremony in Washington, DC. Designer Donald Oenslager created the elegant ballroom of the Willard Hotel for the wedding scene. Pictured here in the 1956 world premiere.

The opera rehearsed in New York before coming to Central City for the final weeks of preparation. Master promoter Ricketson attracted press coverage from around the country, including Howard Taubman for The New York Times and Lucius Beebe of the New York Herald-Tribune. Life magazine did a photo spread. And the reviews were terrific: Rocky Mountain News proclaimed the opera a “smash hit,” saying, “composer Douglas Moore and librettist John Latouche have reached another peak of American opera…. It is a great achievement.” Lucius Beebe wrote: “The evening was dominated by Augusta Tabor, played by Martha Lipton, and she carried it off in a very grand manner indeed. [Baby Doe is a] star in the annals of Central City history.”

Librettist John Latouche, Mezzo-Soprano Martha Lipton (Augusta Tabor) and Frank “Rick” Ricketson attending a party in celebration of the successful opening of The Ballad of Baby Doe

The success of the 1956 premiere was followed two years later when the opera was staged by the New York City Opera with Beverly Sills singing Baby Doe. This would become one of her signature roles. Emerson Buckley directed the New York production and auditioned more than a hundred sopranos. It was not a secret that he thought Beverly Sills was too large to play the petite Baby Doe. Sills truculently made a point of her size by showing up for the audition wearing her tallest high heels and a large fur hat. As she sang Baby Doe’s “Willow Song” aria, Buckley and composer Douglas Moore were quickly won over, agreeing she was indeed their Baby Doe. “I knew I had the role when Emerson stood up and started conducting me,” said Sills.

Soprano Beverly Sills (right) as Baby Doe, which became one of the definitive roles of her career.

The New York show received rave reviews. The New Yorker magazine called it “a very important event in music history.” The opera won the 1958 Critics’ Circle Award for the best new opera produced in New York. Sills recorded the opera with Cassel and Bible (who appeared in both Central City Opera and New York). Cassel commented later that they had so identified with their characters—“it felt like we were turning into the people we were supposed to be playing”—that the recording session was done in a single take.

Set designer Donald Oenslager supervising scenery being loaded onto a truck bound for New York. His original sets were used in the New York City Opera’s 1958 production of The Ballad of Baby Doe, which starred Beverly Sills in the title role.

In 1976, The Ballad of Baby Doe was broadcast live from Lincoln Center on PBS. Since then, Central City Opera has scheduled the beloved opera to be produced in Central City every ten years. The 50th Anniversary took place in 2006, conducted by John Moriarty, with Joyce Castle in the role of Augusta Tabor and Joanna Mongiardo as Baby Doe. For director Michael Ehrman, it was his third time directing Baby Doe for Central City Opera, and he has directed the opera for five other companies as well. “When you do a show a certain number of times,” said Ehrman, “you find that certain things seem to work consistently, certain ideas, certain things in staging that work no matter where you are doing it or who the performers are.”

Central City Opera’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, 2006. Joanna Mongiardo (Baby Doe) and Victoria Livengood (Mama McCourt).

Moriarty, now artistic director emeritus, first conducted Baby Doe for Central City Opera in 1981, then again in 1988, 1996, and in 2006 for the anniversary—nearly sixty performances in all. Moriarty, enamored of the work, describes it as “folksy, unpretentious, and nostalgic. Throughout the opera, composer Douglas Moore provides a wonderful feeling of time and place. As all great theatre composers have done, the music he provides for his characters is as revealing as the words they sing.”

Artistic Director Emeritus John Moriarty flanked by two Baby Does at the 50th-anniversary celebration of the opera. Leyna Gabriele (left) starred in the 1956 premiere season and Joanna Mongiardo sang it in 2006.