Amargosa Opera House opens season with Marta Becket tribute

For the guardians of legendary dancer Marta Becket’s legacy, this season’s opening performance at the Amargosa Opera House will be bittersweet.

For the first time since its inauguration nearly 50 years ago, the Opera House welcomes a new audience to its famous stage without the presence and guiding influence of Becket, who passed away last January at age 92.

To honor her artistic vision, the directors and staff of the nonprofit Amargosa Opera House, Inc., founded by Becket in 1973, have put together a program focusing on the rich history of Becket’s time at Death Valley Junction.

“We worked to make it really special. It’s a celebration of Marta’s life,” said Christine Fossemalle, artistic adviser to the Opera House Inc. board of directors.

The show opens on Friday, Oct. 20, with a new revue performed by dancer Hilda Vazquez, a protégé of Becket’s.

Documentary screening

On Saturday, Oct. 21, the Opera House is hosting a one-time screening of the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Amargosa” about Becket’s life as an artist.

The film is followed by a conversation with its director, Todd Robinson, producers Sidney Sherman and Kenneth A. Carlson, and executive producer Traci Robinson.

The new dance program, which will be offered every Friday and Saturday night until May, is “an homage to Marta,” Fossemalle said. In it, Vazquez, a classical ballet dancer who trained with the National Ballet School of Cuba, dances some of Becket’s earliest pantomime routines.

“Most people have only seen Marta do these [dances] on video. It will be a new experience for most of us,” said Fossemalle, who was a close friend of Becket’s and attended every opening and closing night at the Opera House, she said, for about the past 25 years.

Some of the old favorites Vazquez will perform include the Eternal Triangle, the Slavonic Dance, and the pantomime from the Garden Party, performed by Becket in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

Vazquez practiced many of the early performance routines with Becket’s coaching and wears costumes created by Becket, who designed and sewed all of her own costumes for the over 40 years she performed at the Opera House.

Vazquez will also perform some dances of her own, Fossemalle said, “because Marta wanted Hilda to have her own creativity at the same time.”

Changes, more

Since Becket’s passing, the Amargosa Opera House Inc., a nonprofit corporation, has struggled through some administrative and maintenance challenges, said board president Fred Conboy, a longtime supporter of Becket and the Opera House.

A lapse in the organization’s nonprofit status was rectified last spring, Conboy said, and the organization is now in good standing with the California Attorney General’s Office.

The nonprofit hired a new general manager during the summer after the previous manager, Rhonda Shade, resigned, Conboy said.

Bobbi Fabian, who renovated and reopened the Amargosa Café in Death Valley Junction in 2016 and lives on the property, was familiar with the day-to-day workings of the sprawling colonnade that houses the Opera House and the hotel. At the request of the Amargosa Opera House board of directors, Conboy said, Fabian stepped in to take over management of the entire operation.

Fabian said she is looking forward to the new season and the projects ahead. The Opera House will host other performances in keeping with Becket’s essentially classical artistic vision, including a handbell choir in December 2017.

Fabian said she is hopeful the organization will eventually be able to offer artist residencies, workshops and retreats. For now, however, the nonprofit faces a daily battle to keep the physical structure in good repair and to protect the artifacts and paintings left behind by Becket.

The Amargosa Opera House organization both needs and fortunately, often has, a lot of help, Fabian said.

“It takes a team of people” to keep things going. Supporters who want to help preserve Becket’s legacy, such as Robison Engineering out of Sparks, Nevada, have stepped up consistently, Fabian said, providing much-needed professional services.

While it’s challenging to deal with the old structure, it’s also, Fabian said, a kind of “20th century-archaeology.”

”When you come here you are walking on a piece of American history,” Fabian said.

Cafe, special menu, more

Fabian added that she is looking for someone to take over cooking the well-established menu, prepared with as much local and organic produce as she can find, at the Amargosa Café.

The Amargosa Café is open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday through Monday and does not usually serve dinner.

However, a special dinner menu will be offered on Oct. 20 and 21 before the performance and the Amargosa screening, Fossemalle said. Reservations for the dinner are required, contact amargosacafedvj@gmail.com

Seating for the opening weekend performances is limited and reservations are strongly recommended, added Fossemalle. Contact fossemalledance@gmail.com

Some VHS tapes of Marta Becket’s earlier performances at the Amargosa Opera House are for sale in the gift shop at the Amargosa Hotel, along with DVDs of the “Amargosa” documentary, and copies of Becket’s autobiography “To Dance on Sands.”

Robin Flinchum is a freelance writer and editor living in Tecopa, California. Her book, “Red Light Women of Death Valley,” was published last year.

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