When most people think of opera, they picture La Boheme, Don Giovanni, or Carmen-operas inexorably tied to their exotic European settings. But Opera Illinois’ newest production, The Ballad of Baby Doe, is a great example of a modern, American opera. It’s time to expand your opera horizons westward.

Baby’s Story

On a street in Leadville, Colo., in 1880, an old miner brags that the wealthy Horace Tabor wants to buy his silver mine, which he calls the "Matchless" Mine. Horace Tabor and his cronies emerge from the Tabor Opera House in an attempt to escape their wives and their boredom. Horace’s wife, Augusta, and the wives of Horace’s cronies find their husbands and scold them. Before joining Augusta inside the Opera House, Horace meets Elizabeth "Baby" Doe, who’s just arrived in town and is looking for the Clarendon Hotel, where she’ll lodge.

An affair between Baby and Horace develops, and Augusta discovers the deception. Enraged, Augusta vows to drive Baby Doe out of town. Packed to depart from Leadville, Baby Doe writes her mother that she’s left her husband, Harvey, but that she feels it’s wrong to stay with Horace, a married man.

Augusta pays Baby Doe a visit, warning her there will be trouble if she doesn’t leave Horace. Baby Doe at first agrees, but, appalled by Augusta’s apparent harshness toward Horace, decides to stay in Leadville with him.

A year later, Tabor has left Augusta and is living with Baby Doe. Her friends inform Augusta, now living in Denver, that Horace plans to divorce her. She swears to ruin him.

Divorced from Augusta, Horace, recently appointed a U.S. Senator, celebrates his wedding to Baby Doe at a lavish reception in Washington, D.C. Many of the other senators’ wives, disapproving of the couple, don’t attend. Mama McCourt, Baby’s mother, inadvertently reveals to the horrified guests that Baby is a divorced woman. The evening is saved from near-disaster when President Chester A. Arthur arrives and toasts the newlyweds.

Several years later, Augusta visits Baby to warn her that Horace is in serious financial trouble. She urges Baby to convince Horace to abandon his investments in silver. When Baby tells Horace about Augusta’s fears, Horace reassures her that all is well. Baby promises to stand by Horace and the Matchless Mine forever.

Financial ruin comes to Horace Tabor, however. Impoverished and dying, he appears on the stage of his opera house in Leadville. Baby arrives to comfort him in his last moments. She then goes to the entry of the Matchless Mine, where she keeps vigil until she’s an old woman, and she, too, dies.

Relationships are the Key

The Ballad of Baby Doe takes place during the political and economic upheaval in Colorado during the silver mining boom of the late 1800s-a time and circumstance foreign to most audience members. But Opera Illinois Executive Director Margaret Swain said the most meaningful themes are those found within the relationships and innermost lives of the characters. "Based on actual people, the opera describes things that happen in real life and that any one of us could experience," she said. "All the characters have flaws and redeeming qualities, and we see the perspective of each one in a way that generates understanding, compassion, and the ability to better come to terms with our own lives and relationships."

The central figure, she said, is a prime example of this complex, yet realistic, characterization. "As the curtain rises, Baby Doe has already divorced her husband. She then becomes romantically involved with Horace Tabor, the wealthiest man in town. Beautiful and flirtatious, she attracted male attention wherever she went, and was accused by many of being no more than a wanton gold-digger. But Baby Doe was passionately in love with Horace, and when he divorced Augusta, she married him and remained true to him even though he ultimately lost everything. After he died, she didn’t remarry-even though she was still young and beautiful enough to have married almost any man she wanted-but was content to remain faithful to his memory while living in abject poverty and seclusion."

As is often the case, real life is stranger than fiction, and this intriguing story lends itself beautifully to operatic expression, said Opera Illinois General Manager William Swain. "The American setting for this opera and the tuneful score will appeal to everyone, especially those who love musical theater but may have been intimidated in the past by the prospect of an opera in a foreign language and which occurs in a remotely strange time and place. People all over the world are fascinated by the story of Horace and Baby Doe Tabor, just as they are with other affairs of the rich and famous-such as William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, Aristotle Onasis and Jackie Kennedy, or Donald Trump and Marla Maples."

In fact, operas based on real people-like Baby Doe-are fairly common. "In addition to operas written about historical persons such as Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots), Julius Caeser, and Don Carlo, the source material is often drawn from real people. Violetta in Traviata was modeled on the real-life Marie Duplesses, Lucia di Lammermoor tells the story of Janet Dalrymple, and there was an actual Madame Butterfly. The tragedy in I Pagliacci was literally ’ripped from the headlines.’ The earliest operas were most often about mytholog-ical figures or ancient kings and queens, but since Mozart, real people-with real emotions and real problems-populate the operas we love best," Margaret said.

She said Baby Doe should be especially meaningful to Peoria audiences, as there are several links to the community. "Caterpillar, for instance, conducts high altitude engine tests near Leadville, and the Kress Corporation founder, Ralph Kress, was inducted into the Mining Hall of Fame. Peorian Emma Abbot, an opera singer who performed leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera, sang at the opening night at the new Tabor Opera House in Denver and must have known Horace and Baby Doe Tabor."

A New Kind of Opera

The Ballad of Baby Doe will undoubtedly be new to many viewers, but Margaret said many of its patrons are still relatively new to opera in general. "For some, almost everything we do is a novel experience, so we try to make each production faithful to the original intent of the composer and as musically and technically excellent as possible, within our means. It takes time for an opera to become a classic, but if it’s a good piece, it’ll have tremendous impact on first hearing-maybe not the kind of response you would have had at the premiere of a bel canto opera, but a response appropriate to the work and the world we live in today."

William said Opera Illinois audiences generally want to see the best-loved operas in full, lavish productions. "We have patrons who express a desire for a little more variety, but our season of just three operas doesn’t allow for extreme choices, as bigger houses with eight, 10, or more productions per year. Financial considerations-costs and market-
ability-usually limit our repertoire choices to the ’greatest hits’ list. We haven’t yet attempted anything really non-traditional or radical, but the greatest box office success Opera Illinois ever enjoyed was Porgy and Bess in 1999. If The Ballad of Baby Doe sells well and is enthusiastically received, we’ll program more operas with similar appeal. We never worry that our audience won’t love this opera; we just worry that too many might miss the opportunity to see it."

Commissioned in 1956 to celebrate the bi-centennial of Columbia University, William clarified that The Ballad of Baby Doe isn’t really considered new anymore. In fact, it’s been translated into at least a dozen languages and has had thousands of performances all over the world. "Contemporary with works of Bernstein, Copland, and Menotti, Baby Doe has become a standard of the American opera repertory. It served as the ’break-out’ vehicle for the great American diva Beverly Sills, and since then, nearly all coloratura sopranos maintain Baby Doe’s arias as part of their repertoire."

Until recently, few operas were set in the U.S., he said, but it’s becoming more common. "Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) is perhaps the best known. The setting for Un Ballo in Maschera by Verdi was changed to Boston from Stockholm by the censors, who thought it was bad to kill a European king, but okay to murder the governor of the Massachusetts Colony. As our relatively young nation continues to grow, more and more works will be written by Americans and set in America, like Susannah and Of Mice and Men by Carlyle Floyd; Robert Ward’s The Crucible; Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land; and, more recently, Little Women, A Streetcar Named Desire and A View from the Bridge."

In general, William said the new operas being created today are fairly good. "Several new operas commissioned by the Met, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and San Francisco Opera are quite good. The problem is that creating a new opera is extremely expensive, limiting the number that can be produced. Composers don’t write operas like authors write novels, hoping it will be good enough to be published. Composers get their money up front with assurances that the opera will be performed," he explained.

To put this into perspective, Margaret pointed out that even geniuses like Mozart had a few clunkers. "Out of about 20 know operas by Mozart, only six remain in the current standard repertory. Of those six, two-Cosi Fan Tutte and Idomeneo-didn’t become part of the repertory until the mid-20th century, reflecting the vagaries of taste of the opera-going public. Remember that opera was the popular musical theater genre of the 17th, 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. There was no cinema, television, or radio, so people went to the opera all the time, and there was a huge demand for new works. That means hundreds of operas were being commissioned and written every year. Most were nothing better than mediocre and have died a welcome death, leaving only the great masterpieces as part of the standard repertoire. In 100 years, the same will have happened to most of the Broadway musicals we regard as big hits today."

For this production of The Ballad of Baby Doe, William Swain is directing and Karen Keltner will conduct the singers with the Opera Illinois Chorus and Orchestra. Keltner currently serves as music administrator and resident conductor of the San Diego Opera and has conducted throughout the country, including the Washington Opera in Washington, D.C. "She was a conducting student of Opera Illinois Artistic Director Fiora Contino at Indiana University, so we expect her to bring sensitivity to the text and a strong sense of musical structure and style to the score, as Fiora would instruct," Margaret said.

Esther Heideman appears in the title role, and Jan Opalach, who last appeared with Opera Illinois as Falstaff, will sing Horace Tabor. Augusta will be sung by Jennifer Tiller, and the rest of the cast, which includes nearly 30 named roles, will feature many of the most talented local singers, including Shelia Baker as Mama McCourt.

The production takes place at 7:30 p.m., April 16, and at 2 p.m., April 18, at the Peoria Civic Center. Tickets cost $26 to $58, with student discounts available. For more information, call 637-7253. AA!