‘The Big Bonanza,’ a new American opera, inspired by Comstock Lode

University’s Nevada Chamber Opera debuts world premiere of Virginia City musical production

‘The Big Bonanza,’ a new American opera, inspired by Comstock Lode

University’s Nevada Chamber Opera debuts world premiere of Virginia City musical production

From boom to bust, life in Virginia City during its heyday inspired many dreams of finding fortunes in the ground but also the reality of living in a tough mining town.

From April 8-10, the University of Nevada, Reno Nevada Chamber Opera will stage the world premiere production of “The Big Bonanza,” a new American opera about the Comstock Lode, or silver ore discovery, era. Big Bonanza explores the life of booming mining town Virginia City in the 1850s. Scenes from the opera will be previewed at the historic Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City April 2 at a fundraising event to help restore the opera house. 

“‘The Big Bonanza’ represents Nevada Chamber Opera’s largest undertaking to date,” Albert R. Lee, company director and assistant professor of voice and opera with the University’s School of the Arts, said. “Our fully staged operas up until now have always been one-act operas about an hour in length. Additionally, this is the first time that the Nevada Chamber Opera is producing a world premiere.” 

Composed by award-winning composer Monica Houghton, who was raised in Nevada, with a libretto by journalist Jon Christensen, “The Big Bonanza” is based in part on the life and writings of William Wright, aka “Dan De Quille,” friend and mentor to Mark Twain on the Territorial Enterprise in the glory days of the Comstock Lode. 

De Quille’s mining investment failure, death of a female friend and disappointment because of the lack of success with his book compared to Twain, sends him into a downward spiral of alcohol and opium. 

Houghton and Christensen found a story poignantly familiar to many today in the aftermath of the Great Recession. 

“I looked back at Dan De Quille and Mark Twain for inspiration in my own work as a journalist,” Christensen, now an historian at University of California, Los Angeles, said. “What surprised me was how much that history rhymed with what was happening around us as we worked on the opera.” 

The idea to write a new American opera focused on the Western landscape and the experiences of a real Western American inspired Houghton to go back to school to get a master’s degree in music composition from the Cleveland Institute of Music. 

“Growing up in Reno, I spent a lot of time outdoors,” she said. “The desert, the weather, the beauty and ruggedness of the land became part of me. Those things have fed my artistic sensibilities over the years.” 

Houghton also will be able to provide insight and advice to the students, who are crafting the first performances of the characters and story. 

“Most of the repertoire that student musicians study is that of dead composers,” Lee said. “The intention of the composer is only gained through knowledge that is passed down. This is an opportunity to work directly with the composer to breathe life into the music on the printed page.” 

Audiences will witness the retelling of Western history through a most unusual medium.

“Opera combines all of the arts into one,” Lee said. “‘The Big Bonanza’ is an opportunity to see Nevada’s history brought to life on the stage.” 

“The Big Bonanza” Preview Gala
3-5 p.m. April 2
Piper’s Opera House, Virginia City
Tickets: $20

“The Big Bonanza”
7:30 p.m. April 8-9; 2:30 p.m. April 10
Nightingale Concert Hall, Church Fine Arts
Tickets: $20; $5 for students with ID

The University's School of the Arts embraces its role as a vibrant center for arts and culture in northern Nevada. Its degree programs provide a strong foundation in a range of artistic disciplines, enabling students to contribute as artists, educators and scholars on the local level and beyond. The school also supports and encourages research, innovation and the artistic endeavors of its faculty. Finally, the school encourages broad campus and community participation in the arts through its numerous performances, lectures, shows, core courses and outreach activities that explore diverse cultures and encourage lifelong learning.

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