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The Santa Fe Festival Model

The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny returns from New Mexico and ponders what other opera companies can learn from this respected organization.



published Sunday, August 12, 2012
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Readers of these columns know that I am very intrigued by different operating models for opera companies, whether in Bayreuth, Germany or in the United States. Last week I attended five different operas in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Santa Fe Opera represents one of the most enduring and innovative opera festivals anywhere in the world, and my trip has been a good reminder of how much opera companies like TDO can learn from this company.

SF Opera was founded in 1956 by New York-based John Crosby, who was its first General Director and regular conductor. To this day, the festival remains very much a national institution, with senior bard members drawn from New York, New Mexico and Texas. While the audience has a strong local representation, ticket buyers from all over the country flock to Santa Fe to experience its excellent programming performed to an extremely high standard by a blend of well-established and emerging artists. Here are some of the aspects of the festival that make it unique, and so successful, from my perspective:

  • Location. Santa Fe, New Mexico is a beautiful city with a history spanning more than 400 years. Its spectacular high desert location (nearly 7,000 feet) makes for warm days with cool nights, ever-varied weather patterns, and beautiful sunsets. Singers and other performing artists are people, too, and like to summer in beautiful locations, making it possible for the Festival to recruit extraordinary casts. Plus, it's the only opera company in the U.S. (that I know of) that comes with its own swimming pool!
  • Theater and stage configuration. The current theater is actually the third performance space to share the same location since the company was founded. Seating a little more than 2,100, the performance venue has a roof, but is open at the sides, so that the temperature and wind is unpredictable for both the audience and performers. The stage is open at the back, with views of the setting sun over the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, and some productions take advantage of this glorious natural backdrop. For this year's production of The Pearl Fishers, the set incorporated a giant picture frame spanning the entire width of the stage. At different points in the production, the audience looked through the picture frame to various tableaux, including the costumed chorus standing around a fantasy temple with the sun setting over the mountains. Splendid!
  • Loyal base of supporters. Santa Fe Opera has a strong subscriber and ticket buyer base, including many out of town visitors, and it seems like many of their patrons are open to trying new and less familiar operas. As a result, the company regularly produces world premieres and new productions of lesser known works.
  • Repertoire mix. Because of this strong base of support, Santa Fe is able to present an intriguing mix of operas. Of the five main, full-length operas being presented this year, one is a "top 10" (Tosca), two are lesser known works by well-known composers (Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, Strauss' Arabella), one is rarely performed work by a well-known composer (Rossini's Maometto II), and one is a true rarity (Szymanowski's King Roger). Next year's program, already announced, includes two "top 10" operas (Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, Verdi's La traviata), two lesser-known works by a well-known composers (Rossini's La Donna del Lago, Offenbach's The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein), and a world premiere (Theodore Morrison's Oscar, based on the life of Oscar Wilde). Many opera houses would need to skew towards a higher proportion of "top 10" in order to keep the books in balance. 

  • Finely tuned season balance. As noted in one of my previous postings (June 2012), selecting the right number of performances is critically important to the economics of an opera season. For the current season of the Santa Fe Opera, the number varies from Tosca at the high end (a dozen performances) to six for Maometto II and five for both Arabella and King Roger; the company will perform The Pearl Fishers eight times. The total number of mainstage performances is 36, which is not so far removed from TDO's 30 performances in its first two years in the Winspear Opera House.

  • Apprentice program. When John Crosby founded the company, he also created the first opera apprentice program in the country. In a given year, 900 people apply, out of which 500 are chosen to audition, and 40 selected to sing in the chorus, in supporting roles, community performances and cover roles in Santa Fe's main productions (as understudies).

  • Orchestra. Drawn from all over U.S., the orchestra is a very capable ensemble well equipped to perform varied and often less-familiar repertoire. The orchestra also shifts during busy weeks to a different opera every night; it's quite something in a five-day period to change playing styles and technique from Puccini to Bizet to Strauss to Rossini—and wrap it up with Szymanowski!

This unique business model also encourages General Directors and artistic leaders from all over the U.S. to make a simultaneous annual pilgrimage. It is possible to see all five productions, attend two sets of auditions from the apprentices, and attend a celebratory annual dinner with many of the nation's artistic leaders—in less than a week.

I'm not suggesting that running the Festival is easy; Santa Fe Opera is blessed with a strong Board, and a seasoned and popular General Director, Charles MacKay, who is also the former Board Chair for Opera America.

With all of these strengths, I am aware of only a couple of minor challenges in the Santa Fe Opera business model. First and foremost, weather can be unpredictable in an open-air theater in the desert mountains. The company is always prepared to move the orchestra further under the stage or even perform with piano on short notice, should it become too wet. And, because of the unique stage configuration, it is not always possible to rent or loan sets (for this summer's season, all five productions were new, also quite an achievement).

Artistically, SF Opera produces opera of the highest quality. I won't comment on all the productions in detail individually, but some of the most memorable moments of this year were as follows:

  • The clarity of sound and quality of the orchestral timbre, particularly in the woodwinds, in Tosca under Chief Conductor Frédéric Chaslin. The chorus also sounded particularly glorious at the end of Act I.

  • Erin Wall and Mark Delavan in Act II of Arabella, when Mandryka is wooing Arabella. This particular scene was beautifully sung and emotionally persuasive. And, not coincidentally, Sir Andrew Davis led a stunning performance from the orchestra. (Below is video, and my list continues after.)

  • As I noted above, the use of a picture frame spanning the full width of the stage, with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains visible behind, was very effective, particularly as the sun set over the stage in the course of Act I.

  • Leah Crocetto (Anna), Bruce Sledge (Erisso) and Luca Pisaroni (Maometto II) all delivered excellent performances in Rossini's Maometto  II. It was a delight to see the work fully staged, which is quite rare; as an example, San Francisco Opera has performed the piece only once, in 1988. Ms. Crocetto set an admirable example of performing effectively in the open air, delivering a powerful performance in the final act while winds (and rain!) were blowing hard on stage and straight through the audience.
  • On my last evening in Santa Fe, Evan Rogister conducted a superb performance of Karol Szymanowski's rarely performed King Roger, with Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role, Erin Morley as his wife Roxanna, and William Burden as the shepherd. (Below is a scene from King Roger.)

Those who have attended this year's Festival will undoubtedly have additional highlights to add to my list. Feel free to comment below!

◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column "Off the Cuff" appears every month in TheaterJones.com. His first column can be seen here, the second is here, third here, fourth here, fifth here, sixth here. and seventh here.

Also, TheaterJones covered all five of this year's opera, here are links to Gregory Sullivan Isaacs' reviews:

◊ Review of Santa Fe Opera's Tosca

◊ Review of Santa Fe Opera's The Pearl Fishers

◊ Review of Santa Fe Opera's Arabella

◊ Review of Santa Fe Opera's Maometto II

◊ Review of Santa Fe Opera's King Roger Thanks For Reading




Comments:

Peter Wender writes:
Wednesday, March 27 at 9:55AM

The mountains seen through the rear of the Santa Fe stage are the Jemez Mountains, not the Sangre de Cristo Mountains - which are on the opposite side of the theater.


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The Santa Fe Festival Model
The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny returns from New Mexico and ponders what other opera companies can learn from this respected organization.
by Keith Cerny

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