Soprano Nicole Cabell performs in the Santa Fe Opera production of Georges Bizet's “The Pearl Fishers.” (Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera via AP)

For the serious opera lover, a dwindling breed, these can seem like dark days. The summer has been marked by heated discussion in opera circles about the lasting impact of the economic crisis and the drift of many smaller and regional opera companies away from serious opera to more popular fare, musicals and operettas and to what many observers see as a smaller, more dismal repertoire of war horses.

On Thursday, Charles MacKay, the general director of the Santa Fe Opera, used a news conference to position his company as an exception to that general trend. Citing a recent New York Times article that bemoaned a “new normal” of “stagnant repertory” with a “focus on escapism over innovation and relevance,” MacKay was almost exultant in declaring his company immune to the general decline.

“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.

Brian Jagde performs in the Santa Fe Opera production of Puccini’s “Tosca.” (Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera via AP)

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.

“We are going back to our roots and doing our best to stay true to that,” said MacKay in an interview after the news conference.

Strategic changes

Within a few weeks of MacKay’s first day on the job in October 2008, the stock market lost more than 20 percent of its value, and early in his tenure, he instituted a company-wide strategic-planning process. Things were cut, including an off-season opera series at a local Masonic temple in Santa Fe, which was costing more than half a million dollars a year and providing “scant ticket revenue.” What emerged was a renewed sense of mission as a destination company for national and international audiences, leveraging the city of Santa Fe’s position as a hub for the wealthy, for art collectors and well-to-do vacationers.

In an era in which populist rhetoric is almost obligatory in the opera world, the news conference last week was a striking example of a company going a different direction. Board President Carey Ramos opened the event by quoting from a 1975 New Yorker article praising the company, highlighting words such as “sophisticated” and “dedicated” to describe its audience and offerings. In most American opera companies, that simply isn’t done. The “dedicated” or “sophisticated” opera lover — who wants to hear neglected masterpieces, obscure transitional works, rarely done lesser works by established composers and who is primarily interested in familiar repertoire as a vehicle for exceptional singing — is an embarrassment, hard to please and rarely part of the ideal demographic that companies looking for new and sustainable support are seeking.

As MacKay described how this year’s season came together, the stress is on singers and repertoire rather than catering to a large, general audience. Szymanowski’s “King Roger,” the sumptuous but provocative masterpiece by Poland’s greatest early-20th-century composer, was staged because Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, who sang Don Giovanni at Santa Fe in 2004, wanted to sing it.

“It took four years to put it together,” said MacKay, who had always wanted to present the Szymanowski. But it was worth it. Kwiecien’s muscular, anguished and vocally unflagging depiction of a tormented king brought the house down.

Erin Wall performs the title role in the Santa Fe Opera production of Richard Strauss's “Arabella.” (Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera via AP)

Similarly, Rossini’s sprawling, florid and intensely dramatic “Maometto II,” arguably the composer’s greatest tragedy, was staged because MacKay wanted to bring back to Santa Fe bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, who dominated the show with nearly flawless coloratura and a vigorous dramatic embodiment of the complicated Turkish conqueror. Strauss’s “Arabella” — by far less popular and less well-known than his “Rosenkavalier,” which it resembles in many ways — was chosen because of the company’s long-established reputation for presenting Strauss’s work (under Crosby, Santa Fe gave American premieres of six of his operas). “Arabella” is a long drama and, at times, a slightly confused one, but under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis, and with silver-toned soprano Erin Wall in the title role, it never dragged and built to an ecstatic climax.

None of this is standard box-office wisdom. But MacKay has opted to continue in the tradition of great impresarios of the past who led audience taste rather than followed it.

“The public is really willing to go along on the journey,” MacKay said. “We have this in our DNA.”

An outlier company?

The success of Santa Fe may be an outlier. Smaller and regional companies envy its audience, its location, its carefully tended brand and its history of financial stability. Still, how does one square the sense that most opera companies are heading to that “new normal” of endless repetitions of a handful of Puccini, Mozart and Verdi standards with the success of a company such as Santa Fe?

Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, says he admires Santa Fe as much as the next professional. But he doesn’t accept the premise of much of the grumbling about the dumbing down of American opera.

“In my view it is spurious,” said Scorca, of the perception that companies are relying more and more on a handful of repertory standards to get by. “It isn’t supported by the data.”

Scorca’s data include input from a host of small and experimental groups across the country that may be invisible to the serious opera lover who makes the mistake of focusing only on established, name-brand companies. In D.C., Scorca points to the presence of groups such as Opera Lafayette, UrbanArias and Washington Concert Opera as essential complements to the Kennedy Center’s Washington National Opera (which is opting for dull repertoire and a lamentable inclusion of a musical this coming season).

“For the opera lover,” Scorca said, “it is an absolute buffet; the options are greater and the art form is more alive.”

But when Scorca cheerfully announced that “the days of old-fashioned, imitative grand opera are really done” — by which he means the days of most large companies presenting a regular diet of classic, large-format 19th-century opera in the old stand-and-sing style — serious opera lovers may get nervous. No one wants “old-fashioned” or “imitative” work, but there is an operatic experience, essential to many lovers of the art form, that only large companies that cater to a “sophisticated” and “dedicated” audience can provide.

Operatic diversity

It isn’t hard to square Scorca’s celebration of increasing operatic diversity with the fact that only a handful of established American opera companies are doing great work today. Opera, like so much else in American culture, is trending toward a two-tier system, in which serious opera lovers will flock (if they can, and tickets are expensive) to elite companies such as Santa Fe, while the rest of the opera-going public will make do with dutiful productions of “Carmen,” unwelcome intrusions of Broadway and high-definition broadcasts to the local movie theater, baseball stadium or city park.

Included among the speakers at last week’s news conference was Don Randel, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. His remarks, which received a vigorous ovation, sounded as if he had emerged from a time warp, speaking the art-positive language of the last century, before the conservative political assault on arts funding and the disastrous decision by many arts leaders to forsake their duty to lead taste. Randel acknowledged “the great pressure to move toward more conservative programming,” but he positioned the Mellon Foundation athwart that trend, defending art and opera as essential to the health of the nation.

“We are, as a nation, disinvesting in the arts and culture,” Randel said. Even as other foundations turn away from the arts to more obvious social priorities such as health care and education, the Mellon Foundation will keep supporting art for art’s sake, not because of its educational role or the “economic multipliers” it brings to communities.

“We take it as axiomatic that these things are fundamentally important,” said Randel, in an interview after the news conference.

It was a rousing endorsement of high art without pandering or apologetics, fit to warm the heart of any opera lover. Santa Fe’s season proved, once again, that it’s possible for summer opera to be a haven for listeners who want to engage with the depth and breadth of the form, rather than escape into lighter fare and trivialities.

At 11:20 one evening last week, the audience was in its seats, riveted by David Alden’s production of “Maometto II,” an opera that would be easy to caricature as melodrama. But Alden, and every singer onstage, took the work seriously, without a trace of modern irony. And two things were clear: What an astonishing amount of culture, history and sheer human endeavor are embodied in a piece such as this; and how rare it is that most people will see the best justification of art, which is art done exceptionally well, without condescension or embarrassment.