The words “Opera house” and “Ghost Town” sure sound like the setting for a 70s horror movie, but for the twenty inhabitants of Death Valley Junction, it’s a reality. It seems creativity truly has no limits, and Marta Becket and the Amargosa Opera House are no exception. Located somewhere in the California desert, it is hardly the hustle and bustle of Broadway. Nevertheless, it carries certain charm, due to the enigmatic Marta Becket who is not only the owner, but the one putting on the shows.
The New York born dancer came upon the location by chance, when on a performing tour and her trailer broke down. She instantly fell in love with the derelict building (which was originally used for miners as a social hall) and decided to turn it into an Opera House. She has occupied the space since 1968; it became her unlikely home. In her 2007 autobiography To Dance on Sands: The life and Art of Death Valley’s Marta Becket, Becket explained how the move made an impact on her life and how performing helped ease the transition.
“When I first came, I was to many the crazy lady who moved out into the desert to run an opera house…However if my Opera House had not become successful, I would still be here struggling to support my art.”
She specialises in one woman dance and mime shows throughout her early career, and this is what she continued to do in her new space. She spent her time reconstructing and repairing the theatre, as well as painting renaissance characters, around the circumference of the complex to form an audience. These are often the only audience she had, as she religiously put on a show at 8.15 every evening, even if there wasn’t a single person sitting in the audience.
The Opera House attracted press attention in 1970, when Becket was accidentally discovered performing alone by journalists from The National Geographic Magazine. She was then featured in a profile for Life Magazine. Becket and her ghost town opera house were also the subject of a documentary in the year 2000, which won an Emmy Award in 2003 for Best Cinematographer.
She no longer had to worry about performing only for her renaissance audience on the walls, as the Opera House became so popular, she now regularly expects full houses. Many people have travelled far and wide to visit this wonder in the desert, and Becket gained a cult following, including author Ray Bradbury who described Becket as, “The spirit of theatre. The spirit of creativity”. A slim fragile woman, with dark hair and a magnetic gaze, she admits it gets harder with age to keep up with her old routines- the dance moves have had to change to accommodate her now older, more delicate frame.
Whether you are dumbfounded by her unapologetic, bizarre behaviour or completely understanding of her desire to keep her art alive no matter the circumstances, you have to admire her commitment. It makes sense to Marta who she seems genuinely happy, and not the stereotypical mental patient, waiting for the men in white coats to come and carry her away. She is aware of how her quirky life may come across to others and is bold and honest about what she has created for herself. If there is a lesson that captures what theatre is about, is the courage to follow your heart.
“It’s a place where time seems to have stopped. A place where you feel as if you can catch up with forgotten things left in the real world…somehow this isn’t the real world. It’s my world.”