Ballad of Baby Doe
All materials courtesy of New York City Opera
On a street in Leadville, Colorado, 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 has just arrived in town and is looking for the Clarendon Hotel, where she will lodge.
Later that evening, outside the Clarendon, Horace hears Baby Doe singing through an open window. She appears at the window and offers the smitten Horace her hand to kiss before Augusta calls him inside.
Several months later, while Augusta tidies Horace's desk in their apartment at the Clarendon, she discovers a check made out to the Matchless Mine. She also finds a pair of white gloves, which, the maid informs her, are a gift from Horace to Baby Doe. Augusta confronts Horace about the Matchless Mine, which she believes to be an unwise investment, but he spurns her warnings. Then Augusta produces the gloves, and Horace admits to his affair with Baby Doe. Enraged, Augusta vows to drive Baby Doe out of town.
Packed to depart from Leadville, Baby Doe writes her mother that her husband Harvey has left her, and that she feels it is wrong to stay with Horace Tabor, a married man. Augusta pays Baby Doe a visit, warning her that 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.
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, do not 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.
In 1893, at a ball given for Horace in Denver by the Governor of Colorado, Augusta's gossiping friends snub Baby. Baby explains to her mother that they are simply jealous that she and Horace are still so happy.
Two 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.
In 1896, confident that silver will make a comeback when William Jennings Bryan is elected President, Horace tries to convince his cronies to join him in backing the Matchless Mine. When they refuse, Horace accuses them of cowardice. Horace, Baby, and their two little daughters stage a rally for William Jennings Bryan outside the Matchless Mine.
Augusta hears that William Jennings Bryan has been defeated by William McKinley. Baby's mother, Mama McCourt, begs Augusta to rescue Tabor from his subsequent financial ruin, but Augusta refuses. Augusta, however, privately expresses her regret over her own severity and her failed marriage.
Horace Tabor, ruined and dying, 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 is an old woman, and she too dies.
Douglas Moore (1893 - 1969)
In 1926, a decade before composing his first opera, American composer Douglas Moore wrote that he would "try to combine a reasonable modernity with attention to melody." Incorporating "modernity" was an effort for Moore, whose music was more indebted to the melodic conventions of nineteenth century opera, as well as the hymn tunes, dances, and ballads of American popular and folk music.
Born August 10, 1893, in Cutchogue, New York, Moore's education was broad and lengthy. He studied at Yale University, and, then, following a stint in the US Navy at the end of World War I, he went to Paris to study with Vincent d'Indy at the Schola Cantorum in Paris. Upon his return to America, he studied with Ernest Bloch in Cleveland, and held the post as organist at the Cleveland Museum of Art from 1921 to 1923. He returned to Europe in 1925 on a Pulitzer traveling scholarship before joining the faculty of New York's Columbia University in 1926.
Although Moore wrote several songs and orchestral works, his creative impulses were principally fired by opera. His was a peculiarly American approach to the art form. Not only was he influenced by American musical idioms, but his dramatic source material was drawn from his own family history (dating back to colonial settlements in the mid-1600's), factual American stories (The Ballad of Baby Doe and Carry Nation), and American literature (including Washington Irving and Henry James).
In 1940, one year after the premiere of his opera The Devil and Daniel Webster, which was called "effective, melodious and conventional" by its first director, John Houseman, Moore became the head of the Columbia University music department. His career as an educator and promoter of American music was rivaled only by his career as a composer.
Moore's "folk opera" The Ballad of Baby Doe, which received its 1956 premiere in Central City, Colorado, is one of the most popular operas in the American repertory. Based on real-life Colorado characters, this tale of the rise and fall of silver magnate Horace Tabor and his lover "Baby" Doe was commissioned to mark Columbia University's bicentennial.
After Baby Doe made its mark in the late fifties, Moore composed four more works for the stage, including Gallantry (1957), The Wings of the Dove (1961), The Greenfield Christmas Tree (1962), and Carry Nation (1966). In 1951, he received a Pulitzer Prize for his opera Giants in the Earth.
Moore retired from Columbia University's music department in 1962, and died in the summer of 1969 in Greenport, New York, at the age of 75.
All American Arias
by Cori Ellison
Though The Ballad of Baby Doe takes place chiefly in Colorado - and received its premiere there in 1956 - it has become indelibly associated with New York City Opera. First presented by the company in 1958, this quintessentially American historical tale became so wildly popular that it has been revived by NYCO in eight seasons, televised on PBS in 1976, and recorded by NYCO in 1959. On the eve of our third new production of Baby Doe, four City Opera leading ladies, past and present, offer their thoughts on this American classic.
Joyce Castle: My first acquaintance with Baby Doe was when I was at the University of Kansas. I sang one of the four friends of Augusta, and I loved the opera immediately. I wished I could have sung Augusta, but my voice was not yet ready for that. I sang my first Augusta in 1986, when I was called to step in for an ailing colleague at Long Beach Opera. I had to get on a plane the next day and be in rehearsal the following day. And even though I hadn't actually studied the role, on that first day of rehearsal I was off book because I had so much of it "in my bones" from all those years ago. Since then, I've played Augusta at Cleveland Opera,
Seattle Opera, Chautauqua Opera, Indianapolis Opera, and here at NYCO.
This story is so American, so tied to history and real people. I bring a lot of myself to it, but it's also very interesting to have a historical character that you can read about. Augusta was the first white woman to see the California gulf. She worked like a dog. She did everybody's laundry and cooked for the other miners. She put in all those hours, for twenty years, and fought right alongside her man. And then the young blonde walked in and cleaned up. Augusta died in her sixties, a wealthy woman. She'd gone to California for a while, then went back to Colorado. She had her son Maxie around for a while, who doesn't figure at all in the opera. The impression is created that the Tabors were childless, and it's a great added theatrical value that Augusta is barren.
There's also a lot of Augusta that has to do with her New England background. Baby Doe is very flamboyant - she's from the Midwest, while Augusta was raised by wealthy parents from New England. She was austere, proper, religious, and moral, a product of that Puritan background, and therefore not given at all to excess. And there lay a lot of her problems with Horace. Perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to Augusta was Horace getting so rich. Sure, she wanted that home, a comfortable life, she wanted to have her tea parties. But he got unbelievably, outrageously rich. He was suited for that, but Augusta was not at all. And it all came crashing down around her. She even says that in the second act. In essence, she says, "I was rather foolish. I didn't show him tenderness. But he should have known. Well, it wasn't enough. I contained my feelings for him and it was my own undoing." That's her final aria, which just tells it all, and brings great sympathy to the character. Later, in the dream sequence, we see the young Augusta, the way she was at the very first. She's a character that takes such a journey. It's a real gift of a role, one of my dearest roles.
Elizabeth Futral: This is my first time singing Baby Doe, but I think any American singer would feel they had a head start, because the opera is such pure, evocative Americana. I've spent a good bit of time in Santa Fe, not so terribly far from Leadville and Central City, Colorado, and I paid a brief visit to Central City this summer. But I think any American, regardless of geography, could relate to these self-reliant, self-made characters. They're like embodiments of the American dream.
Baby Doe was a pretty straightforward, earthy person. She marched to her own drummer, wore her emotions openly, ventured into territory others wouldn't have. She could seem like an opportunist, and the opera does gloss over some of the circumstances of her divorce and of her meeting with Horace Tabor. But I believe that she fell truly and deeply in love with Horace. And she certainly stood by him even when things took a turn for the worse. If you doubt her sincerity, just listen to her music.
The "journey" Baby Doe takes is also something quite unusual in an operatic role. We follow her story from her meeting with Horace, as a very young woman, through their marriage, his death, and finally her death.
The sound of Baby Doe is also pure Americana, with an archetypal, almost Broadway-like sound, not unlike Showboat. In form, though, it's a typical "number opera", filled with memorable, extractable tunes and arias. And it's fun for American opera singers to wrap our voices around that style. It's a real "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" opera. It's so popular because it's a compelling story with vivid characters and beautiful music. It works!
Beverly Sills: I've always loved Baby - she's one of my favorite girls. First of all, the Baby Doe era was a very special time in my life. The review made the front page of the Herald Tribune. And I recorded the opera when I was pregnant with my daughter, so we sort of did that together.
It was during the very early stages of my career, and I must have been the 104th soprano they auditioned for the role. The conductor, Emerson Buckley, thought I was too big for the role, so Julius Rudel urged me to sing for the composer, Douglas Moore. So I went in there pretty truculently, with my highest heels and a big white hat. And I said, "Dr. Moore, this is how big I am, and this is how big I'll be after I sing for you. If that's a problem, please tell me now, and we'll save your time and my energy." Dr. Moore said, "You look just perfect to me, Ms. Sills." So I sang Baby Doe's "Willow Song" - which I lovingly refer to as her "Liebestod" - and I knew I had the role when Emerson stood up and began conducting me.
The biggest battle in playing Baby Doe is not to let the audience hate her. After all, she walks off with Augusta's husband, and Augusta is such a sympathetic character. You have to be careful not to play her as a little tart who flounced in to get this rich guy. It's a mistake to wiggle that bustle. Whether it's historically accurate or not, it's important to play her as a woman who took one look at Horace Tabor and fell head over heels in love. You can establish that sincerity right away when she sits down to write that letter to her mama. And if you do that, then the audience will really weep with you in the opera's final moments.
Frances Bible: My mother was from New England, and I was brought up in upper New York State, a stone's throw from New England. So I felt I really understood Augusta Tabor. I found it a much harder role emotionally than Amneris, where you can flail around and throw yourself all over the stage and let it all hang out. But Augusta is a proper New England woman, so she has to keep it all inside, and that really takes a toll on you. After the first few performances, I couldn't eat my dinner for hours. And when I can't eat, you know there's something wrong.
When I was studying the role of Augusta, there wasn't yet much printed information available. But in Colorado, I was able to talk to the son of Tabor's lawyer, and there were still a number of people around who'd known Augusta and Baby Doe. And I did see some daguerrotypes of the young Augusta. She was quite a handsome woman, better looking than Baby Doe in some ways, but an entirely different type. She was an amazing character, with all she did to keep the family afloat before Horace hit it big.
At first, the critics didn't take Baby Doe too seriously - they felt it was clichéd. But pretty soon it began winning awards, and now it's one of the top five most popular American operas. I think it's the combination of that true, all-American story, and the fact that the music and lyrics just captured that period so well.
Cori Ellison is NYCO's Dramaturg and Director of Supertitles.
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