NEWMEXICO CULTURE

John Crosby chose well. An opera coach and conductor, Yale-educated, making his way in New York circles in the early 1950s but suffering under the pace and the bad air of East Coast urban life, Crosby decided that sinuses and sanity demanded a change of venue. Santa Fe beckoned: still in 1956 the sleepy desert town that Willa Cather had celebrated in her “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” Here, the 30-year-old Crosby reasoned, he could stock up on much-needed r&r. In this one regard, he was wrong. Within a year Crosby had sensed something else about Santa Fe: that under that sleepy desert facade there was a magnificent cultural awakening just waiting to happen. Crosby gathered some friends, well-heeled themselves and with access to other local money, and presented them with a plan, an 18-page single-spaced memorandum that laid out costs down to the smallest dry-cleaning item for a new opera company offering six operatic presentations over an eight-week summer season. Never mind that the theater for these operas hadn’t even been built. Ten months later it was. On July 3, 1957 the Santa Fe Opera was born, right on schedule. The opera was Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”; Crosby himself was on the podium. This was not, by the way, just any old opera house. Crosby had come to Santa Fe to escape New York; now his opera house had to escape even the minimal urban encroachment of Santa Fe. A loan from Crosby’s father secured a parcel of land in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains 7 miles north of town: a natural bowl with space in front for a ranch-house office and dormitory, and a hillside onto which an indoor-outdoor performance facility could perch. The first theater seated 480; the success of the venture demanded expansion. In the summer of 1967, in the wee hours after an evening performance, the theater — which by then had grown to a nearly 1200-seat capacity — was completely destroyed by a fire whose cause remains a mystery. The company didn’t miss a performance that summer, working in a highschool auditorium without sets or costumes. By the next season a new theater had been built on the site, the present architectural marvel with a current capacity of 1,777 — the size, but not the shape, of most of the great houses of Europe. The shape is both a glory and a danger. The local architectural firm, Santa Fe’s McHugh and Kidder, marvelousy caught the dynamic of the site: the steep natural rake that promised a full stage view from every seat, with the distant prospect of more mountains, the distant lights of Los Alamos visible through the open back of the stage, and the occasional glimpse of dramatic mountain lightning storms through the open sides. Best of all, the roof would be split, with a wide swathe of sky visible between the front and rear portions. On clear, moonlit or starry nights, which Santa Fe sometimes (but not always) enjoys during the June-through-August opera season, there is no more exhilarating setting for opera anywhere in the world. The theater itself is ringed with further amenities: spacious refreshment areas on both sides, and a promenade up back. That’s the story on those clear nights. But that is not the entire weather picture of Santa Fe. The monsoons do come, especially in late July and August. The rains pour down in torrents through the split roof, and the winds take care to seek out and drench even those souls in the covered seats. This past summer has seen an above-average number of meteorological visitations; some 60 per cent of the summer’s operas were rained upon. Not rained out, mind you; just rained upon. Santa Fe’s busy opera season has no room for postponements. If management finally decides to fill in that roof, and reports out of Santa Fe indicate some talk in that direction, the loss in atmosphere will be great, but the loss in humidity will be universally welcomed. Meanwhile, the gift shop this past summer did a roaring business in ponchos. Credit Santa Fe’s audiences, at least, with holding their ground however soggy. It has to be a tribute to the high quality of the company’s world-class performing casts, and the comparable quality of the repertory itself — which can range from exquisitely formed Mozart performances to a dazzling excursion into brand-new, contemporary work — to see a capacity crowd sitting out a splendid night of opera in Santa Fe, the rains pouring down over them, nobody even daring to raise an umbrella. When you talk of operatic heroes, Santa Fe’s audience belong to their number. Not all of Santa Fe’s high culture has been planned in defiance of the elements. The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival is also firmly entrenched, in the (blessedly) roofed-over Saint Francis Auditorium in a handsome courtyard building just off the main downtown Plaza. Founded 19 years ago and, like the opera, largely funded by the local growing, culturally-aware population, the festival has grown into the largest event of its kind anywhere in the country: six weeks of events nearly every night, most of them sold out, combining a fascinating mix of serious contemporary fare with the classics. One thing you come up against in Santa Fe, as soon as you start hunting down the cultural resources: there’s an overt sense of support there that you sometimes miss in larger cities. The opera has come to attract an international audience of opera connoisseurs, but even among the locals the talk during intermissions is about opera, not about the high cost of baby-sitters. And the sense of community involvement is, if anything, even stronger around the Chamber Music Festival. In their infinite wisdom, the sponsors allow the public in to all rehearsals, free of charge. Instead of possibly cutting down attendance at the concerts themselves, this breeds a sense of greater interest. When new music is rehearsed, the composer is often on hand to explain the music. The atmosphere crackles, with musical wisdom and with pride. At 7,000 feet, Santa Fe has proven the bane of some singers and wind players who must fight extra hard for their oxygen fixes. But it isn’t only the physical Santa Fe that’s that high; it’s also the cultural standards of the place, and that’s why people keep coming back.