SANTA FE — There was perhaps no grander opera moment at last summer’s festival season here than the overture to “Don Giovanni,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s monumental tale of lust, deception, and divine retribution.
As conductor, John Nelson led the orchestra through the composer’s powerful opening movement, the Santa Fe Opera’s outdoor Crosby Theatre offered commanding views of the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountains, chains of spiky peaks that flank the theater and offer spectacular sunsets.
But there would be scant light this summer evening. A thunderstorm raged in the distance, darkening the sky as an enormous bust rose from below the stage. Deadly yet graceful, the bronze figure seemed to emerge directly from the thunderheads, which traded bolts of lightning in time to the music.
Or at least that’s how it seemed.
“It’s amazing how frequently that happens,” said Paul Horpedahl, director of production and facilities for the Santa Fe Opera. “The whole landscape is cueing you. The sun goes down. The sky gets dark. The glow of the stage overtakes the glow of the sky, and you’re focused in for the evening.”
That was certainly the case last August, when I arrived at this high desert city for a crash course in the operatic arts. The Santa Fe Opera was in the midst of its 60th anniversary season — a milestone for any arts organization, but one made all the more auspicious after successful fund-raising efforts have enabled the SFO to greatly expand its facilities.
To celebrate, the company mounted three 20th century works — Giacomo Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West,” Richard Strauss’s “Capriccio,” and Samuel Barber’s ravishing “Vanessa.” Add to that a pair of classics — Charles Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” and the aforementioned “Don Giovanni” — and you have the sort of varied season that the company’s founder, John Crosby, envisioned when he started the company back in the 1950s.
“We’ve worked to preserve the original intent of the organization, which was to present a diverse repertory of standard works, rarely performed, and new operas,” said Charles MacKay, general director for the Santa Fe Opera. “I’ve been sort of channeling John Crosby.”
And why not?
A northeasterner by birth, Crosby had a long history with New Mexico, and particularly with Santa Fe, which by then had a reputation as a haven for the arts. He used a family loan in 1956 to secure a 76-acre dude ranch north of the city, where he built a small outdoor theater and hired a crew to mount the company’s first production: Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”
Igor Stravinsky was an early champion of the unlikely company, which produced many of the Russian composer’s vocal works during its first decade. Crosby had a similar affinity for Richard Strauss, and over the years the Santa Fe company has mounted almost every opera — including a host of American premieres — by the German composer.
“Santa Fe was established almost immediately as a really serious, important opera festival by the presence of Stravinsky,” said MacKay, who added that Crosby conjured the company “out of thin air.” “His name lent such credibility to the effort.”
The original theater burned to the ground in 1967, prompting the company to rebuild it larger for the 1968 season — which, incidentally, was the year a young Charles MacKay got his first job sweeping up the pit and playing the French Horn in the off-stage orchestra for Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier.”
“That was a quantum leap,” said MacKay, who noted that the opera company typically draws visitors from all 50 states and roughly 25 foreign countries. “John Crosby had an itch to constantly improve and tweak the facilities from the very beginning.”
Meanwhile, the opera’s festival format meant aficionados could get a heavy infusion of opera in the evening, leaving them free during the day to explore the ancient and modern cultures of Santa Fe.
Many of those elements survive today, including nearby Indian pueblos, the Santa Fe Plaza with its Native American vendors, and the breathtaking Bandelier National Monument.
The nearby Santuario de Chimayo, an 1816 church that’s sometimes called the “Lourdes of America” because of the purportedly curative powers of the dirt beneath it, remains positively otherworldly — its walls lined with crutches and pictures of the infirm. Along those lines, the Loretto Chapel, with its so-called “Miraculous Staircase ”; the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi; and the San Miguel Chapel — believed to be the oldest church in the United States — are well worth a visit.
When it comes to the arts, however, Santa Fe is most closely associated with Georgia O’Keeffe, the modernist painter who called New Mexico home for much of her life. O’Keeffe’s indelible vision of the American southwest has been definitive for subsequent generations of artists and aesthetes who’ve taken up residence in this city of timeless vistas and golden light. Her influence remains palpable today, from the city’s Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which houses more than 3,000 objects, to Canyon Road, a winding, gallery-lined art trail that offers an uneven display of works — some kitschy, some well-executed — in equal measure.
More recently, a very different vision of the city’s arts scene has emerged with the arrival of the Meow Wolf Art Complex, a 33,000 square-foot art environment made possible by George R.R. Martin of “Game of Thrones” fame. The interactive art complex, which inhabits a repurposed bowling alley, features the work of more than 130 artists in it first permanent exhibition: the “House of Eternal Return,” a reality-bending installation where visitors explore an everyday family home that gives way to a phantasmagoria of alternative artistic realities. Think “Stranger Things,” but whimsical.
Seven miles north of the city, the Santa Fe Opera has continued to evolve as well, producing some 14 world premieres and roughly 45 American premieres over the last six decades – an artistic priority that Crosby signaled from the company’s inception.
“I felt that it would not make sense to try to run a museum of opera in a small mountain town like Santa Fe,” Crosby told the New York Times when he announced his retirement in 2000. “You can have all the ‘Bohèmes’ and ‘Carmens’ you want in New York. . . . But if you have an interest in some unusual things, then you will come along.”
The company continues to commission new works, including next season’s world premiere of Mason Bates’s “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” a genre-blending work that mixes traditional instruments with electronica.
“That’s pushing the envelope for us,” said MacKay, who added that he tries to balance newer works against more traditional repertory.
“For a whole lot of the people in New Mexico and nearby states, we are the opera providers,” he said, adding that roughly 50 percent of the SFO’s audience comes from New Mexico. “They want to see something standard, or something that’s by a name they recognize. They might shy away from the newer or more rarely performed works, but the people who are making a special trip want to see something new and different.”
So it is that in 2017 the company will also stage productions of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cockerel,” George Frideric Handel’s “Alcina,” and Johann Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus.”
But the SFO has evolved in other ways as well. The company completely renovated the Crosby Theatre in the late 1990s, expanding it to more than 2,100 seats and covering the entire structure with a curving roof – a wave-like form meant to enhance the outdoor venue’s acoustics.
And while the theater still sits on its original hilltop perch, it now presides over a 165-acre campus that includes practice halls, artist rehearsal studios, al fresco dining areas, and a swimming pool for staff.
Many of those new and refurbished facilities are thanks to a fund raising campaign that concluded in 2011. The company has since embarked on an even more ambitious effort, seeking to raise $45 million for additional capital improvements and to further bolster its endowment.
The SFO has already secured $41.5 million toward that goal, which over the past two years the company has used to double the size of its backstage facilities, while also expanding its public amenities such as restrooms, box office, and bar and lounge areas.
“I really see it as getting our house in order,” said MacKay.
“The repertory mix is a big driver to our success,” he added. “But we’re getting the facilities in optimal condition so we can sail forward into the next 50 years.”Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay