The Amargosa Opera House stands at the corner of State Line Road and California Route 127, in a place now called Death Valley Junction. In the early 1920s it was Amargosa, a company town that supported borax mining interests. A U-shaped building contained a hotel, dining room, dormitories, company offices and a community center. The opera didn’t arrive in town until later.
When I talk to people about Death Valley Junction the word opera inevitably derails the conversation. Opera, in the middle of the desert? Far away from any population center?
In 1967 a flat tire left Marta (nee Martha) Becket and her husband waiting for repairs in Death Valley Junction. Marta explored the community center, then known as Corkhill Hall, and felt it calling her. That was the beginning of cultural institution that endures to this day. Becket rented the center for $45 a month, evicted the kangaroo rats that populated it, and rebuilt it into a performance space. Audiences were sparse to non-existent, so she began to paint murals on the walls that depicted a full house. Audiences and attention followed, as well as questions about the sensibility of building an opera house in the desert.
“Am I eccentric?” she asked in an interview with The New York Times in 1999. “Is it eccentric to love your work so much that you would go anywhere in the world to do it?”
Today, the Opera House draws desert pilgrims and the curious from around the world. A new structure across the street showcases Becket’s wardrobe, the motel continues to operate and gets solid reviews, and the newly reopened café serves a very good BLT. Otherwise, Death Valley Junction is a ghost town, though the scenery has its own charm.