As frontier towns were being established across the West, opera houses began popping up on the scene to provide a gathering space, bring a touch of culture, and help put a town on the map in developing areas. Today, those that survived and have been restored are distinct venues with rich histories for groups.
In Colorado alone, 132 opera houses were built in 68 towns between 1860 and 1920 writes Ann Satterthwaite in her book “Local Glories: Opera Houses on Main Street, Where Art and Culture Meet.” As Hollywood movies, radio and TV began delivering new entertainment options and automobiles made it easier to travel between towns, many opera houses began serving other uses, fell into a state of repair or simply disappeared. Mountain Meetings takes a look at some of the opera houses available to groups today in Colorado, New Mexico and California.
Wheeler Opera House has been Aspen’s community performance venue since 1889 and currently produces festivals involving comedy, global issues and songwriting and is the location for opera, concerts, movies, festivals, lectures and community events. The theater’s maximum seating capacity is around 500 and slightly less for films and speakers. From midJune to mid-August, the Wheeler Opera House theater is occupied by Aspen Music Festival and School and not available for rent, except for the Wheeler Bar Lobby, suitable for up to 105 on nonperformance or dress rehearsal nights.
“The Wheeler Opera House is centrally located and a busy place. It is host to numerous festival events—my favorite is the annual John Denver tribute. There are several spaces that can work for a simple networking reception to a full-on theatrical or musical show,” says Deana Mitchell, CMP, DMCP, CCSE and owner/operator of Realize Colorado, a destination management company with offices in Denver and Telluride.
The Sheridan Opera House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has 238 seats in the theater. Built in 1913 as a vaudeville theater and cultural center that attracted variety shows, orchestras and touring theater companies, Sheridan Opera House was saved from demolition and commercial development in the early 1990s. The first floor includes a box office lobby that leads into the recently remodeled SHOW Bar. The theater on the second and third floors can host up to 265. With the seats removed, the main theater floor accommodates groups of 190 standing and 80 to 100 seated for dinner.
“The Sheridan Opera House is a great spot for any type of event. Most recently, we used it for a reception prior to a dinner in town for a group of 50,” Mitchell says. “We had a historian come in and talk to the group about the town of Telluride and the building itself. The theater is amazing, and the newly renovated bar is great for events, too.”
Built in 1878 by the townspeople of Central City, including Welsh and Cornish miners, the Central City Opera House in Central City is the oldest surviving opera house in Colorado and is not available for rent but worthy of noting. The National Historic Landmark seats up to 550 and has hosted a summer festival performed by the Central City Opera (the nation’s fifth oldest opera company) since 1932. The festival focuses on traditional and progressive works.
The 1888 Wright Opera House in Ouray is currently being renovated and available for limited rentals, while the 1879 Tabor Opera House in Leadville is open only in the summer months as fundraising efforts are underway to rehabilitate the structure that was purchased by the City of Leadville in 2016. During summer, comedy, theater, dance, literary and musical performances take place at the facility and tours are available.
For a legitimate Old West experience, head to the historic Buckhorn Saloon & Opera House in Pinos Altos, New Mexico. The community started out as a mining town in 1860 following the discovery of gold in the nearby Pinos Altos Mountains. Downtown Pinos Altos resembles an old Western movie set, and the Buckhorn has been a gathering place for food, music and camaraderie since the 1860s.
The 1865 opera house is available for private gatherings and features a large stage and full bar. “It’s a really beautiful building and decorates itself. There is a very authentic feel when Western bands play there,” says Jocelyn Rowse, who helps groups book the Opera House and restaurant next door.
With two dining rooms, a banquet room and a bar, Buckhorn Saloon can host up to 500 guests. Thomas Bock, owner and executive chef, worked as a chef in San Francisco and Manhattan before relocating to Pinos Altos nine years ago. Together, the facilities serve groups of up to 350 and are popular locations for retreats, trainings, dinners and other uses, Rowse says.
The impressive Santa Fe Opera campus offers a variety of attractive venues located on 155 acres with panoramic views of the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The Crosby Theatre and Stieren Orchestra Hall are situated on a mesa top, while the lower grounds (formerly the San Juan Ranch guest resort) feature a cantina, swimming pool, spacious lawn, rehearsal space and offices.
The award-winning Crosby Theatre is both visually striking and state of the art. Starting out as a 480-seat structure constructed in 1957 and rebuilt in 1968 due to a fire, the Crosby Theatre of today has a seating capacity of 2,128 and more than 26,600 square feet of space. The architecturally distinct roof not only delivers excellent acoustics, it has the ability to collect approximately 60,000 gallons of rainwater annually to maintain the opera grounds. Stieren Orchestra Hall was added in 2001 and provides 12,650 square feet of rehearsal areas, costume storage, and space for the opera company and other groups to host lectures, special events and recitals.
David Stone, regional director of special events for Heritage Hotel and Resort’s five Santa Fe and two Taos properties, has helped small corporate groups of up to 25 guests organize outings to the opera. Since many of the operas sell out well in advance, groups need to book tickets early, he suggests.
Two of Stone’s favorite pre-opera activities are tailgate parties and preview dinners. His team can help rent space for the tailgate and have a tent, bar, food and candelabras all ready to go for attendees to “enjoy the beautiful setting with rolling hills and trees,” he says. Sampler and dinner tailgate boxes also can be purchased through Santa Fe Opera along with tickets to preview dinners that are held at the open-air cantina and feature a speaker who provides a brief overview of the evening’s opera.
Sonora Opera Hall, located in historic downtown Sonora in the middle of the Sierra Nevada foothills, has been restored and features hardwood floors, burgundy velvet draperies, large windows, a stage and a large prep kitchen. The community landmark dates back to 1885 and holds up to 400 for gatherings or 225 with table seating.
The location originally was home to Star Flouring Mill that opened in 1879 and burned down in 1885. The owners immediately resurrected the building as the Opera Hall, utilizing the brick walls with stone supports that remained along with five front openings that became the entrance. After reopening on Christmas Eve 1885, the Opera Hall hosted numerous balls, skating parties, meetings, plays and concerts for 11 years before being modified for other uses. The City of Sonora purchased the building in late 1986 and began the revitalization process.
Add a little history and culture to a gathering by booking one of the truly iconic opera houses in the U.S. Mountain West.