COMING HOME TO THE SANTA FE OPERA
Our former employees, singers, technicians, and creative team members came "home" to The Santa Fe Opera on the closing weekend in August, 2016 to reconnect with long-time friends, meet our current company members, and see our spectacular 60th season out in style.
"If there is a better place to see opera during the summer than Santa Fe, I certainly don't know it."
Glen Roven, The Huffington Post
A LEGACY OF ARTISTRY
For Santa Fe Opera founder John O. Crosby, the “burning point of reason” for his company was the constant striving for the best. Through good luck and bad, whether facing obstacles or meeting opportunities, total commitment to quality and unremitting hard work were watch words from the very first. That legacy continues today.
Crosby insisted on meticulous attention to detail in every area as he pursued his dream. He was as likely to write a memo about having a balanced menu in the company cantina as he was to explain a complicated financial statement. Typically, during one rehearsal, he observed that the rose on a chorus lady’s costume needed to be sewn higher up on her shoulder to match that of other singers.
His successors, Richard Gaddes and Charles MacKay, have maintained that degree of concentration while strengthening the model of the mid-year opera festival. When Crosby began to consider founding his own company in 1953, there were few similar mid-year models in this country to reference. New York’s Chautauqua Opera had begun in 1929, and Colorado’s Central City Opera was founded in 1932. In addition, for decades there had been many summer orchestra festivals in major musical centers. But generally, one had to refer to Europe for examples of artistically vibrant operatic festivals. Thus The Santa Fe Opera, from its founding, was one of a select, small group of musical organizations. Throughout sixty seasons, it has maintained its position as the critically acclaimed crown jewel of American summer festivals.
Crosby’s actions were audacious, especially in light of Santa Fe as a location and destination. In the mid-1950s, the population was around just 35,000, and opera was nonexistent in the state. But he felt the area’s rich cultural traditions were a definite plus in attracting the kind of audience he wanted — cosmopolitan, but also those new to opera and eager to experience it.
His vision also dovetailed with how and why other festivals had been formed – often through the dedication of a few individuals or a noted composer in locations far from metropolitan centers. Santa Fe, as Crosby noted, also boasts the attractions of nature and climate. Attendees to the season would enjoy not just a major artistic experience, but would share in a uniquely Southwestern adventure.
Crosby also noted, “Festivals make a firm commitment to give special attention to musical and production standards. Programming will often focus on the works of a particular composer or group of composers.” This Santa Fe has definitely done, both with the works of Richard Strauss, and with contemporary commissioned or premiered works. This earnest mix of adventurous programming with uncompromising production and functional values helps surmount all the difficulties and challenges that face any large enterprise, especially an operatic one.
Given the glories of Santa Fe Opera productions in 2016, it’s striking to remember the direct simplicity that prevailed in earlier seasons. Most productions concentrated on costume and lighting effects for impact, with minimal attention to setcraft. This was not only a practical necessity, but was in keeping with the refined austerity of the original house, open to the New Mexico sky. The company quickly became known for that purity of approach and values, coupled with absolute sincerity and musical quality. Its reputation attracted not only young and eager artists, but established masters such as Igor Stravinsky.
During the first decade of The Santa Fe Opera’s existence, it produced all of Stravinsky’s musical theater works. Conductor Robert Craft was on the podium for all of Stravinsky's operas in Santa Fe's early years and in a 1971 letter to Crosby on the maestro’s death, “Stravinsky had an affection for The Santa Fe Opera far greater than he had for any other musical organization in the United States, and not simply because his works were performed there (and performed out of all proportion to the showing of any other company), but because he was happy there and he composed there, and he liked the whole nature of the company.”
A balanced repertory has always been the rule in Santa Fe. Even from the beginning, contemporary music was paired with established classics. The first season presented Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona, Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville; Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and the world premiere of Marvin David Levy’s The Tower also were programmed. This was in keeping with Crosby’s belief that a cultured but operatically uninformed audience would happily accept works from any period or style so long as they were presented with quality values and with total sincerity.
The timing of the summer season, combined with the allure of the locale, attracts participation by top-flight artists seeking to explore new artistic directions, perhaps essaying a role for the first time in a setting where they can delve and dare. The same is true for the orchestral musicians, many of whom come here from distinguished ensembles in major musical centers or university settings. The amount of rehearsal time and the concentration in a dynamic festival atmosphere also attracts top-ranked conductors, directors, and designers. They know that at The Santa Fe Opera, their vision will be supported and served.
Crosby was also quick to understand the opportunities that the company afforded for developing young talent. The Santa Fe Opera was the first company to offer a wholly professional approach to apprenticeships — in 1957 for singers, and in 1965 for theater technicians. Taken together, both programs have propelled the careers of more than 4,000 aspirants over the decades while making company successes possible.
Crosby created this model in response to a lack of apprentice programs elsewhere. As he once noted, “My own personal experience in the field of opera when I was a youngster rather soured me with regard to what might be called ‘alleged apprentice programs’ in which a great amount of work was extracted from young people with a minimum of training and help offered, and an extremely poor caliber of instruction provided. Perhaps it has been with these personal experiences in mind that I have always wanted to feel The Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program was in every way meaningful, helpful, and honest about the service it expects from the apprentices and the instruction with which it provides them.”
And that instruction is notable. The singer apprentices work hard in forming the company chorus, but they in turn have spectacular opportunities for growth and learning. They benefit from master classes with company members or visiting experts. There is extensive diction and acting coaching. The singers are also able to audition for visiting artist managers and impresarios from other companies. The two annual apprentice evening of scenes from the operatic repertory provide even more valuable and enjoyable performance experience — and also for the technical apprentices, who are in charge of production values for each selection.
Additionally, apprentices regularly sing smaller parts or cover major roles in the season’s repertory, or go on to sing leading roles onstage during the season. Director of Artistic Administration Brad Woolbright has seen many examples of this, including Sheryl Woods as Rossini’s Countess Adèle in 1978’s Le Comte Ory; Eudora Brown, who portrayed Beatrice in 2004 season's Beatrice and Benedict; and Joseph Dennis, who sang the title role (in Mandarin, no less!) in the American premiere of Huang Ruo’s Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 2014. For technical apprentices, visiting production personnel provide an equally notable knowledge bank. From theoretical discussions to analysis of projects, each receives the kind of hands-on experience every backstage professional needs to achieve mastery.
Many returning stars of the main stage have also been Apprentices, including international mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who returned to Santa Fe in landmark interpretation of Elena in the 2013 production of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago. In 2016, former Apprentices on the main stage include Emily Fons as Stéphano in Roméo et Juliette, Keri Alkema as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, and Craig Verm as the Count and David Govertsen as La Roche in Capriccio. The widely admired bass James Morris, a former Apprentice who also sang the title role in The Flying Dutchman here in 1998, essays the role of the Doctor in Vanessa.
Technical apprentices also return regularly. According to Production and Facilities Director Paul Horpedahl, himself a former technical apprentice in 1978, about 60 percent each summer of the approximately 125 professional technical staff members are alumni of the program. In fact, virtually any theater in the country can boast former Santa Fe technical apprentices in leading positions on their rosters. In 2017, both the costume designer and lighting designer for The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs were once technical apprentices. Following in the tradition of singer and technical apprentices, The Santa Fe Opera has also trained generations of career administrators in opera, theater, and the arts. Former General Director Richard Gaddes and current General Director Charles MacKay gained invaluable experience working with founder John O. Crosby before going on to major positions elsewhere in the field. Former Box Office Manager Sam Niefeld went on to become vice president of Columbia Artists Management. Edward Purrington, who worked on both the administrative and artistic sides of the company, later became General Director of Tulsa Opera and Chair of the Performing Arts Department at The College of Santa Fe, now Santa Fe University of Art and Design. And David Gockley, for many years General Director of Houston Grand Opera and recently retired General Director of San Francisco Opera, was a baritone apprentice in Santa Fe. He also worked as the House Manager.
As those who have attended Apprentice Scenes can attest, hearing the young performers on the stage of The Santa Fe Opera makes talent scouts of us all. There’s nothing more exciting than discovering the possibilities of greatness that lie in store for them…unless, perhaps, it is hearing them return with their careers in full flight, fulfilling the promise of artistic excellence that is The Santa Fe Opera.
—Craig A. Smith is the author of A Vision of Voices, the biography of founder John O. Crosby and his leadership of The Santa Fe Opera.
The Opera has become one of New Mexico's cultural and economic leaders. Its reputation attracts thousands of patrons each year, and its impact on the New Mexico's economy has been calculated at more than $200 million each year.