Skip to main Content

Art Beat: New gold rush opera debuts in Fairbanks

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 7, 2014

FAIRBANKS -- "The Color of Gold," a new opera by Alaska composer Emerson Eads, will debut at the Centennial Theatre in Pioneer Park with three performances March 14-16. The full-length work is set in what looks like gold rush-era Fairbanks, with a cast that includes miners, hopeful homesteaders, a preacher, a corrupt banker, a saloon keeper and plenty of dance-hall girls. Cassandra Tilly, a key figure in the creation of Opera Fairbanks -- surely North America's farthest north opera company -- wrote the libretto.

Over a cup of barley soup at the Alaska Coffee Brewing Co. near the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Eads described the music as evocative of the era, "rough, simple, brutish, harmonic and quixotic."

"Quixotic," he explained, "because people had to be out of their mind to come here. The odds were so stacked against them."

It's an attitude that still pulls people to Alaska, he noted. Born in New Hampshire, Eads came to the state when his father sold everything he had and brought his family to join the Whitestone Farms religious community near Delta. There, Eads played saxophone with a school jazz band and had the good luck to be mentored by a chorus teacher who happened to be a specialist in early music. She encouraged his musical drive.

He received graduate and post-graduate degrees in voice at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and studied composition with John Luther Adams, whom he described as "a prophet to me," though their styles are very different. His own work was performed at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of statehood and the commissioning of a research vessel. His involvement with Opera Fairbanks included leading the chorus in "Madame Butterfly" and the role of the smuggler Le Remendado in last year's production of "Carmen."

Gregory Buchalter, an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and frequent leader of Opera Fairbanks productions, was the first person to suggest that he should write an opera, Eads said. The commission for "Color of Gold" arrived in April 2013 and he began working on it in earnest in August. Rehearsals began in February.

Cindy C. Oxberry, in charge of the stage direction, has a long association with Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera. She's also a regular instructor at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. She said the staging would be straightforward. "It's a historic opera; I'm not going to make it like 'Blade Runner' meets 'The Jetsons' or anything like that. We'll just let the music and the starkness tell the story."

Performances will take place at 7:30 p.m. March 14-15 and 2 p.m. March 16.

By my count, this will be the second Alaska opera to debut in the Centennial Theatre. "Toyon of Alaska," by composer Willard Straight with a book by the late Frank Brink, was seen there in July 1967, before vanishing into the limbo of never-heard-again operas.

Leon Lishner sang the part of Alexander Baranov in the tale about the conflict of Cossacks, Natives and clergy in the Russian colonial period.

One month after the Fairbanks production ("Toyon" was also presented at West High School in Anchorage), the Pioneer Park site, then called Alaskaland, was inundated by the great Fairbanks flood of 1967.

Since then I can think of no opera being debuted in Alaska -- certainly none by Alaskans. Excerpts from "An Expedition to the Pole" by prolific Vermont composer Gwyneth Walker were supposed to be presented at a festival of women's music at UAF in 1993, but when I arrived at the hall at the announced time, I found only scattered papers and an empty stage. No one was there. No sign explained what had occurred. The evaporated performance was as mysterious as the disappearance of Sir John Franklin's last expedition, which happens to be the subject of the opera.

I attended the premiere of Adams' "Earth and the Great Weather" at UAF in 1993, but even the composer acknowledges that it's not an opera in any standard definition, preferring "sonic geography" to describe his multimedia performance piece. Anchorage Opera's 2012 debut of Victoria Bond's "Mrs. President" was a concert reading, but was done in costume and had plenty of motion; still, purists wouldn't call it a full staging.

So is "Color of Gold" only the second opera to debut in Alaska? I'm not sure. A site operated by Stanford University, "Opening Night! Opera & Oratorio Premieres" (, lists something titled "The Chilkoot Maiden" by Eleanor Everest Freer, presented in Skagway in 1927.

Freer (1864-1942), whose career was based in Philadelphia and Chicago, was a well-known proponent of opera in English. She wrote several songs and 11 operas, including her versions of "Little Women," "Joan of Arc" and "Pandora." This composer -- and her Skagway connection -- may merit future investigation.

Song cycle as theater

Speaking of opera, Anchorage Opera's next offering is "Die Winterreise" by Franz Schubert. The setting of 24 poems by Wilhelm Muller is best known as a song cycle, but stagings, or semi-stagings, are not unknown. A version with video by England's Opera North got some attention in 2003.

Anchorage Opera is calling their edition a "monodrama" and "multimedia event." It will feature a set (perhaps projections?) by Victoria Tzkun and lighting by Lauren MacKenzie Miller. Baritone David Adam Moore, accompanied by pianist Richard Gordon, will be the cast.

Moore's credits include stints as Figaro, Don Giovanni, Billy Budd and other major roles in the U.S. and overseas. But he seems to pop up on the Internet most frequently as a model for the Barihunks Charity Calendar. Billed as showcasing "the sexiest baritone hunks from opera," the calendar is a fundraiser for young artists along the lines of the studly firemen and sexy grandmothers calendars. In fact, his costume for the role of Lucifer in contemporary composer Peter Eötvös' "Paradise Reloaded (Lilith)" involves wings and no shirt -- which, come to think of it, would be hard to put on over a pair of wings. Moore was also in Eötvös' "Angels in America," among other major modern operas like "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Dead Man Walking."

"Die Winterreise" will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 4 p.m. Sunday, March 16, at Wilda Marston Theater in Loussac Library. Tickets are available at

Experimental Alaska broadcaster honored

Camille Conte, the Marconi Award-winning radio host who dominated the Anchorage airwaves as "C.C. Ryder" in the 1990s, has been traveling the country doing an innovative live podcast for the past year or more. Now comes word that the big podcast platform Podbean has selected "The Camille Conte Show" for its Radio Directory listing of 100 top shows. Those 100, chosen for quality content and professional presentation, are selected from Podbean's lineup of more than 600,000 podcasters.

The program is an Internet radio show that streams live from noon to 2 p.m. Alaska time on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Conte was the third podcaster in the world to receive a new media license for the Internet from ASCAP. She also has licenses with the big music brokers BMI, SESAC and Sound Exchange, which she described as an unusual relationship for a small one-woman operation.

"Most everyone else uses or BlogTalkRadio, some sort of middle man who handles the royalty issue as well as other services," she wrote in a notice to listeners.

"It's been a cutting-edge experience."

Conte calls her traveling radio show "The Backstreets of America Tour." She's been able to originate the casts from ad hoc locations spread from New Jersey to Oregon, from kitchen tables to pubs. Though presented live, the shows are available around the clock at the website,

"Spirit of the Wind" availability

I've received several calls and emails from people outside Anchorage wanting to know how to get copies of the re-released film "Spirit of the Wind." Musher George Attla, on whom the movie is based, told me that it is available at the Jade Boutique in Fairbanks. Attla, who has the distribution rights for Interior Alaska, said he's trying to work out a way to get it to stores in the Bush. Another alternative, especially for people in the Lower 48, is to email

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.


Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.