SANTA FE, N.M. — The Santa Fe Opera sits like a shining white cloud in the red hills a few miles north of Santa Fe. Beams and cables hold up its roof like the top of a tent, poised for flight. Below this, warm adobe walls gently nudge the open air into the shapes of opera-house tradition, delineating lobbies and gathering places and, of course, the auditorium, its 2,200 seats now sheltered by the roof but still exposed to the elements on the sides. The proscenium is open at the back to allow a natural pageant of cloud and wind, sunset and the occasional thunderstorm to function — if a given stage director will allow it — as part of the drama.
Indeed, says Charles MacKay, the Santa Fe Opera’s general director, for some people, the setting outweighs the production. “People will say to me, I haven’t been to the opera for a few years, but I just loved it when I went,” he says. “I’ll say, ‘What did you see?’ and they say, ‘Well, you know, I can’t really remember, but I know there was a great sunset that night.” MacKay’s not complaining: He is eager to make opera an experience for everyone, whether it’s the sunsets or the music that bring people back.
The great summer festivals lure you to a particular place with the promise that you will see things that are worth your while. Santa Fe, among the oldest opera festivals in America and certainly the largest and most important, has made its reputation as a distinctive company with a flair for the unusual. This summer brought “Dr. Sun Yat-Sen” by Huang Ruo, which had its world premiere in Hong Kong in 2011, and here became the first opera Santa Fe has ever done in Mandarin. But it was Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” in Stephen Wadsworth’s effective, detailed, insightful staging and conducted with a light strong touch by Harry Bicket, that was the real reminder — despite a so-so cast — of opera’s potential as a dramatic art.
The times seem challenging for opera. The Metropolitan Opera is embroiled in negotiations with its trade unions, threatening a lockout that could jeopardize its season; the San Diego Opera nearly closed earlier this year; and this month has already seen problems everywhere from Sacramento (whose opera company is going on an indefinite hiatus) to Salzburg (the leader of Europe’s summer festivals is struggling with empty seats and declining income just like its American counterparts).
But America’s largest summer festivals — St. Louis, Glimmerglass, and Santa Fe — are in better shape than most year-round companies; and Santa Fe leads the pack. It has the largest annual operating budget ($22.5 million dollars), the lowest rate of audience decline (only 3.5 percent since 2002, according to an Opera America study),and it’s never, in its 57-year-history, had a deficit. This last point, according to MacKay, keeps him awake at night — particularly since one of the first things he had to do, when he arrived here in 2009, was lop $1.2 million off the budget.
Yet Santa Fe has retained its cachet — and its ability to get away with showing unusual work, even in a theater that’s large by most American festival standards. Its founder, the late John Crosby, remains known for his micromanagement of every aspect of his company, his indifferent conducting, and his great love of Richard Strauss, many of whose operas had their American premieres here. Santa Fe is no longer quite as wedded to Strauss — though “Salome” is on the schedule for 2015 — but it remains committed to unusual pieces; last summer’s “Oscar” by Theodore Morrison, about Oscar Wilde, nearly sold out, and there has already been great demand for tickets for next year’s “Cold Mountain” by Jennifer Higdon, based on the novel by Charles Frazier.
Francesca Zambello, who runs the Glimmerglass festival and is artistic director of the Washington National Opera, holds that audiences today tend to gravitate either toward the very tried and true (Santa Fe’s “Carmen” this summer is the company’s third production of that opera since 1999) or toward the altogether unknown. MacKay won’t go that far. “I think that new works that have a particular subject matter or other kind of thrust do better,” he says. “Because Oscar Wilde is so well known, there was great curiosity about seeing an opera about Oscar Wilde.” “Dr. Sun Yat-Sen,” however, hasn’t been selling as well. “We would have a very different box office reaction,” MacKay says, “if we had a larger Chinese or Asian population in Santa Fe.”
The reaction might also be different if the work were better. Huang Ruo is a young composer who wrote the hour-long “An American Soldier” for the Washington National Opera’s new commissioning initiative in June; this full-length work, which predates that, was intended as a coproduction in Beijing and Hong Kong, but was cancelled in Beijing — allegedly for logistical reasons, but probably in fact, according to an article in the New York Times, because Chinese officials felt that the content was politically unserious. In Santa Fe, it seemed all too earnest, without any spark to animate the story of a great man who never quite came across as one — in part because the Chinese tenor star-cum-administrator who sang the lead at the Hong Kong world premiere, Warren Mok, withdrew from the production (more “logistical reasons”), leaving the role to Joseph Dennis, a member of Santa Fe’s apprentice program who wasn’t quite up to the (considerable) challenge of embodying the charismatic founder of the Republic of China.
Ruo found a superficially engaging musical idiom that combines elements of the Peking Opera — the distinctive wavering vocal ornaments, the snake-like rattle or rustling leaf-like shiver of percussion, the twang of Chinese instruments — with a melodic sweetness redolent of Puccini. The biggest and best-drawn role was that of Ching-ling, Dr. Sun’s second wife, but even the radiant soprano Corinne Winters couldn’t really make an effect. And James Schuette, who designed the generally attractive costumes, failed at his one key assignment: Sun’s first wife is a peasant woman with bound feet, an anachronism in the elegant international crowd he travels in, but onstage, Rebecca Witty, who ably sang the part, didn’t look particularly different, in her brocaded traditional outfit, from anybody else.
The advantage of being a “destination” festival is that audiences will tolerate a certain number of duds. Santa Fe has managed to establish itself as part of the summertime ritual for many local residents, as well as visitors. Smaller, more out-of-the-way festivals have to work harder to get and keep themselves on the map. Pelham Pearce, the general and artistic director of the Central City Opera, a summer festival in the Colorado Rockies, says, “The vast majority of the population doesn’t care if we’re there or not.” And the changing media landscape makes it harder to let them know.
“Before, it was expensive, but you knew what you had to do,” Pearce says. “We took out a full-page ad in the Denver Post; everybody saw it. Now, the readership is small, people get it digitally, self-curate their information. So you have a much more difficult time creating that critical mass of information when people say, ‘Oh, I should go see that. . . . I’ve got board members calling me screaming, ‘Where’s the coverage?’ And we’re spending more money than we ever have.”
Next year, the Central City Opera is taking a plunge not only into unusual repertoire, but into leaving the opera house altogether. Three of its season’s five productions will be chamber works that the company will tour all over the state.
“We can’t wait in our temples for these people to come see the art we’re creating,” Pearce says. “We have to get out of that and come to them.”
Like newspapers, like churches, like orchestras, and like many other traditional institutions, opera companies are facing the hard fact that not everyone is going to survive. But it’s the smaller-scale, relatively cost-light festival model that seems to be doing the best in the current climate. Even Santa Fe, whose budget equals or exceeds that of many year-round companies, doesn’t have to pay full-time salaries to its orchestra, chorus, and technical staff, who converge every year from all over the country.
There’s certainly nothing low-budget about its productions. Wadsworth’s cinematic “Fidelio” was set in a cutaway building that simultaneously showed action in six distinct areas, from the head office to Fidelio’s bedroom. Wadsworth is a director who believes in opera as a realistic rather than an overblown art, and he worked with the singers until this problematic piece seemed completely believable, even with the action transported (in a non-sensationalist way) to a Nazi prison camp. Bicket, in his first official outing as Santa Fe’s new chief conductor, offered a similarly nuanced reading from the pit, and there was some fine singing from the principals, including Joshua Dennis — Joseph’s identical twin brother — as Jaquino.
The problem was that Santa Fe cast the leads with a similar eye to lightness, and it didn’t work. Paul Groves lacked the vocal stamina for the larger parts of the role of Florestan, and as Leonore, the wife who masquerades as a man (Fidelio) to save him, Alex Penda (the former Alexandrina Pendatchanska) was similarly overtaxed, with a brittle vibrato verging on a wobble. Her acting was often moving, and her casting was clearly part of an effort to create a lighter, more transparent “Fidelio,” but the music simply calls for different voices.
Praising a production with such uneven singing may seem incongruous. But it also epitomizes the glass-is-half-full optimism that opera administrators need today to survive. Sitting in a cool Santa Fe evening among the lush green lawns, opera seems just fine. And festivals are a reminder that amid all of the field’s troubles, there is still plenty to celebrate.
This is the last of a three-part series on summer opera festivals. To read Part 1 on the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Part 2 on the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., visit washingtonpost.com.
The Santa Fe Opera continues through Aug. 23; www.santafeopera.org.