Think of a place in the high desert, a mile and a half above sea level. Oxygen is scarce at that altitude; it takes extra effort to climb  stairs or sing a cadenza. Water is scarce; maintaining a garden is a high-risk project. A single glass of wine has the kick of a double martini at sea level. In summer the hot desert sun keeps the temperature in the high nineties; wintertime readings down to zero are not uncommon. (The low humidity, however, makes both extremes more bearable than in, say, Manhattan.) Is this the ideal kind of place for starting an opera company? “No,” you’d think, but according to John Crosby you’d be wrong.

Crosby, New York-born (1926), operatic coach and conductor at various East-Coast enterprises, visited New Mexico in the 1950s and seems to have immediately been seized by a vision of opera thriving on a 76-acre ranch property that he had purchased in the hills north of Santa Fe. With a visionary’s zeal and a visionary’s gall, he mapped out an inaugural seven-week season: Butterfly, Così and The Barber to draw the crowds, Ariadne auf Naxos to indulge his passion for Richard Strauss, the world premiere of Marvin David Levy’s The Tower to prove his loyalty to opera’s present and future.

Further safeguarding that future, Crosby installed an apprentice program – the first of its kind to earn the full support of AGMA from the beginning. Most daring of all, he scheduled Igor  Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and had the consummate gall to invite the august composer himself to officiate at rehearsals. In a rickety 480-seat performing space open to the skies, the capacity opening-night crowd on July 3, 1957 made it clear that the Santa Fe Opera was off to a good start. The ensuing  45 years have proved them right.

Crosby stepped down as general director at the end of the 2000 season, while maintaining hold of his baton. Over the years he conducted most of the performances of his beloved Strauss; this summer he leads La Traviata.  He has, however, swapped deserts, and spends most of his time in his new home in California’s Palm Springs.

“Trying to imagine the courage of that man is still a staggering task,” says Richard Gaddes, who stepped into Crosby’s general-director shoes last year. A genial and affable Brit, sixtyish, Gaddes had served the company before as artistic administrator, and left in 1976 to found the Opera Theater of St. Louis. “Think of what it must have taken to convince Stravinsky to commit time to an opera theater that hadn’t even yet  been built.  Still, Stravinsky not only came that summer; he came back several times, and became what you might call the company’s mascot. Tomorrow, when we go up to the opera house, you’ll see the new Stravinsky Terrace, where the audience can linger over drinks at intermission.”

Santa Fe is special. Its downtown Plaza still preserves the city’s plan at its founding in 1610. Try to build even a gas station downtown in any but the traditional Spanish-Pueblo-Indian architectural style, and you get tromped on by the City’s planning board. Before opera it was already a haven for a scattering of painters, drawn there by the gorgeous purity of air and light (and by the hospitality of the legendary Mabel Dodge Luhan, who collected artists at her home up the road in Taos as you or I might collect stamps). Now you won’t find a foot of empty space between the art galleries jammed together along Canyon Road, and the city’s Mayor, Larry Delgado, delightedly pins blame on the Opera. “Some people complain at too many galleries, but I don’t agree. It’s Canyon Road that separates Santa Fe from anywhere else; after all, it could have gone to condos. I don’t want this to be any-old-city-USA. John Crosby saved us from that, and the people after him save us as well.” An operagoer when time allows, and a lapsed trumpet-player, Delgado fingers Carmen as his favorite

Santa Fe in winter, when I looked in to talk to some of its movers, has its own crystalline beauty, and is a lot more manageable besides; you can lunch on The Shed’s outstanding blue-corn burritos without a couple of hours on the waiting line. Eight miles north on I-25, Gaddes guides me through the rebuilt Opera House, the fourth structure in that space. No. 2 had burned to the ground late one night during the 1967 season – without, however, costing the company a single performance date. No. 3, with its split roof and open sides, was a heavenly place under  balmy summer skies but a windswept, watery hell on the not-infrequent monsoon nights. No. 4, which seats 2,128.  has a full roof and, again, open sides, but with, at least, some buffers to slow down potential sidewise gusts. As we visit workmen are finishing off a sound-wall to block out the sound of braking semis on the Interstate. Beside the Opera House stands the brand-new Stieren Orchestra Hall, an acoustical state-of-the-art rehearsal space (and possible recital hall) that enables orchestral and stage rehearsals to go on separately and simultaneously.

In the hall itself, Gaddes points to another improvement of considerable consequence, consoles for supertitles built into each seat-back, each consisting of a screen and a small red button. That button, Gaddes explains, does more than merely turning the titles on and off (as at the Met); it also offers the choice of titles in English and Spanish, and therein, in that small square of red plastic, is potent proof of the Santa Fe Opera’s new and vital direction.

“John’s vision of opera was wholly imperial,” says Gaddes. “He seemed to pride himself on the fact that the vast majority of his audience came to Santa Fe from out of state. He saw the Santa Fe Opera as the American Glyndebourne or Bayreuth, and didn’t concern himself much with whether  or how the local community regarded it. My concern, therefore, was to find a way to bring that community, with its preponderant Hispanic population,  into the picture. Last year we upgraded the supertitle system, so that pushing the red  button allowed the choice of English or Spanish. At the same time we announced that anyone who hadn’t been to the Santa Fe Opera in five years could now buy tickets for fifty percent off.

“Those two things made an enormous difference; they were the main reason that last season’s ticket sales were up 7,000 over the year before. You could look around the hall and spot whole Hispanic families. One night, after a performance that had Spanish supertitles, we went around to check to see which language had been left on the consoles. Twelve percent were set for Spanish. More and more people started coming early with picnic suppers. They came to the pre-performance lectures. This year we’ll have an extra set of lectures at six o’clock before a nine o’clock performance, to allow more time for picnicking. Last year we only provided Spanish supertitles for two operas; this year we’ll do all five.  Another thing: last year we let the city use our theater for a Mariachi festival. John would have been horrified, of course, but that event also let a lot of people discover that mysterious place on the hill that they had never seen before.”

On a nearby hill  the spacious home of Regina Safarty Rickless faces a staggering panorama up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.   As just plain Regina Safarty she had  had a distinguished career as mezzo-soprano with the New York City Opera and in several European houses. In the Santa Fe Opera’s first year she was Madama Butterfly’s Suzuki – “at $100 a week,” she remembers — and then made her way up life’s ladder as Carmen and Baba the Turk. Now she directs the company’s apprentice program which, like the company itself, has grown in both size and stature. In 1959 came the first apprentice-run concert. In 1960 a grant from the Mellon Foundation enabled the hiring of a voice coach.

Sarfaty hands me a list of graduates from the program since it began in 1957. David Gockley and Lotfi Mansouri, both eminent administrators on their own, came out of the management-training program; the singers’ roster includes James Morris, Samuel Ramey, Sally Wolf, Neil Shicoff…an impressive aggregation. Twenty-three former apprentices in the technicians’ training program moved on to professional posts at the Santa Fe Opera itself. At the end of the season the apprentices do their own show, recitals of operatic scenes. These draw large crowds.

“Out of 800 applicants a year more or less,” she tells me, “we end up with, maybe, 36. Here they train for specific roles, small parts, chorus, or as a cover. They get a small weekly wage, set in the AGMA contract and, of course, room and board. We give them generalized role study, voice lessons, master classes. We guide them through the problems of singing opera at 7,500 feet. Drink lots of water, I tell them,  but watch the booze, because a little goes a long way. Don’t move too much at first. We haven’t lost anyone to altitude…not yet.

“The greater problem is losing people to wrong decisions or too much ambition. To combat this we invite agents to come to Santa Fe, check out the apprentice talent, and also make themselves available for advice on career choices and repertory. Most important is for a young singer to learn to say ‘no.’ You have to learn to turn down an offer that goes beyond what you’re ready for. The agent may not call again, but you get to keep your voice.

“What’s interesting here,” Sarfaty concludes, “is the age spread. In the ‘50s and ‘60s almost all of our apprentices were in the 21-25 range. Now there are some as old as 34. That means that they stay in school longer, and come into life better prepared. It can mean that, at least.”

A glance over the Santa Fe Opera’s 45 years produces the impression of John Crosby’s skewed but distinctive repertory, a list as remarkable for its omissions as its entries. The Verdi pickings are slim: La Traviata averaging five performances each over eleven seasons, Falstaff in four seasons, three of Rigoletto and one of Don Carlo . Of Wagner there is only a Dutchman, performed in three seasons. Mozart fares well, with 15 seasons of Figaro best of all. So does Stravinsky, with the Rake turning up in seven seasons and Le Rossignol in five. Six operas of Hans Werner Henze have received American premieres in Santa Fe, although it may be significant that none of them returned for a second season. And then there is Strauss: five seasons of  Rosenkavalier, nine of Salome and thirteen other operas – lacking only Guntram and Die Frau ohne Schatten to complete the collection.

Will things change? This summer, the absence of Richard Strauss for the first time since 1977 may count as the season’s novelty; an even greater one, however, is the American premiere of L’Amour de Loin, the opera by Kaija Saariaho that has already garnered – in Salzburg and Paris — a round of critical ecstasy unique for any serious-minded opera in these times. As we speak Richard Gaddes is obsessed with that opera’s problems: director Peter Sellars’ demand for towers that may impinge on the orchestra pit, and the need to attend to Dawn Upshaw’s comfort as she lies in a pool of water in the final moments. (“Perhaps we should try a few of those immersion heaters you use for coffee,” he wonders aloud.) The 2002 season also lists Eugene Onegin, La Traviata and the company’s first La Clemenza di Tito and L’Italiana in Algeri.

“Of course things will change,” Gaddes continues, “if only because of the vast differences in style between John – who ran a magnificent opera company close to his vest – and my own, let’s say, community-minded approach. Specifically, I’m looking at American works. We have Bright Sheng on the list for 2003; we’re talking to Aaron Kernis and to Theodore Shapiro. Tobias Picker’s Emmeline had its world premiere here in 1996 and has done well since then; it’s musically lightweight, perhaps, but it’s a good evening in the theater. We will do better. We’ve begun to reach out to the community that actually lives here, with an HMS Pinafore this past winter in a great old downtown movie theater, the Lensic, that’s been magnificently restored. We’ve done  Noah’s Flood and The Beggar’s Opera in schools and churches. The next step will be to look into Spanish opera – not merely because it’s Spanish, but because it’s good. What do you know about Goyescas?”

Over a splendid burrito on a blindingly sunlit February day, Opera Board President Carole Ely adds to the perspective. “The amazing thing about John,” she says, “was the equilibrium he managed to maintain between artistic excellence and the balance sheet. Richard adds community consciousness to the mix. With John, what happened on the main stage mattered the most. He would have burst an artery before he’d bring that Mariachi festival onto that stage. But Richard did. People have to wonder how September 11 affects our company. Actually, it hasn’t affected us very much. New Mexico has relatively few large corporations, so most of our support comes from a vast list of individuals or smaller corporations – a few thousand here and there.

“Opera has made this community what it is,” she concluded. “Before there were artists, but then there was John Crosby, in this hidden gem of a town in the Southwest.”

Like many Santa Feans, David and Kay Ingalls moved there from somewhere else: specifically, from Los Angeles, where David ran a prestigious bookshop and both had lent their names to a sheaf of cultural agencies. “We moved to Santa Fe,” says Kay, “just to get away from running things.” Now David chairs the Santa Fe Opera Board, and he and Kay are both heavy movers at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, which runs concurrent to the opera season and does its own sell-out business.

“We came here summer after summer,” says Kay, “to ride horses and swim and go to the opera. Then we came once in the winter, just to try things out. That did it; we bought a lot at the edge of town, and then we decided on this great old house right in town. We walk over to The Subscription every morning, have coffee, read the papers and rub shoulders with Nobel winners, people in the sciences and in the arts. When we lived in Pasadena the ride to the Los Angeles airport was always a mess of traffic. Here the Albuquerque airport may be farther away, but it’s a lot easier to get to.”

“It’s an easy place to live,” says David.

“Yes, and it’s an easy place to love,” says Kay.

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