The Santa Fe Opera

Skip to main content Skip to search
Side view of theater at dusk with white baffles

Tales from the Pit - The Musicians

By Craig Smith


Tales from the Pit – The Musicians

They come from 18 states, from Canada, and from Italy. They represent the best in their field and their specialties. They are regularly heard with much pleasure, though little seen, and without them the operatic experience would not be the same.

They are the members of The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, and they’re a team from the word “go.” And not just any team. Their valuable mix of varied experiences, focused energies, and high abilities puts them in the very top tier of American opera orchestras. With this body of confident musicians in the pit, guided by inspired conductors, listeners can be sure that every opera’s story will play out with orchestral perfection, as well as vocal and visual glory.

This season, there are 59 full-time players and 29 extra musicians who sit in when needed, for a total of 88. The pit contingent varies in size, from 39 for Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera to a packed-in 87 for Richard Strauss’s Salome. Some members are in their first or second season here, while others have been coming for 20 and more summers.

“One thing that continually amazes me … is how we come together,” said violinist Marlena Chow, a 13-year veteran from Naples, FL. “We have colleagues who play in symphony orchestras, opera orchestras; freelance musicians, teachers, chamber musicians; and any and all combination of these things. Yet mid-June comes, we all converge in Santa Fe, and it feels and sounds as though no time has passed since the closing night of the previous summer.

“I think this is a testament not only to the quality of musicians here, but also the special consistency that forms when colleagues have played here together for five, fifteen, or even thirty-plus years!”

“I find the diversity of our repertoire (is) the most fascinating aspect of playing in Santa Fe,” contributed Gregory Flint. The third SFO French hornist, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has been an instrumentalist here for seven summers. “With the SFO I love coming to a different piece each day, studying historical contexts, and hearing different vocal approaches.” As for him and his colleagues, “Opera brass players tend to have to aim for a very articulate approach, and generally lighter and more flexible sound — until we are given the green light to let loose. With appropriateness, of course.”

James Button, second oboist and English hornist and principal oboist of the Nashville Symphony, is a relative newcomer to SFO: This is his second season.

“As orchestral musicians, we are often asked to jump between very different styles of music, often with little time in between,” he explained. “We are fortunate to work with such great conductors here in Santa Fe; that often the style and sound of the orchestra is shaped with very few words being spoken.”

Timpanist Jeffrey Milarsky is a one-decade SFO veteran. A conductor and professor at Columbia University in New York, he also teaches at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music.

“The timpani in opera has an amazing role,” he said. “In Donizetti, I have to play a certain light way; I can’t play the same way I play in Strauss. That’s the beauty of the company — we’re playing drastically different styles. The basic goal is to play the composer, not just the notes.”

Besides the fun of playing five different operas under internationally noted conductors, there are many additional advantages to being with the SFO orchestra, the interviewees said. The sky, the air, the mountains, the mesas; the cultures and the foodways; and of course, the soaring opera house itself, are all wonderful benefits.

“As ‘outdoor’ venues go, I feel that The Santa Fe Opera is one of the best, and certainly well suited for opera,” Flint said. “There is an intimacy in the sound that allows the orchestra to hear the vocalists well, thus leading to better overall balances between the stage and the pit.”

Of course, there can be challenges, too: “Because of potential wind, our music has to stay clipped all of the time, and this can lead to some interesting and adventurous page turning!”

“It’s such a poetic moment when a singer is singing about the moon, and you look out into the mountain night sky and see the moon shining down on the theater,” Chow added. “One of the most exhilarating things is when Mother Nature actually provides us with thunder and lightning during a storm scene! It doesn’t get any better than that.”

So the next time you’re at The Santa Fe Opera, remember to appreciate as well as listen to the musicians in the pit. They are an unseen but formidable part of every performance — the base of sound on which each opera rides.