Santa Fe Opera looks to its roots to secure future

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By Susan M. Bryan

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — For more than five decades, the spirit behind the Santa Fe Opera has stemmed from a deep commitment to commissioning new works and presenting rare productions that had never been seen or heard in the United States.

Now, with its international reputation and unique location in the shadow of northern New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the opera continues to make good on its commitment with two new commissions and an American premiere despite the ongoing economic stranglehold that has brought some of the arts community to its knees.

General director Charles MacKay says that means visitors to the outdoor venue will be treated to new performances for at least the next four years.

"Part of our DNA," he said, "is presenting new works in the belief that it is what is necessary to keep the operatic art form alive and vibrant."

In the opera's first year 55 years ago, it presented the world premiere of Marvin David Levy's "The Tower." It followed that with its first commission, Carlisle Floyd's "Wuthering Heights." In all, the company has had nine commissions and nearly four dozen American premieres.

This year, it's "Faust" and "La Boheme," but MacKay told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that the Santa Fe Opera can't be a showcase just for the great master works of the past.

The new commissions were announced this month. The first is about one of the world's great literary figures, Oscar Wilde.

Never before has an opera been written about the author, so MacKay suspects "Oscar" will reach far beyond traditional opera fans. It also doesn't hurt that David Daniels, a major figure in the opera world, will be singing the title role.

For the second commission, Charles Frazier's best-selling novel "Cold Mountain" is being transformed into an opera by 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon, who is considered one of the leading composers in the world. The Civil War story will also star one of opera's heart throbs, Nathan Gunn.

"The commitment to new and rarely performed works is what really makes the Santa Fe Opera different," MacKay said. "It makes it stand out along with the commitment that we have to the training and advancement of youth American artists and artisans who are working both backstage and who are appearing on our stages side-by-side with international star performers."

"Oscar" and "Cold Mountain" are also important because they represent the latest examples of partnerships among opera houses, a growing trend that opera company directors see as a way to transcend the struggling economy and its ripple effects on the arts.

States and federal agencies have been slashing budgets, and the arts community has not been immune. Some opera houses and symphony orchestras around the country have been forced to file for bankruptcy, dance companies have been struggling and the generosity of donors has waned as they pull tighter on their own purse strings.

"Being artistically aggressive is exactly what needs to happen with arts organizations right now," said Robert Lynch, president and chief executive of the advocacy group Americans for the Arts.

"People are paying out of their pockets to go to things and they have to have great things to go to," he said, explaining that 60 percent of the money that comes into the arts community is from ticket sales and earned income. "Providing a good set of things to choose from is a good strategy."

Arts organizations nationwide are grappling with the same issues, he said.

"How do you not sacrifice the art, but look at interesting management structures and collaborations, mergers or artistic co-productions? Those are examples of what the whole nation is looking at," Lynch said.

The Santa Fe Opera is working with the Opera Company of Philadelphia on "Oscar" and "Cold Mountain." The hope is the partnership can become a model for other opera companies interested in bringing new performances to the public.

"In difficult economic times, perhaps more than ever, it is important to reaffirm the importance of growth in our sector, and to give our audience exciting and engaging new experiences," David Devan, general director of the Opera Company of Philadelphia, said in a statement.

Commissioning and co-production costs — from preparation of the score to costumes and set construction — are expected to range from $1.5 million to $1.8 million for each new opera.

The Santa Fe Opera is the leading partner, footing 60 percent of the cost. Private foundations and gifts from individuals are also helping fund the effort.

MacKay sees partnerships as part of the evolution of the art form.

The challenge for Santa Fe is it has such a unique theater. With a sweeping canopy that opens to the outdoors, there's no fly space above the stage where painted drops for later scenes can be stored.

And the scenery has to be substantial, tough enough to withstand a summer rainstorm or a gust of wind.

"We are covered but we are still subject to the weather," MacKay said.

More partnerships are planned for the future, including one with the Canadian Opera in Toronto. MacKay is also in discussions with opera houses in Spain and France, where economics have also been a problem for the arts.

"It's going to be very interesting over the next five or 10 years to see how these seismic changes in Europe will affect the support for the arts and the funding for opera," he said. "I think it's very possible that there will be even greater opportunities for collaboration as a result of this."

The Santa Fe Opera has been fortunate, MacKay said. Ticket sales have suffered a bit due to an overall lull in tourism, but this year's total contributed income for the opera is about $7 million.

MacKay's mission is to continue attracting die-hard opera fans from around the world, along with the more casual tourists who come to soak in Santa Fe's allure. Parents and their children are also on his list, and plans for an opera camp are even in the works.

Accomplishing the mission shouldn't be too hard.

"It's really just a unique situation — the setting, the place, the magic of Santa Fe itself and this incredible artistic legacy starting from John Crosby, the founding genius of the opera company. It really becomes almost like a magnet for itself," MacKay said of the Santa Fe Opera.

"The challenge of my job is just to make sure that is preserved and, to the extent possible, enhanced over time."