The Tabor Opera House was the first theater to set up in Leadville in 1879, and over 140 years later it is the only one still standing. Originally built by Horace Tabor, who made a fortune of $ 9 million in cash before losing it all in a single decade, the building has stood the test of time by passing into the ownership of the fraternal order of the Elks Club, then to the locals historian Evelyn Furman and her family, until she was finally purchased by the Town of Leadville in 2016.
The design and architecture of the theater alone has earned the Tabor Opera House the official designation of “National Treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Thousands of tourists and visitors have passed through its doors to find themselves transported to the glory days of mining-fueled wealth in the wild west, when the best ladies and gentlemen in town dressed to sit in richly decorated seats and attend an opera among the elite of Western society.
The theater gained national opera fame, but it wasn’t until three years ago that historical stage specialist Wendy Waszut-Barrett with a Ph.D. in the theater arts discovered a new treasure in the attic: around 250 painted stage sets depicting scenes from 1879 to 1902.
âI had coworkers saying there was scenery in the attic so I asked to poke around and then I was absolutely amazed at what was there,â Waszut- Barrett. “I’ve been doing this for three decades, and I’ve checked with colleagues all over the world, and they’re all as shocked as I am that it’s still there and still intact. It shows the full scope of performing art in American theater – it’s also big. “
After her initial discovery in 2018, Waszut-Barrett returned to Leadville twice in 2020 to begin cleaning and documenting the sets that have been rolled up, put away and covered in dust, some hidden away for over a century. With the help of local volunteers, she carefully unrolled and processed the paintings to reveal what she considers to be one of the largest collections of 19th-century landscapes in North America.
âThere may be hundreds of historic theaters with a play in a setting, but the Tabor has 14 theater collections ranging from 1879 to 1902, and I don’t even count the last pieces of the 20th century,â Waszut-Barrett said. . âThey have two decent theaters, and it’s unheard of.â
The discovery of this exceptional collection came at an already dramatic turning point in the history of opera. After helping to raise $ 600,000 to help the city buy the opera house in 2016, the Tabor Opera House Preservation Foundation began working on plans for a $ 15 million rehabilitation of the building, which would include winterizing of the structure to allow tours and performances throughout the year.
Jenny Buddenborg is the current President of the Tabor House Opera Preservation Foundation.
âWe didn’t know how perfect the term ‘national treasure’ was for this,â Buddenborg said with a laugh. “The building itself is this incredible treasure in the story it tells, and here we have this incredible collection of historic stage sets as well.”
While the collection holds the potential for an abundance of new artistic, cultural and educational opportunities, it also poses an additional challenge for the foundation, an entirely volunteer staff who are now tasked with the curation and preservation of these precious artefacts.
“This is a great discovery with great responsibility, because, whether the Tabor Opera Preservation Foundation likes it or not, it has become a major steward of a truly significant historical and cultural acquisition,” Waszut-Barrett said. “It’s one of those times when it’s so exciting, and anything is possible, but it’s also terrifying, because the same story has been played out thousands of times in the United States.”
Waszut-Berrett saw comparable collections end up in dumpsters during theater renovations, either because the stewards didn’t know what they had, or because they didn’t have the resources or motivation to do so. to keep.
Buddenborg and his team are only beginning to come to terms with what is now in their hands, but if they manage to raise the funds they intend to keep the sets at the opera and hopefully bring them back to the opera house. public space to share them. with as many people as possible.
âWe always try to figure out what we have first, and then we can come up with a plan to use it, but ideally we would like to continue using these parts in performances in the future,â Buddenborg said. âWe also want to be able to ensure that the audience experiences it also outside of performances, and it is possible to create educational opportunities and conservation workshops. The sky is the limit at this point, and we’re just trying to figure out how that will fit into our larger vision of Tabor Opera. “
The discovery of the landscape drew the attention of an international audience to Leadville, and on August 11 of this year, the New York Times published a feature article on the collection, which has strengthened opera’s presence on the world stage.
The article led to an increase in donations to the foundation’s conservation efforts, as well as an increase in the number of visitors hoping to see the collection for themselves. Tammy Taber, who is married to a distant relative of Horace Tabor, is the main guide of the Tabor opera. The touring season runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day and over 800 tourists have visited this summer. Tabor said that since The Times report, 50% more people than usual came, wanting to know more and see the scenery.
âWe had to add a whole different set of stage sets to our tour,â Taber said. âThere are a lot of people who come who are theater and scenography people, so we have to know what we are talking about. I’m in a whole different world now with this landscape thing, and it’s awesome.
Taber has worked at the opera house for 18 years and is the only full-time employee. She began volunteering under former owner Evelyn Furman and is now an integral part of the rehabilitation and preservation processes.
“What attracted me here was Ms. Furman and the story, and now what keeps me here is being part of the story, being right in the middle of the story,” Taber said. âFor me, this place is magical. I saw him move into a new property, a new life, a new longevity, I saw him go totally on the map. And I have always been here with the same passion. I mean, I can walk into this theater and cry the same tears of joy that I cried 15 years ago, I really can. So feeling that again, and then having the excitement of continuing to jump to another level and another level and another level, that’s pretty cool. What’s next? I give myself goosebumps.
For now, Waszut-Barrett is donating her time as an expert consultant to help create a plan and build a solid foundation to preserve and hopefully reuse the landscape in the future.
âI would love to stay involved because there is so much to learn that goes beyond just documentation,â Waszut-Barrett said. âI would love to do restoration techniques and for it to become a center of landscape restoration on an international scale. Would love to see the sets reused on stage – would love to move to Leadville then, if I can survive the 10,000 feet!
The Tabor Opera House Preservation Foundation continues to increase its fundraising and planning efforts to meet the emerging needs of the space, and with sufficient support it intends to make the building and the landscape accessible to the audience for decades to come.
âIt takes a tremendous amount of passion, and our board exudes that,â said Buddenborg. âThe non-profit organization will continuously evolve and we will increase our staff to be able to administer the vision of the board in the future. We’re a mixed group, but each of us has a very deep passion for Tabor Opera, its connection to the community and how we can all work together to make it a very vibrant space.
To learn more about the Tabor Opera House and to contribute to preservation efforts, visit taboroperahouse.net.
For a detailed description of Wendy Waszut-Barrett’s findings and landscape analysis, visit drypigment.net and search for “Tabor Opera”.