The Santa Fe Opera at 50


The Santa Fe Opera is like no other opera company in the world!

FOR THE PAST FIFTY SUMMERS opera lovers have traveled to the mountains of northern New Mexico. What they have discovered in an unlikely place is one of America’s premier opera festivals. It is the perfect combination of the magnificent landscape with its panorama of red mesas, the setting of the elegant adobe theater itself, and the inspired repertory that makes coming to The Santa Fe Opera unforgettable. Enchanted by what they see and hear, they come again and again.

This summer The Santa Fe Opera marks its fiftieth anniversary by celebrating its remarkable past. The season follows a pattern that has guided the company from the earliest years by presenting something familiar, something unusual and something new. Two beloved operas in the repertory open the season: Bizet’s Carmen with the great mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter in the title role followed by Mozart’s The Magic Flute with Natalie Dessay as Pamina. A rare work comes next, Massenet’s charming Cinderella with former apprentice Joyce DiDonato in the title role. The fourth opera on the schedule is Strauss’s Salome in tribute to John Crosby whose lifelong dedication to the operas of this composer has been credited with a resurgence of performances in this country. And finally, an American premiere, The Tempest by Thomas Adès a young British composer. The opera received its world premiere in 2003 at London’s Covent Garden to great acclaim. A gala anniversary concert is scheduled for Saturday, August 12 with Frederica von Stade as host. Former apprentice singers now on opera and concert stages throughout the world will be in the spotlight.

A Santa Fe Opera evening begins with the five mile trip from Santa Fe. Before long the theater with its distinctive roof appears. The drive up the winding hill brings one to the parking lot where fellow opera goers have already begun their evening with tailgate picnics. Suppers can be elaborate, especially on opening night when friends take out their best silver and china and dine on gourmet cuisine. The atmosphere is lively as diners compare notes on where they are from and particulars about their menus. After supper they stroll to the opera patio to meet friends and to enjoy the blazing sunset before settling into their seats.

Santa Fe has long been known as an artists colony and many of the legendary names in American art sojourned here – Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Georgia O’Keeffe were among those who were drawn to the southwest. There were poets and writers as well, and John Crosby, who had loved the area since his boyhood at the Los Alamos Ranch School, felt that a place so hospitable to the arts would welcome the addition of music, and he was right. From the start Santa Fe took its opera company to its heart.


Santa Fe Opera
The Santa Fe Opera Theater
Photo by Robert Reck

By 1957 the young impresario was ready to launch his opera company. At the time there were few opportunities for young American singers to prepare for careers on the stage during the summer. His new venture would allow time for them to learn roles with plenty of rehearsal time. Professional conductors and directors would provide guidance and expertise. John Crosby envisioned an opera company whose repertory would include not just well-known operas, but new and unusual works as well.

With financial help from his father, John Crosby bought an old ranch just north of town. He chose a site to build the theater and used the existing ranch to house the singers. Those who were in Santa Fe that first summer recall a time filled with excitement and purpose and a sense that they were part of something important. Santa Fe rehearsals began in June and on July 3, 1957 —Opening Night—one member of the audience remembered, “It was the most beautiful night Santa Fe had ever seen.” The cast of Madame Butterfly and conductor Crosby were given a standing ovation and called back for ten curtain calls. John Crosby’s Santa Fe Opera was on its way.

Seven operas were given that summer, including the company’s first world premiere, The Tower by Marvin David Levy. The Rake’s Progress by Igor Stravinsky was also in the repertory. Mr. Stravinsky, then the most famous composer in the world came to Santa Fe to oversee the production. He was so thrilled with the results and with this audacious young company that he made Santa Fe his home for the next six summers. Later he said that the Santa Fe years were among the happiest of his life.


Opera: Crosby & Stravinsky
John Crosby & Igor Stravinsky
in the first Santa Fe Opera Theater

In the forty-nine seasons since then, The Santa Fe Opera has grown to take its place among the most important opera companies of the world. The apprentice program for singers, which was instituted the first season, has become a model for similar programs everywhere. It has proved to be an invaluable training ground, and names such as Sherrill Milnes, Samuel Ramey, Joyce DiDonato, William Burden, Ellen Shade and Celena Shafer credit their experience in Santa Fe as giving them their start.

Frederica von Stade, Thomas Hampson, Ben Heppner, Susan Graham, Patricia Racette and Dawn Upshaw—whose names now appear on rosters of leading opera houses and concert stages—sang here early in their careers. And as the reputation of the company has grown, the likes of Marilyn Horne, Jerry Hadley and Natalie Dessay have come to be part of the Santa Fe summer.

Richard Gaddes became General Director in 2000. He has been associated with the company on and off since 1969 when, as a young artists’ manager in London, he was invited by John Crosby to join the company. Mr. Gaddes was founder of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis which he ran for ten years, returning to Santa Fe in 1995.

The first theater was an elegant redwood and steel construction with a covered stage. An audience of 480 sat on wooden benches under the stars. In 1967 fire destroyed the theater and in one short year a larger facility was built seating 1,366. Its soaring roof left the center of the main floor open to the elements and it was not uncommon for those sitting there to get wet. In 1997 at the close of the season the structure was demolished and completely rebuilt to open in time for the 1998 season. The new state-of-the-art facility, now with a completely closed roof, was designed by James Stewart Polshek and Partners whose acclaimed buildings include the entrance pavillion at the Museum of Natural History in New York and the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The company is proud of its record of presenting new and unusual works—eleven world premieres, including nine commissioned by the company, and forty-one American premieres, are listed among 135 operas in the repertory.

The 2006 season ran from Friday, June 30 through Saturday, August 26. Annual schedules can be found on the company’s website: remote

Tickets may be purchased online or by calling 505·986·5900 or 800·280·4654.


Originally appeared in The Wingspread Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque – Vol 20

Related Pages

A Few Milestones for New Mexico - 2006 article

Rhyme and Reason: Music and Art article

An Introduction to Santa Fe, New Mexico article


Santa Fe Performing Arts Directory dirgif

Events Calendar Search Tool article

Santa Fe Aventure & Activities Directory article

Visit the Calendar of Events Search Page for complete exhibit and performance information.

LAST MODIFIED: October 14, 2009

©2014 | F + W Media
URL: • Contact The Collector's Guide