The Ballad of Baby Doe

Moore, Douglas and John Latouche

album cover

An Oft-Neglected Great American Opera

This great American opera tells the true story of Baby Doe Taber, the trophy wife of a Colorado mine prospector and U.S. senator, Horace Taber. Their premarital relationship was an open secret in the town of Leadville, and and when they finally married, the couple lived lavishly until a devaluation of silver made their holdings essentially worthless. After Horace died, in 1899, Baby Doe retreated to a cabin on the property of the "Matchless mine," and undertook repeated attempts to make it profitable while scribbling increasingly delusional notes to herself. She was found frozen to death on the floor of her cabin in 1935; by that time, her story had inspired a stage play, a musical, a one-woman show, and several books.

The plot devices are fairly common. As ever, the genius is in the telling: Composer Douglas Moore (1893–1969) spends much of the first act establishing the mores and manners of the day, via broad-shouldered music that has the sweep (but, happily, not the clipclopping clichés) of the American West. Then, early in the second act, the music grows deeper, throwing the characters into sharper relief; suddenly what had been a conventional morality play grows into a more nuanced human drama. The work ends with a quiet aria that telescopes time: Baby Doe, played by Beverly Sills, sheds her hood to reveal that she's grown old and gray, and then continues singing about her incredibly sad circumstances.

This was Sills's first major role, and it remains one of her best. A child prodigy, she toured regularly as "the youngest diva in captivity." She married a wealthy man and was able to pick her engagements. She was living in Cleveland when Baby Doe was being cast, and heard through the diva grapevine that composer Moore considered her too tall to play Baby Doe. She auditioned anyway, wearing her highest heels and singing the arias from memory; she got the part.

What she does with it is tremendous acting: Rather than play up the trophy wife aspect of Baby Doe, which would turn most women in the audience against her, Sills instead approaches Baby Doe as an innocent, cultivating empathy for the character. Her wonderfully proportioned and radiant voice does the rest, emulating the gentle sway of the weeping willow ("Willow Song"), capturing the nervousness that runs beneath polite conversation ("I Beg Your Pardon"). Even if you're somehow not rooting for Baby Doe, it's impossible to deny Sills's moving, ever effortless singing. This is what people mean when they talk about a star-making performance.

Genre: Classical
Released: 1961, Deutsche Grammophon
Key Tracks: "Willow Song," "The Fine Ladies," "The Cattle Are Asleep," "Always Through the Changing."
Next Stop: Jules Massenet: Manon
After That: Renée Fleming: Bel canto.
Book Pages: 518–519

Buy this Recording

Share this page:

site design: Juxtaprose