Opera news: Maugham's 'Letter' for '09 delivery

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By Roger Snodgrass

TESUQUE – Santa Fe Opera General Director Richard Gaddis and his designated successor, Charles MacKay, shared the podium Wednesday for the annual spring ritual of announcing next season’s repertory.

Of particular interest for the 2009 season will be the world premier of a newly commissioned opera based on a play adapted by W. Somerset Maugham in 1927 from his short story, “The Letter.”

The opera’s composer Paul Moravec and librettist Terry Teachout were present for the announcement of the world premier and provided a tantalizing introduction to their project.

Moravec, a Pultizer-prize-winning composer and University Professor at Adelphi University, called it an “opera noir,” and said it was about ordinary people who happen to make a few mistakes and are swept into deep water.

Moravec was selected, Gaddis said, after an extensive search process that included listening to scores of tape submissions and following every tip and lead.

Moravec said that when Gaddis called him, the general director didn’t like their first idea.

“We rebounded with another idea,” he said. “Most operas are about sex and death, or death, or erotic love.”

They came up with the Maugham story, but Teachout, the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, said one doesn’t choose an opera.

“It chooses you,” he said, “As soon as this happened, you could hear the click.”

For celebrity watchers, there was hot news that Tom Ford, the international fashion designer, who has lately returned to his home in Santa Fe, will make his operatic debut as costume designer for the production.

Next year’s productions were selected by Gaddis but will be inherited by MacKay, when he takes over his responsibilities Oct. 1.

Gaddis said retiring after 40 years is not always easy.

“I don’t always agree with the reviews you’ve given us,” he said to the gathered press, “but that’s par for the course.”

But the good reviews and the attention may account for what he called a “dramatic increase in ticket sales” – 95 percent sold out last year and advance sales are already looking good for the 2008 season.

This year’s festival begins  June 27 with a new production of Verdi’s “Falstaff.”

Gaddis introduced MacKay, who has the unusual distinction of having also replaced Gaddis at his previous post as general director of the opera theater of St. Louis.

MacKay said he might need to have his head examined for succeeding Gaddis a second time.

“He’s a very tough act to follow,” MacKay said.

In introducing the 2009 repertory, MacKay recalled his very first season, which began at the Santa Fe Opera in 1968, and a production of  “La traviatta,” which involved a great deal of straw and bales of hay.

“I remember it well,” he said. “I was known as the ‘pit boy’ because I had to sweep out the orchestra pit on a regular basis.”

MacKay, who graduated from Santa Fe High School went on to become box office manager, development manager and business manager under the tutelage of the opera’s founding director John Crosby before moving on in the opera world.

Susan F. Morris, president of the board of directors, announced that the opera will receive a $1 million challenge grant from the Kresge Foundation if its fundraising campaign can raise $5.2 million by Oct. 1, 2009.