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First Opera Companies in Colorado

by Stephen E. Busch

The first professional opera singers to appear in Colorado may have been Mr. and Mrs. Gruenwald from San Francisco. Mrs. Gruenwald was described as "the celebrated  prima donna" from San Francisco. Her husband also sang but apparently was not "celebrated." They appeared in Denver on December 8 and 9, 1864, but not in an opera house; such a named structure was almost twenty years in the future. The Gruenwalds then traveled to Central City for a few performances, apparently in the Montana Theatre, before continuing travel eastward to the states, supposedly by overland stage.

The Howson Opera Troupe, an Australian family composed of Emma Howson, her father, Francis (a baritone and conductor), and her brothers, performed in June and July, 1869, in Denver in what could be considered the first operas. They were traveling across the west, coming from San Francisco on the newly completed transcontinental railroad. They had previously performed in the Salt Lake City Theatre, accompanied by a recently formed SLC Theatre orchestra of seven players. The Howsons were the first opera troupe seen by the Mormons. Upon reaching Cheyenne on June 24, the Howsons boarded a Wells Fargo stage for Denver. Records indicate that they occupied six seats, so obviously they were a company of only six singers and not accompanied by their own orchestra. After the Denver appearances, the Howson Opera Troupe performed at the Montana Theatre in Central City for two weeks. The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein by Offenbach was their opening performance on July 5 and that, presumably, was the first professionally performed opera in Central City. On July 26 they took the stage back to Cheyenne, again using six seats. Emma's father died during this tour, before the family eventually arrived in New York.

The first of many professional opera productions in Colorado to be fully staged and with orchestra was provided by the Richings-Bernard Opera Troupe in 1877. Caroline Richings-Bernard was a capable soprano who was nearing the end of a long career. An accomplished pianist, her operatic debut was in The Daughter of the Regiment on February 9, 1852, in Philadelphia. Subsequently she sang with her father's English Opera Company in the early 1850s. She married a tenor in the Company, Pierre Bernard, and they took it over when her father retired.

MaritanaThe Troupe, which included seven other lead singers, offered Flotow's Martha in Pueblo's Chillicot Hall on July 13, 1877. The following night they sang Wallace's Maritana in Colorado Springs using City Hall.

Their big stop was in Denver where they presented Maritana on July 16, Verdi's Il Trovatore on July 19, Auber's Fra Diavolo on July 20, Martha in a matinee and Balfe's The Bohemian Girl in the evening of Saturday, July 21. The Denver appearance concluded with Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro Sunday night, July 22. Figaro was sung in Turner Hall; all the previous performances were in the Guard Hall. Neither venue was adequate for an opera performance. Originally there was to be no opera on Sunday evening, but Fra Diavolo was added to the Denver schedule after arrival in Denver.

The Troupe was scheduled to perform the next evening, Monday July 23, in Georgetown, and they made it there in time, singing Il Trovatore in Cushman's Opera House, the Company's first "opera house" in Colorado. Still in Cushman's, Richings-Bernard offered The Bohemian Girl on Tuesday and finished their Georgetown appearance with Martha on Wednesday. They were in Central City on July 27 and 28.

The Company stayed five nights in Cheyenne, Wyoming, August 2-6, after which it boarded the transcontinental train for performances in Laramie and Evanston, Wyoming, Salt Lake City and Ogden, Utah, before reaching California.

Bohemian GirlMore proficient opera companies-- and some less-- were to appear in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain area in the next few decades. But the Richings-Bernard Opera Troupe typified most of the traveling opera companies during the 1870-1900 period in many respects:

• It had about six operas in its repertoire for a nine-month season.
• When not singing a lead role, one usually sang with the small chorus.
• The orchestra was minimal and added local talent when available; the combined orchestra's rehearsal, then, usually was the company's first performance!
• Most operas were sung in English, a practice the British had started and was promoted through much of the 19th century.
• Travel was by railroad.
• All expenses were covered by ticket sales; smaller-than-expected attendance prompted many companies to add or cancel performances, depending on circumstances, or even disband while on tour.
• Tour schedules were very demanding, very tiring; meal times varied, and when on the trains, food was available only from station platforms until dining cars began to appear on western trains in the 1890s.

When a singer became ill or exhausted, he/she nevertheless was expected to perform; no performance, no pay. Newspaper reviewers frequently remarked about tired performers.

Just as the designation of a building as an opera house gives no indication of its physical properties and suitability for opera performance, so the designation of a group of performers as an opera company gives no indication of its musical capabilities or the genres of the music literature it performs. From the earliest appearances of opera companies in Colorado until the waning of their popularity in the early twentieth century, the traveling opera companies varied greatly both in the type of opera or musical entertainment they offered and the quality of their performers.

These pages will not include descriptions of the burlesque-type of opera companies that toured the country, including Colorado, but will include the stories and descriptions of opera companies that opera devotees of today would term legitimate, including grand opera, so-called light opera or operetta, and Gilbert and Sullivan. Of these companies, some were consistently good, some questionable, some simply struggling to maintain their entity. Some appeared in Colorado but once; others performed here a number of times.

Their performances in Colorado can be described in part through old newspaper accounts and records, published recollections, books, and theses and dissertations. Here, in the following pages, is a sampling of their history.
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