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The Lady from Colorado, an opera by Robert Ward, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer of The Crucible, premiered at Central City Opera July 3, 1964. "The glittering first-night audience, with many Denver society figures and Colorado political leaders, cheered and applauded throughout the performance, and at the final curtain showered the singers with Colorado carnations, according to Central City custom" (1). Emerson Buckley, who led the world premiere of Baby Doe in 1956, conducted. The Lady from Colorado is based on a novel by Homer Croy (2), who attended the premiere. Croy, a successful author of Western books, based his story on Catherine (Katie) Lawder, born of Irish parents on an English ship in 1865. She became an orphan at age 12 and was sent to Iowa to live with her mother's sister. At age 18, Katie came to Larimer County, CO, and with her second marriage in 1888 to Sir Cecil Moon, scion of an English baronet, became Lady Moon. Frank H. Ricketson, Jr., president of the Central City Opera Association, had acquired rights to the novel and he turned to Ward and librettist Bernard Stambler to turn it into an opera.
"There was indeed cause for cheering: the singing was generally excellent and occasionally superb; the orchestra played briskly and well; the sets and costumes were colorful and interesting; and the singers, choristers and dancers displayed considerable verve and vitality, but there was also cause for disappointment: The Lady from Colorado is a slight piece of work. It is not really an opera nor is it a musical comedy, although it utilizes technique from both forms. It is rather, a short musical revue, consisting of numbers held together by a hint of a plot" (3). "The role of Katie was sung by Mary Ellen Pracht of the Metropolitan Opera. Davis Cunningham was Lord Moon. The audience responded warmly to the performances of Chester Ludgin, who played frontiersman Jeff Stafford, and Mignon Dunn, who was Katie's friend Eve St. John. Ludgin is a member of the San Francisco and New York Opera companies and Miss Dunn of the Metropolitan. Other principals were Marija Kova as the Indian girl Sarah Chicken, Thomas Paul as the sinister Mexican Jack Spaniard and Herbert Beattie as the English butler Rutledge Blunt" (1). On July 15, the Fort Collins Symphony Women's Guild sponsored a Fort Collins Night performance of The Lady from Colorado. About 300 local residents traveled in buses and private cars to attend Fort Collins Night.
"The Lady from Colorado has a number of entertaining and impressive moments, but these moments, whether cast in the operatic or musical comedy mold, do not really add up to a complete experience in the musical theatre" (4). Despite the critics' view that Lady was "nearly all corn," its "chief characters are stereotypes," and was "devoid of dramatic momentum," the audience loved it. "The work... closed the association's 29th festival tonight. This was the 15th performance of the opera, and like all the previous ones, it was sold out. The work has been a commercial success and the 800 people who crowded the little stone opera house for the final performance cheered and applauded it until the customary singing of Auld Lang Syne brought the evening and the festival to an end" (5). Lady alternated with performances of Madama Butterfly that season. A plaque in the Opera Garden, between the Opera House and the Teller House commemorates the world premiere of The Lady from Colorado, an event that proved to be less of a success than was hoped for (6). The Lady from Colorado was revised by Ward in 1993 and renamed Lady Katie. That version was performed by the Ohio Light Opera in 1994 and by Triangle Opera in 1995.
The true story of Catherine Gratton Lawder, who became Lady Moon, is related in Lafi Miller's Those Crazy Pioneers (7) and is vastly different from the inventions in Croy's novel. Shortly after arriving in Colorado, she found work in the Elkhorn Lodge near Manhattan, a Larimer County mining town no longer in existence, northwest of Fort Collins, between Rustic and Red Feather Lakes. Katie met and married a miner named Frank H. Gartman, who was several years older than she. Englishman Cecil Ernest Moon, after an unsuccessful start in mining near Georgetown, came to Larimer County and enrolled in a ranching school in Katie's neighborhood. Shortly thereafter, Cecil became ill and Katie was hired to look after him. Apparently with very little, if any, hard feelings, she divorced Frank and then in 1888 married Cecil.
Cecil and Katie traveled to England that year, taking her horse, Moses, and her riding gear, to meet his family, She was not well received by the aristocratic Moon family, as she was boisterous and ill mannered, and definitely did not conform to the sedate Victorian morals.
Sir Cecil inherited the baronetcy upon the death of his grandfather in 1899. At this time the Moons again went to England to receive the title and they stayed there until 1901. Later that year they returned from England and took up residence in Denver. At about this time the Moons acquired ranch and mining property in the vicinity of Manhattan. Katie and Cecil made another trip to England in 1903. She returned before the end of the year but Cecil remained there until 1905. She spent much of her time on the ranch drinking whiskey and hanging out with the ranch hands. Lord Cecil, being an Oxford educated gentleman, spent most of his time reading in their library. In 1909 Sir Cecil filed for divorce and sued Katie to recover $61,000 he claimed she owed him. Sir Cecil returned to England and remarried (and did not become a Senator from Colorado, as in Croy's novel). After their divorce, Catherine could not legally use the title she was so proud of, but she expected to be referred to as Lady Moon and the local community assented. She continued to be a controversial figure in Fort Collins, dyeing her hair and dressing very flamboyantly. She died in 1926 and was interred in Mt. Olivet Cemetery, on the western edge of Denver.
The real-life adventures of Katie Lawder Moon were the inspiration for a Broadway play, Sunday, starring Ethel Barrymore, and also the basis for Our Gal Sunday, a radio soap opera,, the story of an orphan girl from Silver Creek, Colorado who marries a British aristocrat. It was broadcast from 1937 to 1959, one of the longest running programs in radio history. Richard Strahle wrote a one-act biographical play, Lady Moon, that portrays Katie as a strong, fairly eccentric, and compassionate Colorado pioneer and rancher. It was performed by Openstage Theater of Fort Collins during their 2002-2003 season.
1. New York Times, July 5, 1964, p. 42.
2. Croy, Homer, 1957, The Lady from Colorado, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York, 277 pp.
3. Denver Post, July 4, 1964, p. 3.
4. Denver Post, July 6, 1964, p. 22.
5. New York Times, July 27, 1964, p. 21.
6. Young, Allen, 1993, Opera in Central City, Spectrographics, Inc., Denver, 117 pp.
7. Miller, Lafi, 2000, Those Crazy Pioneers, published by the author, 167 pp.