Bringing Baby back at Dinkelspiel Auditorium

Sixty years ago, one of the first successful American operas, The Ballad of Baby Doe, made its West Coast premiere at Stanford’s then brand-new Dinkelspiel Auditorium. The opera, based on the true and tragic story of Elizabeth “Baby” Doe Tabor and her romance with the wealthy silver king Horace Tabor, was commissioned by Colorado’s Central City Opera, where it debuted the prior year.

Baby Doe posterThe first Stanford performance on May 23, 1957, dedicated the new Florence Hellman Dinkelspiel Auditorium, which was “so advanced in interior design that it has been called the ‘theater of tomorrow,’” according to the Stanford Daily.

The Dinkelspiel cast and orchestra numbered over 125, and tickets went for $1.50 to $2.50 a seat. Among the Stanford cast was MARILYN POPPINO, ’57, a music major who went on to enjoy a successful opera career abroad, and THEODORE “TED” TOEWS, ’53, MA ’62 (music), who taught and co-founded the Cabrillo Music Festival in Aptos, California.

Stanford’s Department of Music and the Stanford Light Opera Company (SLOCo) are bringing The Ballad of Baby Doe back to Dinkelspiel with ticketed matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. and special free preview performances for the Stanford community; one last night and another tonight at 7:30 p.m. See the performance information on the Stanford Event Calendar.

The opera composed by Douglas Moore with librettist John Latouche features guest baritone EUGENE BRANCOVEANU of the San Francisco Opera as Horace Tabor, with stage direction by WENDY HILLHOUSE and musical direction by MARIE-LOUISE CATSALIS, both lecturers with the Department of Music.

Hillhouse writes in her director’s notes: “When Baby Doe Tabor was found frozen to death in a filthy shack in Colorado in 1935, the story was a media sensation. Newspapers from coast to coast put it on the front page: Widow Tabor Frozen to Death at the Matchless Mine! A movie was made, and pamphlets and short stories about the sensational history of Elizabeth ‘Baby’ Doe and her romance with wealthy Horace Tabor, his scandalous divorce from his first wife, Augusta, and the rise and fall of their fortunes exploded into popular legend. With its tuneful, popular style and soaring melodies, Baby Doe is a brilliant evocation of the mining era in the American West and a true portrait of life in Leadville, Denver and even Washington, D.C.”

Strongly based in historical fact, the opera addresses Populism and the late 19th-century Free Silver Movement, as well as boom-and-bust economic cycles, with appearances by presidential candidate and famed orator William Jennings Bryan and President Chester Arthur.

Hillhouse chose to set the show as a sort of re-enactment that lures a tour group from 2017 into participating in the story. The idea came directly from the story’s relevance to events of today. She says, “The legend of Baby Doe may be largely forgotten now, but the story and its lessons are timeless: Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

From the honky-tonk saloon pianos and vaudeville tunes, parlor waltzes, square dances and rousing marching band tunes, composer Moore transports the audience to late 19th-century Colorado, and internationally acclaimed baritone Brancoveanu delivers a compelling Tabor.

This is the Department of Music’s second production in collaboration with the Stanford Light Opera Company, formerly the Stanford Savoyards. SLOCo is a student-run theater company open to the public for cast and crew, as was their predecessor the Stanford Savoyards, who presented the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan since 1973. Last year the organization decided to expand their repertoire, thus the name change.