Tom on Santa Fe Opera’s 50 Years: Carmen, Flute, Cendrillon

Incredible as it may seem, and equally hard to imagine, Santa Fe Opera celebrated its 50th Year for the 2006 Opera season running throughout the summer to the end of August when the cold winds of Autumn made their presence known. It was 50 years ago that 39 year old John Crosby, supported by a certain Mr and Mrs Igor Stravinsky, created opera very literally in the middle of nowhere — in the midst of the deserted desert near quiet backwater Santa Fe, known to painters and writers, but not to the musical world. John Crosby changed all that, and in a big way, making this venue the New World equivalent of the justly famed Salzburg Festival.

Today the Santa Fe Opera summer season is the premier summer opera festival in America — no argument here. The site is without equal, just north of Santa Fe in the shadows of the Sangre de Christo mountains (the Blood of Christ — the sunset colors tell you that) with the lights of Atomic City Los Alamos twinkling behind the stage, as thunder, lightning and wind often crash the party — many times at truly unbelievably appropriate times. Once, enjoying a La Boheme on a stormy summer eve, just as Mimi gropes for her missing key at the end of Act I to some of the most glorious music extant, thunder and lightning appeared as if on cue. It doesn’t get better than this anywhere. But then, that’s summer opera in Santa Fe where, today, all of the audience is out of the rain except for that blown in from the open sides. When that happens, the orchestra just keeps playing on, undisturbed, moving to shelter, as the show goes on!! In earlier configurations of the house, some of the patrons weren’t so lucky to be out of the rain.

The audience comes from everywhere — I’ve talked with patrons from virtually every state, every nation in Europe, Australia, Russia, China, Korea — word seems to have gotten around! Some come in tuxedos, kids come with backpacks, knowing patrons come bundled in blankets, but virtually all are dressed with Santa Fe in mind — jingling with Southwest silver and covered with turquoise — indeed, you look out of place without Santa Fe garb!!

This year we attended the final week which usually displays the ultimate in rehearsal expertise — plus it happens during the annual Indian Market in Santa Fe — the nation’s ultimate Native American art show and sell-a-thon. The Season presented Carmen, The Magic Flute, and the Laurent Pelly production of Massenet’s Cendrillon.

Cendrillon is swept throughout with lush, very French music, but is a screaming comedy worthy of the best of Vaudeville. Cinderella’s step-mother was Judith Forst — sans doubt the Best in the Business in a comedy role such as this, whose expressions, gestures, mimics — are without peer. She graces the Santa Fe stage nearly every year in roles like this (and many other venues too).

Carmen (presented in five prior seasons) alternated the title role between Anne Sofie von Otter and Beth Clayton — our Carmen for August 23. Like most of us, I’ve seen Carmen many, many times, loving it nearly every time. BUt this production with Beth Clayton was the most earthy, gutsy, real, tell-it-like-it-is version I’ve every seen. Here is an artist about whom I suspect we’ll hear much more. Never have I (nor all of the other patrons I spoke with) seen anything like this before.

The basic truth is that Carmen ain’t no nice girl. This production makes that a reality never to be forgotten. The orchestra players were craning their necks to watch her — her every gesture and movement couldn’t have been more convincing. I loved it, but not all of the audience shared my enthusiasm. Many thought it was too earthy — they wanted a more coquettish charmer in a lovely sort of sing-along reading. Santa Fe’s new (and first) Music Director Alan Gilbert ably and brilliantly conducted this terrific reading, with the choreography by local legend Maria Benitez (who lives in nearby Taos), one of th most accomplished Flamenco interpreters anywhere. She runs her own company in Santa Fe which travels about the U. S. When you are in Santa Fe, don’t miss her fabulous show which coincides with the opera season! That’s assuming you don’t already have enough to do, what with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum of Art, 140+ art galleries, the Santa Fe Chamber Orchestra Festival, the Santa Fe Chorale (in an 18th century chapel), and Southwest dining at its best!

Mozart’s wonderful Magic Flute rounded out our summer season, being the eleventh Santa Fe Opera reprise of this delight. They’ve only done The Marriage of Figaro and La Traviata more often over their 50 years. The reading of Magic Flute was done in both English and German, the latter used in the Biggies. How could any opera lover not adore this Monument of Western Civilization handed over on a silver platter? Our Papageno (Anya Matanovic) was a sport, next door neighbor, homeboy — gussied up with a T-shirt, a baseball cap, red USA sneakers, US college garb personifiied — but it worked fabulously. Why not? Aren’t there bird-catchers around today on every college campus?

The Bottom Line? Santa Fe Opera rarely disappoints (how we all wish we could say that everywhere in America, let alone in Eurotrash houses. . .) Space, unfortunately, does not permit of a comprehensive review of all the terrific casts, the details of which are on the website But one conclusion is clear. Nearly every summer the casting is superb, the presentations are meticulous, everyone has been rehearsed wonderfully, and the orchestra is always fabulous. You get your money’s worth in Santa Fe!!

After 17 years enjoying the Santa Fe Opera summer season, all I can suggest is Come and rejoice in Opera al fresco at its absolute best in America. John Crosby had it right. Opera in the majestic Southwest could be sensational and spectacular — and World Class. Yes, indeed!