Death Valley's Unique Opera House & Its Creator

The town of Death Valley Junction has as many opera houses as it does residents: exactly one. And though the closest town to the Amargosa Opera House (tel. 760/852-4441; www.amargosa-opera-house.com) is 30 miles away, it manages to pack the house every weekend it's open. For many years, the sole performer was Marta Becket. You can still visit and stay at the hotel, and see a show.

Located on the edge of Death Valley, the opera house is the culmination of a dream of the bizarre Becket, who arrived by accident in 1967. A dancer, Becket had been touring in California. She and her husband were driving back east when their car had a flat tire. The closest garage was in Amargosa, which at the time was a company town run by the Pacific Borax Company. While the tire was being fixed, Beckett poked around the old adobe structures and instantly fell in love with the opera house. "As I looked into that hole, into this empty building, I had this distinct feeling I was looking into the other half of my life," Becket recalls.

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Though the floors and ceilings were falling apart and there were rats living in the space, to Becket, it symbolized freedom and independence. So she did it. She and her husband abandoned their lives in New York City to move out here, at the intersection of nowhere and nothing.

The opera house itself is a work of art -- and so is the hotel it's attached to. Before she began performing, Becket wanted to guarantee herself an audience. She spent 4 years painting its walls to resemble the inside of a theater, with level upon level of character-filled balconies. There are whimsical nuns, prostitutes, court jesters, and royalty. Two years were spent on the blue ceiling, illustrated with cherubs flying amid clouds. The people she painted were a silent guarantee, to her anyway, that she'd never be performing to an empty house. Since the beginning, she performed whether there was an actual audience or not.

Often, there wasn't, and her painted characters sufficed. An unexpected stroke of luck befell the opera house 6 years into its run when a writer from National Geographic stumbled upon the show. He loved it, wrote about it, and the place has been packed ever since.

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The Opera House is more than just a roadside attraction. It's a labor of love and showcases the true (though slowing) talent of Becket, whose husband left a few years after they moved there. For 23 years she took on a partner, a maintenance man with a flair for comedy. He passed away in 2005.

Now in her eighties, the semiretired Becket still performs here, with a piece called The Sitting Down Show, November through April. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for children. Reservations are required.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.