Quick! What was the first opera performed by the Santa Fe Opera in 1957? The answer? Madama Butterfly! And she is back in Santa Fe for the summer 2010 season! I first fell in love with opera right here in Santa Fe when I took a job as an usher, back in the days when standing for four-plus hours was a more do-able proposition. This time around, I was able to enjoy the glorious music of Giacomo Puccini comfortably seated for this classic of the repertoire. Financial support for the Opera has been a long-held commitment of the Inn’s owner, Joe Schepps, and thanks to his generosity, I was privileged to attend the Opening Night for the first time last Friday. And what a night it was!
Arriving at the Opera early is always a good idea, since it allows you to relax, enjoy the view, admire the tail-gating parties and avoid the stress of crawling uphill in a line of cars, fearing that you might miss the overture and have to stand through the first act. No joke! After the music begins, there is no seating until a viable opportunity, which might well be the second act! Opening night includes a tradition of champagne for all, an especially magnanimous gesture in these economic times, and one that was obviously much appreciated by all the patrons I saw with flutes in hand. Despite the promise (kept) of inclement weather, the tail-gaters were out in force, one more elaborate than the next. From crisp white tablecloths to TV tables to Japanese umbrellas, the dinner party set-ups ran the gamut, and so, I am sure, did the menus.
If preparing a meal for tail-gating is not your thing, the Opera offers picnic suppers as well as a preview buffet before every performance, which offers an easy way to arrive early and feel fresh. The preview dinners even have the added benefit of a knowledgeable guest speaker, who provides background information about the night’s performance during the dessert course, just another demonstration of the Opera’s mission of educating its present and future audiences. And for those who only want the education and not the meal, informative 7:00pm lectures in Stieren Orchestra Hall take place twice nightly before performances; the first talk begins two hours before the performance with the second one hour before curtain.
My good friend’s mother, Christine, always says, “There is only one opera, and it’s Italian,” and certainly any production of Puccini’s work fulfills this requirement. The casting of this year’s production boasts strong voices all around, and Butterfly has been a standard of many companies for good reason. The background history for this sad tale reveals some of the more uncomfortable aspects of occupying forces, a sentiment particularly felt at a time when our nation is currently embroiled abroad. (For another view of the U.S. Military, return to Santa Fe for the premiere of the Tim Hetherington/Sebastian Junger film Restrepo, on Friday, July 30 at the Lensic). Given the upstanding character of Sharpless, the American consul, in this Puccini masterpiece, it seems to be Lt. Pinkerton’s nature as a person, not his position as a U.S. Naval officer, that leads to the opera’s tragic ending. He is just NOT a nice guy, although the terrific vocal fireworks by Brandon Jovanovich made one really want to like this well-cast, well-built lieutenant. As Cio Cio San, poor Butterfly, Kelly Kaduce never faltered in this demanding and heart-felt role, despite the arrival of wind-driven rain drifting onto the stage from the southern end of the theater, which must have been a challenge. Very able assistance from the rest of the cast and chorus earned an immediate, lengthy and well-deserved standing ovation for a great performance punctuated at dramatic moments by equally dramatic lightning and thunder.
And what a classic New Mexico thunderstorm it was! I remember so well the days of yore, when the theater had just the barest overhang, and patrons would don their rain parkas or flee in the face of summer’s Santa Fe weather. Those were the days when standing room was not a bad thing! Not to say that we escaped this time, however…although we were sustained by the great music still ringing in our heads, it was a long walk back to the car in a drenching downpour. Be wise, dress warmly and bring your umbrella!
In addition to Madama Butterfly, this season’s offerings include the opera most often performed in Santa Fe, Mozart’s Magic Flute, which opened on Saturday the 3rd. Next up will be Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman, opening on July 17. Having read in depth about the Met’s performance of this piece last winter, I am looking forward to the Santa Fe premiere, despite its 3+ hour length. SFO is to be commended for its continued commitment to bringing new work to the stage, and this year is no exception, with the first production of Lewis Spratlan‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, Life is a Dream, based on a masterpiece from the Golden Age of Spanish drama and premiering on July 24th. Premiering on July 31 is the fifth work from the company this year, Albert Herring, a comedic work by Benjamin Britten, a composer who was well-served by SFO in the Richard Gaddes era, with stunning performances of Peter Grimes and Billy Budd in years past.
If a full-length opera with a 9:00 pm curtain is too much of a good thing, don’t forget about the Opera’s Apprentice Concerts, taking place this year on August 15 and August 22, both with an 8:30pm curtain and both without the commitment to three or four acts. The Santa Fe Opera was the first professional company in the U.S. to begin an apprentice program of this nature and has been well-served by a methodology that allows this small company to mount big productions without the expense of highly-experienced technicians in every job slot. Many is the apprentice who has returned to the Santa Fe stage as a full-fledged career professional!
For those who stay in the City Different for several days, a backstage tour of the Opera is an enjoyable way to take a peek into what is involved in bringing this great music to fruition. Tours take place through August 28th at 9:00 am Monday through Friday, with no reservations needed and a modest $5 fee for adults, with children under 17 free.
If you love opera, now is the time to get on the phone and call for the best dates and the best seats. By August 1st, there will be performances every night except Sunday! The Inn on the Alameda is just a short drive from the theater and if you don’t have a car, you can relax, since the Opera shuttle buses stop right the Inn’s front door! The thrill of sublime live music in a fantastic outdoor setting on a beautiful New Mexico night is a winning combination for an experience you won’t soon forget!
Our sincere congratulations to General Director, Charles McKay, and to all of the dedicated staff and performers of the Santa Fe Opera, on the start of a beautiful new season. We’re so happy you’re back!