Opera sizzles in Santa Fe

At a time when opera companies throughout America are trimming budgets to the bone, cutting back on plans for major new productions, and, in general, just hoping to survive, Santa Fe Opera continues to ride a wave of success.

This year the company expects to, once again, boast overall ticket sales in excess of 95% of capacity.

Spectacularly sited on a high ridge seven miles north of the town of Santa Fe , N.M., the company boasts an ultramodern 1,889-seat opera house (which is partially open to the sky).

37th season

Operating on a yearly budget of between $ 7.5 million and $ 8 million, SFO is currently approaching the end of its 37th season: a 40-performance schedule that began on July 2 and will end Aug. 28, presenting five operas (in repertory) with a top weekend ticket price of $ 95.

The presentations include a revival of Puccini’s “La Boheme,” a new staging of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,””Capriccio” by Richard Strauss, an updated staging of Handel’s baroque opera “Xerxes” and the American professional premiere of two one-act operas by Kurt Weill: “The Protagonist” and “The Tsar Has His Photograph Taken.”

Hands-on stance

SFO was founded in 1957 by John Crosby, who, at 67, is still general director and principal conductor, maintaining a hands-on position with the company.

Working closely with Crosby is the company’s new executive director, NigelRedden (previously executive director of the Spoleto Festival in Charleston).

“Like most opera companies, our operating budget has risen strikingly over the last ten years; in fact, it has more than doubled,” Redden said, referring to figures compiled in a recent cost-comparison study. “I think this is in part due to the rising sophistication of our productions. But it also reflects the overall inflation rate that has been operating in the arts.”

Demographics also play an important role for the company. “Santa Fe is a town with a population of 55,000. That number cannot support an opera company of this size,” Redden said. “That means we have to go significantly beyond Santa Fe to draw in our audience and support funding.”

Outside New Mexico

Redden’s figures indicate that 65% of SFO’s audience and donor support is drawn from outside New Mexico. And at a time when the recession has caused a falloff in attendance from Southern California, the company is registering an increase from the East Coast.

Another factor working in the opera’s favor is its extensive apprentice program, which this year will employ 140 apprentice singers and backstage technical workers. And while all backstage operations at Santa Fe are conducted on a non-union basis ( because, according to Redden, there is not enough year-round stage work in Santa Fe to support a full-time local), the apprentice singers are represented under an arrangement with the American Guild of Musical Artists.

When asked about the transition that will inevitably occur when Crosby steps down, Redden said that steps have already been taken to register SFO as a not-for-profit organization and to establish the SFO Foundation and the Board of Directors as the official owners of the property and the name.

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