Death Valley Night

A trip to the Mojave and the Amargosa Opera House, where Marta Becket has acted out a dream for 35 years

"Just like Sinatra," chuckles Al Frampton. "She did it her way."

The Framptons are among the 125 people who have traveled from all over the country to see this season's closing show. With only 14 rooms habitable in Becket's Amargosa Hotel (the whole municipality was purchased by Amargosa Opera Inc. in the early 1980s), many of tonight's guests have happily opted to camp out in their vehicles across the road. Others drove two hours from Vegas.

Rickand Diane Streifftraveled from Arcata, Calif., after seeing a story about Becket, but they are among the lucky ones.

Jillian Northrup

"We actually came in September," admits Rick Streiff. "It wasn't opera season, so we booked our reservation back then, well in advance. We have a room in the hotel."

Jerry Taylorfirst saw Becket perform 15 years ago, during a motorcycle trip through the desert. This year, he made the pilgrimage from Pacific Grove, Calif., with his wife, Brenda, and their 6-year-old son, Grant.

In the courtyard, a peacock begins to scream. The sun sets quickly in the west, streaking the inexhaustible sky with vermilion scars and drawing our attention to a small spotlight shining above the hand-painted Amargosa Opera House sign, under which a white-haired gent in a top hat waits.

As Amargosa's stage manager, ticket-taker, master of ceremonies, usher, curtain-puller, set-builder, and reluctant second actor, Thomas Willet, or Wilget as he is more affectionately known, is Becket's right-hand man, a position Wilget cheerfully filled when Tom Williams "resigned" in '83. With the obvious good humor of a man in love with his life, Wilget snarls at the crowd for demanding amenities like indoor plumbing and welcomes us inside the hall, which is covered from floor to ceiling with rich murals of Becket's execution and design: A lavish audience is depicted in seats in a tiered balcony from the early 16th century, eternally applauding Becket's efforts as gypsies and harlots giggle over the heads of nuns and monks; American Indians are shown performing feats of skill for the king and queen of Spain; and two Death Valley Junction cats -- Rhubarband Tuxedo-- sleep forever on red velvet cushions on the back wall of the house. Overhead, a blue painted sky is filled with dancing cherubs; a central dome holds 16 ladies playing musical instruments; and painted on the west wall, a marble statue holds an inscription that reads: "The walls of this theatre and I dedicate these murals to the past without which our times would have no beauty." An old tape of Becket's voice whirls into life, explaining the symbols in her paintings and the history of the opera house, from its purchase to the flash flood of '68 that buried the building under 16 inches of mud.

This season's original performance, set to the canned music of Giuseppe Verdi, is titled Masquerade and tells the tale of a yearly dance in which dreams become reality, if only for a very short time. Marta Becket, pale and slender with her thick black hair pulled into a tight bun, enters the stage and begins to dance "in search of herself." Over the course of 14 songs, numerous set changes, and even more costume changes, the winsome 79-year-old sings and dances, performing semicomic routines with Wilget and executing dramatic ronds de jambe that have her pointing her toe and lifting her leg higher than I ever could have lifted mine, under the watchful gaze of a cast of cloth-dummy co-stars. Sometimes silly, but more often poignant and remarkable, Masqueradeculminates with Becket performing the final number almost entirely en pointe. Even in witnessing, it is difficult to believe and inspiring to contemplate.

"In my life, I have discovered that dreams are so often more beautiful than the culmination of reality," explains Becket later that night in a receiving line in the lobby of her peeling hotel. "You must live your dreams. Waste little time on reality."

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