Horace Tabor owns the whole town of Leadville, Colorado, reaping the riches of its Matchless Mine. Horace sings "It's a Bang Up Job" to the townspeople, praising his new opera house and sharing his disenchantment with his wife Augusta. During intermission at a performance at the opera house, Augusta chides Horace for not acting in accordance to his station in life. Horace pleads with her not to insult the common people, equating the prostitutes' and bar girls' work to the work her committee did in helping build the opera house. Near the end of intermission, a woman arrives, introduces herself to Horace and asks if he could direct her to her hotel. He obliges her, and returns to the opera with Augusta.
Augusta retires for the evening, while Horace steps outside to smoke a cigar. He overhears two women speaking about the woman and learns that her name is Baby Doe, and that she has a husband in Central City. Horace hears Baby singing "The Willow Song" and applauds her—much to her surprise since she did not know he was listening. He sings "Warm as the Autumn Light" to her. Augusta's comments from upstairs stop the scene.
Several months later, Augusta goes through Horace's study and finds gloves and a love letter. She thinks they are for her until she finally realizes that they are for Baby Doe. The rumors have been true. Horace comes in, they fight and Horace says he never meant to hurt her.
Baby Doe, at the hotel, realizes she must end her relationship with Horace and tells the hotel workers to find out when the next train leaves for Denver. The hotel workers go to find Horace so he can head her off. She sings of her love for Horace in a letter to her mother (the "Letter Aria"). Augusta comes in and tells Baby to leave. She agrees, but pleads that she and Horace have done nothing they should be ashamed of ("I Knew It Was Wrong"). When Augusta leaves, Baby decides against leaving at the same time Horace comes in. They sing of their love.
A year later, Tabor has left Augusta and is living with Baby Doe. Her friends inform Augusta, now living in Denver, that Horace plans to divorce her. She swears to ruin him.
Horace and Baby Doe's wedding party in Washington DC. Baby's mother praises the couple's riches, but the society wives deride Baby Doe, but when the couple comes in they are well received. The debate turns to the silver standard and Baby Doe sings "Gold is a Fine Thing". Horace then presents Baby with Queen Isabella's diamond necklace. Baby Doe's mother tells the Roman Catholic priest about Baby and Horace's divorces—which he didn't know of. Scandal rocks the party, but is stopped when President of the United States Chester Arthur comes in and toasts the couple.
Act II chronicles the disintegration of Baby and Horace's riches. Augusta warns of the gold standard, but Horace doesn't listen. Horace politically backs William Jennings Bryan for president. When Bryan loses, Horace is abandoned by his party.
In the final scenes, Horace asks to see the opera house he built so long ago, though he no longer owns it. On the stage, he hallucinates and sees people from his past. Augusta both taunts and pleads with him. He is told that his one daughter will decry the name Tabor and that his other will become a prostitute. Distraught, he collapses. Baby Doe enters. After he is convinced that she is not a hallucination, he tells her nothing will come between them and begs her to remember him. He dies in her arms. In the last scene that takes place 30 years later, at the Matchless Mine, she finishes the opera with "Always Through the Changing."
Horace Tabor – Mayor of Leadville
Augusta – Wife of Horace Tabor
Mrs. Elizabeth (Baby) Doe – A miner’s wife
Mama McCourt – Baby Doe’s mother
William Jennings Bryan – Candidate for President
Chester A. Arthur* – President of the United States
Father Chapelle – Priest at the wedding
An old silver miner
A clerk at the Clarendon Hotel
Mayor of Leadville
Stage doorman of the Tabor Grand
Albert – a bellboy
A Denver politician
Sarah, Mary, Emily, Effie – Old friends of Augusta
Sam, Bushy, Barney, Jacob – Cronies and associates of Tabor
Four Washington dandies
Kate – Dance hall entertainer
Elizabeth, age 12 – Daughter of Horace and Baby Doe Tabor
Silver Dollar, age 7 – Daughter of Horace and Baby Doe Tabor
Meg** – Dance hall entertainer
Silver Dollar (grown up)
Samantha – A maid
Dance hall girls, Baby Doe’s family, and foreign diplomats at the wedding, miners and their wives
*These parts may be covered with two singers.
**These parts may be covered with one singer.