“Happily, I can say that none of this applies to the Santa Fe Opera,” MacKay told a small crowd that included prominent board members, the head of the national service organization Opera America, and the president of the Mellon Foundation, which has just announced a $1 million grant to the company. “We are in great shape,” MacKay assured his audience.
That isn’t just hype. The Santa Fe Opera is healthy, fiscally and artistically. After some belt-tightening following the economic collapse of 2008, the company has increased its annual budget to $18 million, and it expects to balance the books when its fiscal year ends in September. Ticket sales, which account for an impressive 45 percent of the company’s budget, were running at a 93 percent attendance rate. The opera house, a sweeping, birdlike structure open to the night air on both sides, has more than 2,100 seats and most, if not all, of them were full five nights in a row last week. Audiences were uniformly enthusiastic.
More impressive is the quality of the performances this season. The company’s orchestra sounds better than it has at any time in at least the past quarter-century. Casting, which relies on a mix of known stars and younger professionals, was strong throughout all five productions.
But it was the repertory that made the strongest impact. Hewing to both the letter and the spirit of a formula created by the company’s founding general director, John Crosby (who died in 2002), Santa Fe presented dazzling productions of two rarely heard works, a major opera by Richard Strauss, and two more-reliable box-office standards. The mix was challenging, intriguing and rewarding, and the summer recalled some of the legendary Santa Fe seasons of yore, in which the opera presented world premieres and American premieres by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemith and Berg.
Audiences this year saw the rarely performed Karol Szymanowski opera “King Roger,” the perhaps equally rare Rossini tragedy “Maometto II” and Strauss’s dense and neglected “Arabella,” along with Puccini’s “Tosca” and Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers.” Even these last two, more commonly heard works included significant enticements: the appearance of the rising star soprano Nicole Cabell and the masterful French conductor Emmanuel Villaume in the Bizet, and the American debut of a new role for the veteran baritone Thomas Hampson, the villain Scarpia in the Puccini.