Dec 3, 2020
and Phebe Berkowitz-Tanners
Phebe Berkowitz-Tanners grew up in the Central City
Opera House. Her family made a second home in our magical,
old western town during the summers of 1953-1963 when her father,
Metropolitan Opera violist David Berkowitz, played the Festival
season with the Central City Opera Orchestra. Now a dedicated
supporter of the company, Phebe reminisces with CCO Director of
Development Katie Nicholson about mounting backyard opera
productions with other children of the Festival company (attended
by famous singers and actors of the main stage!), experiencing the
world premiere of The Ballad of Baby Doe from
behind the scenes and the expansive and international Central City
Opera community that she found throughout her career as an opera
stage director and production professional.
Guest host Katherine (Katie) Nicholson was recently featured on
the Central City Opera blog,
take a read get to know her better!
Those of you watching the video version of this interview will
notice the poster for Central City Opera’s Voice Your
Dreams Endowment Campaign behind Katie. If you want to
learn more and/or contribute to the Campaign to help our company
endure long into the future, contact Katie at email@example.com or 303-331-7015!
Special thanks to Central City Opera
Office Administrator Wanda M. Larson who’s helped
us keep in close contact with our guest, Phebe, throughout the
years and continues to show her passion for unforgettable Central
City Opera experiences and community. You’ll probably recognize her
if you’ve been up to the summer Festival, she’s the Gift Shop
Admin/Buyer, too!Wanda Larson
Historical preservation is a pillar of Central City Opera’s
mission. Learn about the dozens of historic properties we own and
maintain. Explore more Central City history, and even schedule
a tour at www.gilpinhistory.org.
“The famous ghost town” of Nevadaville is just up the street
from Central City. Learn more about it at www.uncovercolorado.com.
Like many patrons and visitors, Phebe mentions paranormal
experiences in and around our properties. Have you encountered
something ghostly in Central City?
Phebe talks about many exciting moments and incredible figures
from Central City Opera, including:
- Phebe spent her first summer at Central City Opera in 1953, the
production was Bizet’s Carmen. She was 7 and her sister
was 9. They fell in love with the music, sitting in on every
rehearsal, and they began the tradition of performing their own
versions of the season’s operas in their backyard with the other
children of the Festival company. They’d string up a sheet to make
a stage curtain, and star actors and singers would even come to see
their shows! According to Phebe, these “parodies” and performances
went on to inspire the tradition of our famous singing ushers.
Ushers at Central City Opera, 1960. Photo provided by Phebe
- You’ll hear the famous Risë Stevens recording of
Carmen that Phebe and her sister loved so much as
background music during this podcast.
- Wonderful performers Phebe recalls knowing as a child—some of
whom attended her backyard productions—were Julie Harris, Tammy Grimes, Shirley Booth, Arlene Saunders.
- One of Phebe’s favorite memories of Central City Opera was the
world premiere of The Ballad of Baby Doe in 1956. She was
10 years old at the time, and she remembers all the excitement and
artistry of composer Douglas Moore, librettist John La Touche, director and renowned
choreographer Hanya Holm, director Edwin Levy
and starring sopranos Dolores Wilson and Leyna Gabriele, all working
together on this brand new opera. Read more about Baby Doe Tabor as a historical
figure and the opera based on her life on the
Central City Opera blog!
From left to right: Edwin Levy,
Hanya Holm, Douglas Moore, and John Latouche, original creative
team for THE BALLAD OF BABY DOE. Photo provided by Phebe
- Cyril Richard—perhaps best remembered
as Captain Hook in the Mary Martin musical
production of Peter Pan—played Don Andres in La
Perichole at Central City Opera in 1958. Phebe talks about how
he kindly reassured her little brother, who had made a loud mistake
on stage while playing a non-singing role in the production.
- Over her summers at Central City Opera, Phebe memorized 17
operas along with the other children. “It was incredible musical
education,” she says, “it was all about the music.”
- Phebe points out, “in those days all the operas [in Central
City] were performed in English.” Throughout history it’s been
common practice for operas to be adapted to the vernacular of the
place they’re being performed. In recent years—especially in the
United States—operas are more commonly performed in their original
language. Wonder where the performance trends in this 400-year-old
artform will take us next!
- Since various opera companies and orchestras perform during
different times of the year, many musicians play in multiple
ensembles like Phebe’s dad. For instance many orchestra members at
Central City Opera also played with the Metropolitan Opera, and
today our orchestra shares many musicians with the Colorado Symphony.
- The Berkowitz family stayed in a historic house that, during
those years, was named after Gypsy Rose Lee (1911-1970). Famous for her burlesque
act, Lee was also an actor, author, playwright and all-around
fascinating figure that inspired and captured the kids’
Phebe (right) and her brother Robert at the Gypsy Rose Lee
House, 1953. Photo provided by Phebe Berkowitz-Tanners
As an adult, Phebe went on to build a career as an opera
director and production professional, herself. Learn more about
some of the figures and references she makes in this interview:
- She snagged a job as an intern in makeup and costumes with
Hamburg State Opera as a young woman.
As she was such a keen observer during rehearsals, Gian Carlo Menotti—the composer of the
world-premiere production of Help, Help, the Globolinks!
they were producing—asked her to call the light cues. Even with her
very limited German vocabulary, she was up to the task!
- After that, Hamburg State Opera Artistic Director Rolf Liebermann hired her on as lighting stage
manager. Later, he took Phebe with him as a stage director when he
joined Paris Opera as Artistic Director.
- Phebe enjoyed many years as a part of the Metropolitan Opera Company, as an assistant stage
director, director for revivals and Executive Stage Director
- Her time with the Met Opera began when August Everding brought her along as his
personal assistant for Tristan und Isolde (1971), which was
Rudolf Bing’s last new production.
- Central City Opera Artistic Director Emeritus John Moriarty is
also a close friend and mentor to Phebe. While they didn’t cross
paths at CCO, he taught her to stage manage at Lake George
Opera—now Opera Saratoga—where they worked together for
- Read Phebe’s general bio at centralcityopera.org/opera-central
Join Phebe in supporting the community and artistry of Central
City Opera for many years to come. Find all kinds of ways to donate
Thanks for listening!
Musical excerpts featured in this podcast:
- Carmen by Georges Bizet. Mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens (1913-2013) sings the Act 1
“Habanera.” Recording with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in
approximately 1948 and conducted by Erich Leinsdorf.
- The Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore, Act 1, Scene
2 “Willow Song.” Recorded in 1959 at the New York City Opera
Company with soprano Beverly Sills (1929 – 2007) as Baby Doe and Walter Cassel (1910-2000) as Horace Tabor. Conducted
by Emerson Buckley (1916-1989). (Cassel
and Buckley were part of the original 1956 production at Central
City Opera in these same roles.)
- The Girl of the Golden West by Giacomo Puccini, Act 1
with soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie and tenor Yusif Eyvazov as Dick Johnson. Recorded at the
Metropolitan Opera and featured on PBS’s Great Performances.