By Jack McCord
The mere mention of Santa Fe conjures up images of brilliant blue skies, warm temperatures, clean, dry air, and adobe structures that blend into the landscape. New Mexico’s capital is also the nation’s third-largest art market, ranging from painting and sculpture to flawless Native American pottery and finely crafted jewelry, all ranging from contemporary to antique and mostly very high quality.
At the same high level, there is also a bit of music in town that has been attracting people for decades.
The very idea of starting an opera company in Santa Fe was confounded by John Crosby’s family and colleagues in the early 1950s. But the opera founder persisted and pushed through, with the help from his prosperous family and connections to the New York musical world, to create a place for young American singers. They would learn and perform a wide repertoire on the model of the European festivals which were then dominant – and which were attracting all the attention. He chose a typically American place, the mountainous desert. In a brilliant move, Crosby deftly invited Igor Stravinsky for a residency in the second season, buying his start-up huge credibility in the process. He basically invented the whole gamut of an apprenticeship system, hiring at modest wages but with housing and transportation included, aspiring singers, technicians, costumers, wigmakers, electricians, carpenters, and all the roles needed to put on an opera. The apprentice singers became the well-honed choir. Successful careers in all of these fields were then launched from Santa Fe. And many world and US prime ministers have graced this desert scene since, all part of Crosby’s original design. And without the generous and visionary residents and scientists of Los Alamos, who formed the initial core of audiences and donors, the fledgling opera company might never have survived.
From this focus of creativity and art, wonderful results can result. No wonder, with Harry Bicket as the excellent musical director of the Opera. So it was with a great sense of joy and relief that the company staged its first full season of five post-Covid productions in July and August. It was a season that again included the usual masterclasses, apprentice auditions for managers and agents, pre-performance dinners, and opera-sponsored events for donors and patrons. These are just part of what makes Santa Fe Opera so special. Fresh out of a wonderful masterclass with Susan Graham and Paul Groves as a duo (open to donors), you can browse the Opera Shop, book a pre-show dinner on campus, or purchase your pre-opera tailgate, grab an art stroll through the gallery, enjoy the show, then head home or back to town for a nightcap. All under the great New Mexico sky.
John Crosby began his project in the desert, with the help of friends and engineers, setting off cannons on the old ranch his family had purchased, to find the right acoustic design for an opera theater in open air which was initially open to the sky. The location of the stage has not changed since, despite a devastating fire in the 1960s and two theater expansions. The background of the scene is often left open for a glimpse of an O’Keeffe sunset over the Jemez Mountains, which can heighten the scenery and help set the mood. Often this mood seems to be simply “Santa Fe”. One year a forest fire in the distance reddened the scene, perfect for that evening Faust.
And although the theater is now fully covered, it remains open at the sides so that mountain breezes and rainstorms can cool you down – so much so that even the fanciest patrons bring blankets and shawls just in case. the temperature would drop. Silver Navajo jewelry worn over a black dress takes on meaning here like nowhere else. Climate change means that on some evenings in recent years the theater can remain warm, as the days can be hot. But the traditional pattern is to settle in for the first act warm as the sun sets and end the evening swaddled against the cold, which can drop into the 50s. Every now and then Mother Nature adds her own drama. and a storm will fall in perfect sync with the narrative on stage – think of the gales in Pierre Grimes or lightning for the queen of the night. New Mexico’s monsoon season this year ran from late June through August, and everyone was so grateful considering the beastly heat and fire in late spring and early summer. . Rainfall is something New Mexicans rarely complain about, unless you’re one of the most unfortunate people living in or near the scars of the wildfires earlier this year and now have to cope with mudslides and floods. This year, my artist friend tells me she’s never seen the same thing as the second bloom of her roses or the incredible height of her sunflowers. The apricot trees surrounding his charming adobe house are bursting with fruit. She is now waiting for her Cosmonaut tomatoes to reach their peak before the aspens brown the mountainsides in the fall.
Santa Fe presented five operas this season. The all-strong casts were dotted with familiar names linked to opera and Chicago. For details on the artists, too numerous to be detailed here, I direct you to the site of the Santa Fe Opera.
This summer, starting with a confusing staging and design Carmen opening the season, albeit with a cast that sounded great on paper, things got better from there. The Barber of Seville was funny and burlesque, as a Rossini opera should be, with superb singing and direction. Lyric Ryan Center alumni Emily Fons and Joshua Hopkins sang up a storm with the rest of the cast, with no need for Mother Nature’s input that night. Falstaff featured a lively cast and direction and never lag behind, giving a sympathetic new perspective to the bawdy knight as the central character, who was portrayed beautifully by Ryan Quinn alum Kelsey, aided and abetted by his colleague Eric Ferring. A last-minute change of conductor had raised the stakes considerably. The world premiere of Mr. Butterfly delivered stunning performances and direction, based on a hugely successful Broadway play, itself based on a true story. Former Northwestern Kangmin Justin Kim was perfect as Song Liling. Perhaps the highlight for many, and certainly for all of the Wagner Society patrons in the house, was the premier of Santa Fe Tristan and Iseult with a top-notch young cast and superb direction by James Gaffigan. The audience applauded Ryan alums Tamara Wilson and Jamie Barton, as well as lyrical mainstay Eric Owens (I saw him with his cover, David Leigh, who acquitted himself very well). The production has been the subject of much discussion in the music world over the past three years since its announcement, in a “should they or shouldn’t they” tone – for example, the expanded orchestra would hold- he in the pit? Would it take too long at half past four? How would singers do in such a marathon at 7,200 feet? And so on. In the end, the simple sets were brilliantly lit and drove the story forward, as did the rhythm and sheer beauty of the vocals and orchestra. Those who feared attending a long Wagner play would change their minds after seeing this Tristan, for it was a triumph. Friends in Santa Fe have seen it three or four times. I didn’t want it to end.
Despite the seemingly esoteric and grandiose nature of the opera art form, in Santa Fe there is little tra-la-la. In this wonderfully accessible cultural community, you can have great conversations with well-known artists, directors, and conductors and, heck, even buy them a drink. In this vein, intervals and intermissions are excellent opportunities for amateurs and professionals to discuss artists and productions, just as football fans passionately discuss games and bridge players argue over rival systems. Or you can just look at the mountains or the starry sky and take in all the scenery, with the music you just heard ringing in your memory.
Santa Fe packs so much music and art condensed into one summer season that it can be downright staggering. But who would want to miss Lyric veteran Susanna Phillips, with Lyric’s Craig Terry on keyboard, performing for the Chamber Music Festival? Or for that matter, whatever Performance Santa Fe presents, where the new executive and artistic director is Amy Iwano from Chicago. The Desert Chorale, the Santa Fe Symphony (now led by another former Chicagoan, Emma Scherer), and the Lensic Theater series form only a partial list of the bounty on offer, much of which is presented year-round. Add to that the Spanish Market, the Ethnographic Show and the famous Indian Market to start, and you get the picture.
Cerulean skies in the morning, patio dining, beautiful sunsets and great summer produce are the order of the day in Santa Fe. smell wafts all over town. But that’s another story to tell.