The sun sets behind the peaks of 13,000-foot mountains. The sky turns pink. After the hot July day, cool air refreshes the drivers on U.S. 84/285. Headlights glowing, they hit the exit ramp, duck under the highway, and make a sharp right onto Opera Drive. Soon, they’ll arrive at a unique place, where animals talk, or people visit ancient Rome. They’ll arrive at the Santa Fe Opera.
The opera began in 1956, when a young New York conductor named John Crosby decided to create a summer festival in Santa Fe. His parents had a home not far from where the opera stands today. He attended camp at the Los Alamos Boys Ranch, now the town of Los Alamos.
Santa Fe lawyer Thomas B. Catron III served on the Santa Fe Opera’s first board of directors. “The day after Christmas, 1956 — that’s when we got together and signed the Articles of Incorporation,” he recalls from his law office.
Crosby built a redwood, 480-seat open-air theater in a natural bowl, with a $200,000-dollar loan from his parents. Opening night came on July 3, 1957. A company of 67 singers and technicians put on Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.”
“The afternoon of the opening, John Crosby and I walked up the parking lot putting in reflector lights,” Catron recalls. “Here was John about to conduct the opening night of what would become a great opera company, and the afternoon was spent putting in reflectors.”
From the first season, Crosby presented balanced operatic repertoire. His formula included a world or American premiere, a well-known work, an early or unknown opera, Mozart, and Richard Strauss.
“John Crosby was known throughout the country for putting Strauss operas on the map,” says Desiree Mays, a lecturer hired by the Santa Fe Opera each year to give talks on productions. “He loved this composer.”
The Santa Fe Opera premiered Strauss’s “Die Liebe der Danae,” “Intermezzo,” “Friedenstag,” and “The Egyptian Helen,” in the United States.
The company has offered 42 American premieres, several world premieres, and eight commissioned works.
“[It was] something John Crosby insisted upon,” says Mays. “New opera would be shown in his theater.”
Today, the Santa Fe Opera presents five works per season in balanced repertoire.
That schedule and an outdoor theater offer unique challenges, says Mark Tiark, SFO director of planning and marketing. “The scenery designs must all be thought through very carefully, so they all can be changed quickly.”
Quickly means moved by a 21-member running crew in an hour-and-ahalf, explains Technical Director Mark Turner.
The SFO has no fly system. A lift brings props and scenery from the basement or mezzanine. A trap room under the stage allows machines to raise and lower singers and set pieces. Electricians hang lights from the roof.
Because of its technical constraints, the Santa Fe Opera cannot do the realistic productions found in New York or Chicago, says Tiark. “We stress the ensemble aspect of a long rehearsal period.”
Singers come to the Santa Fe Opera for an entire summer, explains Catron. They enjoy the company’s ensemble philosophy. Everyone is equal. Stars and apprentices share the same dressing rooms.
“There’s no prima-donna stuff,” he says.
Superstars appearing in Santa Fe have included Susan Graham, Dame Kiri te Kanawa, James Morris, Jose Van Dam, Dawn Upshaw, and Sheri Greenwald.
Some, like James Morris, and this year Joyce DiDonato, Heather Buck and Jennifer Black, began their careers as Santa Fe opera apprentices.
Crosby started an Apprentice Singers Program in 1957. “It was the first one in the country,” says David Holloway, who currently has charge of the apprentice singers. He himself was a SFO apprentice. “They wanted to have a program that was a bridge from college into their professional life.”
A Technical Apprentice Program started in 1967. Its graduates, too, have returned to work at Santa Fe. To Holloway, apprentices returning as full-fledged performers and crew is the best part of the SFO apprentice programs.
Crosby also encouraged outreach, to educate the community about opera. Youth Night at the Opera started in 1959. Young people and parents may come to designated dress rehearsals at reduced prices. Student-Produced Opera sends artists-in-residence into schools to help youngsters develop and perform their own musical productions.
“Opera Makes Sense,” introduces toddlers to this art form, and guilds keep grown-ups who don’t live in Santa Fe connected to the SFO. Crosby retired in 2000, and died in 2002 at age 75. Current SFO General Director Richard Gaddes has expanded the outreach programs, drawing about half the opera’s audience from the Southwest. Earlier, most patrons came from out of town.
The SFO’s budget has grown from about $150,000 in 1957 to over 3 million this year. The original 480-seat theater burned down in 1967. The house now holds 2,128 people. In the late 1990s, the SFO became the second company in the world to have translation devices on the back of each seat. The Met had the first. The idea for the system came when two technicians doodled on a bar napkin one late Santa Fe night.
“This summer we have Natalie Dessay and Anne Sofie von Otter, both international superstars,” says Gaddes. “The Santa Fe Opera has become one of the eight or 10 top summer festivals in the world.”
Catron shakes his head. “A lot of people thought [Crosby’s idea for an opera] was fanciful. I don’t think any of us realized what it was going to be until opening night.